President Donald Trump started his first foreign tour on May 20 in Saudi Arabia. His two-day visit was punctuated by a series of embarrassingly poltroonish statements and gestures to his hosts. It culminated in a macabre sabre-rattling spectacle, the moral equivalent of tossing Zyklon B canisters into a Silesian compound in 1944. For his part, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that the battle against “extremism” has “nothing to do with religion.”
To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s paean to the RAF Fighter Command, never in the history of U.S. foreign policy have so few disappointed so many so quickly. Had President Trump merely fine-tuned some of Candidate Trump’s stated positions, the adjustment likely would have been unsurprising and prudent. What we have seen instead, in the first four months of this presidency, is a comprehensive reversal of his stated positions on many specific issues (Russia, NATO, the E.U., Syria, etc.) and a retreat on the key question of America’s grand strategy.
“Saudi Arabia and many of the countries that gave vast amounts of money to the Clinton Foundation want women as slaves and to kill gays,” Candidate Trump wrote a year ago. He accurately described the Saudis as “mouth pieces, bullies, cowards” who were “paying ISIS” and who imagined that they could “control our U.S. politicians.” He demanded the release of the missing 28 pages that had been redacted from the congressional report on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, hinting that the Saudi rulers had helped the hijackers, and adding that “it’s sort of nice to know who your friends are, and perhaps who your enemies are.”
All this was light years away from President Trump’s keynote speech in the desert kingdom’s capital on May 21. He was “honored to be received by such gracious hosts” and pleased to announce “even more blessed news”: “Yesterday we signed historic agreements with the Kingdom that will invest almost $400 billion in our two countries” and “help the Saudi military to take a greater role in security operations.” Furthermore, he added,
We will make history again with the opening of a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology—located right here, in this central part of the Islamic World. . . .
Young Muslim boys and girls should be able to grow up free from fear, safe from violence, and innocent of hatred . . .
[We] will be signing an agreement to prevent the financing of terrorism, called the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center—co-chaired by the United States and Saudi Arabia . . .
Something strange has happened to Trump. He cannot be unaware that Saudi Arabia is the true “Global Center” of promoting and financing Islamic extremism, and that no partnership with that country is possible for as long as the nature of the Saudi regime remains unchanged. Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s legacy is alive and well: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the most intolerant Islamic regime in the world. While it continues to build mosques all over the world, tens of thousands of Christians among the millions of foreign workers from Asia, Europe, and America must worship in secret, if at all. They are arrested, lashed, or deported for any public display of their beliefs. The Saudi religious police force, known as the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice, continues routinely to intimidate, abuse, and detain citizens and foreigners. In 2002 they pushed girls escaping from burning school buildings back into the inferno and certain death because they did not have their heads properly covered. Detainees are routinely subjected to beatings, sleep deprivation, and torture. Punishments include flogging and amputation; hundreds of executions by beheading, stoning, or firing squad are carried out every year. Women are second-class citizens. Political detainees are held incommunicado in special prisons for months, without access to lawyers, and tried in camera according to the rules of sharia. The only expanding industry is that of Islamic obscurantism, and the opinions of the ulema are the only internal check on the ruling family. Five Islamic universities produce thousands of clerics, many more than will ever be hired in the country’s mosques. Thousands end up spreading and promoting Wahhabism abroad.
Trump has not mentioned the ongoing Saudi military intervention in Yemen, which is illegal and has killed thousands of civilians. The real threat to the Kingdom’s long-term stability is internal, however: its dysfunctional political system. The royal family is addicted to a lifestyle of parasitic idleness and adverse to change. If and when the House of Saud dynasty collapses, it is more likely that a populist Islamic regime will triumph, rather than a reformist, modernizing movement. The Kingdom is postponing that moment by running a police state at home—and by courting and purchasing continuous U.S. support (current price: $400 billion). The decades-long Beltway conspiracy of silence on Saudi Arabia’s role in abetting Islamic terrorism is now certain to continue. Its Islamic “charities” that finance terrorists will go on filling extremist coffers, and the country’s true role in the 9/11 attacks will remain concealed from the American public.
It now seems likely that, under Trump, the Washington establishment will continue to treat Saudi Arabia as a valuable ally. Accordingly, in the years to come America will not set herself free from the need to pander to the Saudis’ whims, including the “right” of their government to bankroll thousands of mosques and Islamic centers around the world that preach Wahhabist intolerance and provide the logistical infrastructure to extremists. Decades of support for Islamic movements and regimes—whenever they were deemed useful to U.S. short-term foreign-policy and financial objectives—have been an unmitigated disaster. Operationally, this policy still requires not only overlooking the nefarious activities of the supposedly friendly Muslim states—such as Saudi Arabia’s crucial early support for ISIS in 2013-14—but a consistent American bias in favor of the Muslim party in virtually every conflict with Christians, and for the Sunni side against the Shi’ites.
Trump’s silent tolerance of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen sets the stage for a new series of problems with Iran, with Riyadh strongly siding with Israel’s leaders and the War Party in Washington in their desire to see the U.S. involved in a new, potentially disastrous Middle Eastern war. A year ago it seemed that Donald Trump had the capacity to reassess the Saudi “alliance” in the light of America’s true strategic and economic concerns, and that he would do so before the Saudi connection results in a geopolitical, economic, and military disaster. His failure to do so on his first foreign tour was injurious to the prospects for stability in the Middle East—which were slim to start with—and detrimental to the American interest. On this issue, and many others, he has succumbed to the vapors of the Swamp. This is an act of betrayal of all those who took his rallying cry, “America First,” seriously.