Medea Benjamin is co-founder of the peace group CODEPINK and the human rights organization Global Exchange. She has been organizing against U.S. military interventions, promoting the rights of Palestinians and calling for no war on Iran. Her latest work includes an effort to stop CIA drone attacks, and she is the author of a new book, Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the U.S.-Saudi Connection.
Aaron Mate: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate.
President Trump is headed to Saudi Arabia for his first foreign trip in office. Trump is expected to announce one of the largest weapons sales in US history, some $350 billion over ten years. It’s said the be the cornerstone of this proposal of a so-called Arab-NATO military alliance. Trump’s visit is expected to deepen a US-Saudi alliance that goes back decades.
Joining me is Medea Benjamin, co-founder of Code Pink, and author of the book Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi connection. Medea, welcome.
Medea Benjamin: Thank you Aaron.
Aaron Mate: So there’s a lot of irony here, and I want to start with the fact that a candidate, or a president who campaigned on fighting radical Islamism is now visiting one of the most extreme fundamentalist Islamic regimes in the world. Your thoughts on Trump’s visit and his choice of Saudi Arabia for his first foreign trip.
Medea Benjamin: Well it is ironic that he has chosen Saudi Arabia as his first foreign country to visit, given that Saudi Arabia is the country most responsible for the spread of extremism that Donald Trump says he wants to eradicate. So here he goes to try to clinch a massive weapons deal, knowing that these weapons will be used not only in the war in Yemen, and to crush other democratic uprisings in the region, but to crush any dissent within Saudi Arabia itself, as is happening right now in the Shia minority eastern part of the country, where there is a siege of the town of [inaudible 00:01:53] as we speak that is not covered in any of the US press. But I’m sure Trump will not bring this up on his trip either.
Aaron Mate: So let’s talk about that weapon sale a little bit. Is’s expected to reach as high as $350 billion over ten years. That’s staggering.
Medea Benjamin: It’s stunning, the level of weapon sales that the US has been selling to Saudi Arabia that reached a climax under President Obama’s 8 years of $110 billion. The White House actually bragged about this massive sale of 42 different arms deals that were done in 8 years under Obama. Now comes in President Trump, and he wants to up the ante and outdo Obama with an even larger weapons deal. So that looks like it’s going to be the cornerstone of his trip to Saudi Arabia, and I think it’s absolutely disgusting to think that he has become the arms salesman for the weapons companies like Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, that have been and will continue to make billions of dollars, while in neighboring countries like Yemen, the people are being attacked and are suffering tremendously from US weapons sales.
Aaron Mate: Yeah, since you mentioned President Obama and the Democrats also being behind massive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, I want to read you a quote that was in the New York Times, it’s from Derek Chollet, who served as assistant secretary of defense under President Obama, and he says, “I see this as largely continuity.” He says, “The only difference is that now, the house of [inaudible 00:03:39] is directly dealing with a member of the Trump family.” So in other words, the only difference, perhaps, is nepotism.
Medea Benjamin: Yes, it’s quite ridiculous, because in the end, it is still the US weapons companies making the massive profits, and the people inside Saudi Arabia and in the region who are suffering from the weapons sales. I think we should be speaking out against this these weapons sales and putting pressure on our members of congress, both Democrat and Republican, because the congress does have the right to stop any weapons sales. It has 30 days after the official announcement of a sale to put a halt on those sales. So it’s up to us, as the citizens, to go to our congresspeople and tell them that we think it’s appalling to sell any weapons to the Saudi regime.
Aaron Mate: The problem, Medea, though, is that since this has been so bipartisan, how effective can Democrats be in standing up to these weapons sales when they’ve been a part of them for so long?
Medea Benjamin: There have been a number of Democrats who have already written letters to the Trump Administration, saying that they are opposed to these weapons sales, saying that they don’t want the US to be involved in the continuing war in Yemen, saying they are opposed to the imminent attack on the port of Hodeidah, which the Saudis would like the US green light to do. That is the port where the majority of humanitarian aid comes in. So there is already a beginning, and there is some bipartisan opposition to the weapons sales. So I think it’s important to keep it going. The Democrats, while they didn’t raise any of these issues during the Obama Administration, they are more open to doing it under Trump, especially since they’re looking for any avenues on which to try to stop Trump’s agenda.
Aaron Mate: Let me read to you a quote from the New York Times, another one: “Trumps desire to moderate his stance on Islam was among the reasons he chose Riyadh as his first stop overseas.” The Times went on to note that “The Saudis have spent a fortune on US weapons over the years.” By the way, that sentence has how been deleted from the article. What’s interesting is the administration is claiming that Trump is wanting to moderate his stance on Islam being a factor in choosing Saudi Arabia as his destination.
