In recent months Donald Trump has shown no hesitation to comment critically on political developments in Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, and North Korea. He supported protests in Iran against “the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.” He deplored the many years of US military aid to Pakistan, for which “they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. . . . No more!” His criticisms of the Maduro government in Venezuela were accompanied by the threat to use the “military option,” reminiscent of what Trump had once said when talking about Mexico. And of course his personal insults directed at North Korea’s Kim Jong-un are now legendary.
Such interference is now taken for granted, for in Trump’s world, relying on diplomacy and abiding by the principle of noninterference in others’ affairs have no currency in Washington. Of course trying to destabilize other countries, even to the point of seeking regime change, has been part and parcel of US foreign policy for a long time. The difference now may be the constancy of Trump’s interference, and the undiplomatic language he uses.
How to Win Friends and Influence People
Trump reserves his harshest tweets for governments he dislikes. When it comes to friends like Israel, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, the operating principle is “hands-off.” They are allowed to use every trick in the book to buy influence in Washington: gaining special access to decision makers, investing in the US economy and offering investment opportunities in their own country, hiring former US officials to lobby, inviting American opinion leaders to lavish conferences, putting on opulent displays of affection when top US officials visit. These folks know Americans will bite at a chance for profit and attention, and pay back with access and influence. Russia’s successful hookups with Trump’s campaign and administration officials in order to end US sanctions are only the latest and most glaring examples of a longstanding problem of influence-buying. They haven’t succeeded so far, but the effort has literally cost them peanuts.
Saudi Arabia has played the influence game just as aggressively as the Russians, and for much longer. Saudi money has effectively lobbied in Washington for many years, often relying on former members of Congress. The Saudis also seek to influence US politics by funding NGOs (e.g., the Clinton Foundation), think tanks, law firms, social media, and even political action committees. Saudi investors, including members of the royal family, may have as much as a half-trillion dollars invested in US real estate, the stock market, and US treasury bills. At the time of Trump’s visit in May the Saudi leadership committed to another $40 billion in infrastructure investments, though whether or not that will actually happen is another matter.
The payoff for the Saudis is arms acquisitions that have usually put Saudi Arabia first on the US arms export list. The $110 billion arms deal announced while Trump was in Saudi Arabia came on top of billions more weapons sold during the Obama years—and consistent US political support since before World War II of the royal family’s authoritarian rule. The Saudis have also bought continued US support of the Saudi air war in Yemen—a humanitarian disaster that probably amounts to war crimes. For the US, cultivating Saudi Arabia yields not only low oil prices and a reliable arms customers but also an easing of Arab pressure on Israel and leadership in Sunni confrontation of Shiite Iran and Iran’s partner, Hezbollah.
Now comes Crown Prince Mohammad bin-Salman’s coup, or purge if you like, to solidify his power and eliminate rivals to the throne. We cannot take seriously the proclaimed reasons for Salman’s purge—in order to modernize the country and fight corruption. To Saudi leaders, modernization means dictating the content and timing of social and economic change, a method almost sure to fail. Women may now drive, the cultural scene may look more permissive, and education may open up a bit. But such changes fall well short of removing the ruling family’s control of the courts and the press. Likewise fighting corruption: It clearly doesn’t apply to King Salman and family, who run a blatantly corrupt system that controls many key businesses, nor to the crown prince, who thinks nothing of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on yachts and chateaux while ordering the detention of 320 wealthy citizens. Conflicts of interest are rampant, and ignored. No wonder the Trump family adores these people.
Trump’s Man in Riyadh
Donald Trump was all in on Salman’s coup, tweeting his support: “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing. Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!” (Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury has Trump and Jared Kushner boasting, “We’ve put our man on top!”) Was it merely coincidental that Jared Kushner had just visited Saudi Arabia (from October 25-28), and reportedly met with Trump’s buddy, the crown prince? (The trip, Kushner’s third to Saudi Arabia in 2017, was unannounced, supposedly linked to his Middle East peace efforts. But perhaps meetings with other Middle East leaders were merely a cover, since among those purged was a frequent critic of Trump, the billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who once called Trump a “disgrace” to America, after Alwaleed had twice bailed out Trump financially.
It’s all about Iran.
For the Saudis, as for Trump and Kushner, Iran is the main target of the current Saudi-US honeymoon. The Kushner-led regional “peace plan” he supposedly leads—one that is short on substance and even shorter on qualified people (they’re all businessmen) to sell it—is riveted on Iran’s “aggression.” In Lebanon, where Hezbollah is entrenched, Iran seems to be the proxy target. Might Iran have been correct in accusing Kushner of being responsible for the surprise (actually, forced) resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister the following weekend—a resignation announced in Riyadh, where the prime minister was apparently held against his will because he was considered too soft on Hezbollah? The Saudis are ratcheting up the pressure on Lebanon, telling its citizens to leave and dangling the prospect of kicking out around a half-million Lebanese workers in Saudi Arabia who send home some $3 billion annually in remittances.
Salman’s moves against Qatar, which Trump (but not Tillerson), condoned, and now against Hezbollah and Iran, will inevitably further complicate the US position in the Middle East, where “stability” is already so far out of reach. As one astute commentator argues, the Washington-Riyadh axis against Iran “seems to mistake presidential and princely preference and mutual agreement for statecraft and implementation.” But that critique merely suggests that Saudi Arabia be “less aggressive” in its hostility to Iran. More creative statecraft would involve a Saudi diplomatic initiative on Iran to moderate their rivalry in Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria. But now, with Trump on board in place of Obama, who in fact urged just such a Saudi initiative, diplomacy is out the window. Iranian nationalism is on the rise even among the educated anticlerical class. Trump and Salman have succeeded in generating “widespread support for the [government’s] hard-line view that the United States and Riyadh cannot be trusted and that Iran is a strong and capable state . . . .”
If Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury is accurate, Donald Trump believes that by getting close to the Saudis, he can resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. Fantasy; it’s the Saudis who have Trump just where they want him. They have to be as satisfied as Russia over what their money has bought: a US Middle East policy that relies on continued arms sales, confrontation with Iran in company with Israel, and acceptance of massive human rights violations in Yemen—in short, further chaos in the Middle East. Fareed Zakaria is correct to conclude: “With Trump so firmly supporting the Saudi strategy, the United States could find itself dragged further into the deepening Middle East morass.” That morass might well include war with Iran, the common obsession of Trump and his national security team. Better to jettison Saudi Arabia; like Pakistan, it is a dubious partner that promises endless trouble for the United States and no help in dealing with terrorism.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.