Medea Benjamin: Well that’s quite laughable, as is the whole idea that this is a tolerance trip. Why would you go to the most intolerant country in the world, maybe, together with North Korea, Saudi Arabia. This is a country where Trump will not be in any place where there is women and men mingling together. I hear there’s going to be a men only concert that he might attend. This would be a trip …
Aaron Mate: Yes, featuring American country star Toby Keith.
Medea Benjamin: Yes. A wonderful old ‘boys concert.’ So I think Trump will feel quite comfortable in the country of Saudi Arabia where there will be no dissent, no protesters outside to say no to Trump, or God forbid, the [inaudible 00:06:58], because any kind of protest, you would end up in prison and probably beheaded. So Trump might feel very comfortable in a country where there will be no opposition to anything he has to say, anything his host has to say, and they are rolling out the red carpet for Donald Trump.
Aaron Mate: So Medea, you mentioned these massive weapons sales that have been going on for decades, this is obviously not just President Trump or President Obama, we’ve been selling weapons to the Saudis, this is a very old relationship. Can you give us a brief sketch of the foundations for US-Saudi ties, starting with 1945, when FDR makes a deal with the Saudi Kingdom?
Medea Benjamin: Yes, it really predates 1945, since the founding of the Saudi Kingdom in 1932, which was actually during the 30s, in 1938, that oil was discovered by a US oil company that is today Chevron. And ever since then, the US has been very committed to making sure that this Saudi family continues in power. In 1945, it was cemented when FDR met with the king during the second World War, to say, “Now more than ever, we have to guarantee the oil supplies from Saudi Arabia. And the US said that it would make sure that the Saudi regime would not be overthrown by internal dissidents or by external enemies. So it has been decades now, from Republican to Democrat to Republican administrations, liberal, right-wing, progressive, whatever they are, have been committed to making sure that the Saudi regime is not overthrown.
In the meantime, this regime that passes on power from one son of the original founder to the next, that has no political parties, no trade unions, no national votes, no freedom of association … This is the country that the U.S. is committed to protecting.
Aaron Mate: So Medea, as we wrap, in terms of trying to change public opinion on this issue in the United States, which I know you’ve been deeply involved in, it’s hard, first of all, to convince people to care about the children of Yemen when the media, corporate media here, is largely ignoring the US-backed Saudi campaign there. But then there’s the issue of the fact that US weapons are a big industry, and in a country where the manufacturing sector has been so hollowed out, making weapons remains one of the few remaining, solid middle-class blue-collar jobs. So I’m wondering how you address this concern as a progressive, as someone who champions workers, how do you take on the issue of the fact that campaigning against Saudi weapons sales could hurt the workers who make them?
Medea Benjamin: It’s like climate movement that talks about the change in skills the coal miners need to make so that they can have good-paying jobs that are in the clean energy industry. The same thing about the weapons industry. We have to find other things to manufacture, and there are certainly lots of other things. We need a fast rail system in this country that would employ tens of thousands of people. We need the solar industry and the wind industry to be ramped up significantly. These are all things that need manufacturing, so I think there is a lot of retooling that needs to be done in our factories, and new skills that need to be learned by workers, but that should be exciting as we move away from a country that is based on manufacturing of weapons to one that could lead the world in renewable energy sources and positive things for the world.
Aaron Mate: Yeah, Medea quickly, on the issue of energy, part of the problem, correct me if I’m wrong, is that the Saudis subsidize their oil sales, so they flood the market with cheap oil, thus incentivizing other countries to import it.
Medea Benjamin: Yes, in addition to the negative things that we’ve talked about, there’s also the fact that the Saudis keep us, and the world, on this fossil fuel treadmill. They have worked assiduously together, oftentimes with the United States, and international venues like the recent Paris meeting, to try to quash any significant treaties that would have some teeth to them, and they pump out cheap oil to keep the price of oil low, so that the alternatives will be less viable. So whether it’s for not wanting to support the Saudis as they destroy the neighboring country of Yemen, or not wanting to see our world go up in flames with the climate crisis, there are several reasons we should come together to oppose this toxic relationship we have with Saudi Arabia.
Aaron Mate: And for anyone who wants to undertake that task, they can read your book Medea Benjamin, Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection. Medea Benjamin, the founder of Code Pink, thank you so much.
Medea Benjamin: Thanks for having me on Aaron, bye.
Aaron Mate: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.