Trump’s Saudi embrace, isolation of Iran, does not serve U.S.

If we seek to effectively fight terrorism and advance stability in the Middle East, the Trump administration would do well to rethink its total embrace of Saudi Arabia

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President Trump being greeted by Saudi King - Image, courtesy NBC Video Screenshot

WASHINGTON, May 29, 2017 – On his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, President Trump embraced the unelected leaders of that country, called on the Saudis and other states in attendance, to isolate Iran, which had just held a democratic election in which moderates were victorious, and welcomed them as partners in the fight against ISIS terrorism. The combination of the election in Iran and the gathering in Saudi Arabia highlights the complex reality of the region.

How to choose partners and advance U.S. interests is not always clear.

What President Trump and his advisers did not mention is Saudi Arabia’s long history of promoting the very Islamic extremism which fuels ISIS and other terrorist groups. For fifty years, the Saudis have spread a narrow and intolerant form of Islam across the Muslim world.  Osama bin Laden was Saudi as were 15 of the 19 9/11 terrorists.  A leaked e-mail from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reports that Saudi Arabia, together with Qatar, has been “providing clandestine financial and logistical support to  the Islamic State and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is in a tacit alliance with al-Qaeda in Yemen.


ISIS draws its views about Islam, which are rejected by most Muslims, from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi version of the faith. This is admitted by the former imam of Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mosque, who said last year that ISIS “exploited our own principles, that can be found in our books. We follow the same thought but apply it in a refined way.”

Saudi Arabia is currently financing the spread of its extreme form of Islam to Muslim communities throughout Europe. Leaked German intelligence reports show that groups “closely connected with government offices ” of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait are funding mosques, schools and imams and promoting a fundamentalist and intolerant version of Islam throughout Germany.


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Writing from Kosovo, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall describes how a 500-year tradition of moderate Islam is being destroyed:

“From their bases, the Saudi-trained imams propagated Wahhabism’s tenets:  the supremacy of Shariah law as well as ideas of violent jihad and takfirism, which authorizes the killing of Muslims considered heretics for not following its interpretation of Islam. Charitable assistance often had conditions attached.  Families were given monthly stipends on the condition that they attended sermons in the mosque and that women and girls wear the veil.”

While President Trump called for the isolation of Iran in his speech in Saudi Arabia, he made no mention of the Iranian presidential election that turned out tens of millions of voters and dealt a blow to the country’s hard-liners.  Saudi Arabia, of course, has never held a free and democratic election. Laura Secor, author of “Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran,” notes that,

“While President Trump basked in the flattery of Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, about 75 percent of Iranian voters turned out to repudiate an authoritarian populist and re-elect the moderate president, Hassan Rouhani.  Mr. Rouhani ran against extremism and on the promise of human rights, civil liberties, rational economic management and engagement with the world, a platform that won him 57 percent of the vote to his opponent’s 38.5 per cent. With the succession to 77-year-old Ayatollah Khamenei quite possibly on the line, the election sent a clear message to Iran’s clerical leadership about the priorities of the country’s people.  Washington, for its part, isn’t listening.”

Iran, of course, has been a destabilizing force in the region and has supported some very negative forces. Iran was fundamental in the creation of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and has sent military aid to help the Assad government in Syria.  It also supports militias in Yemen, Iraq, and Bahrain.   But to describe it as a source of jihadist terror is to misunderstand what is taking place.  An analysis produced for the Global Terrorism Database by Leif Wenar of King’s College London finds that more than 94 percent of deaths caused by Islamic terrorism since 2001 were perpetrated by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Sunni jihadists.  Iran is fighting such groups, not supporting and financing them.  On the other hand, almost every terrorist attack in the West appears to have some connection to Saudi Arabia.

On the other hand, almost every terrorist attack in the West appears to have some connection to Saudi Arabia.

The Middle East is now engaged in a virtual civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and the Trump administration seems to want to involve us on one side of this conflict.  Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, declares:

“We are picking one side in this geographical struggle, and there is very little room for gray. Sectarianism is a byproduct of this geographical rivalry, and we are inadvertently picking one side in this sectarian struggle.”

In Saudi Arabia, President Trump had nothing to say about the state of human rights in that country, nor about its complete lack of religious freedom. “We are not here to lecture,” he declared, although he did not follow this prescription in his dealing with Western European democracies at the NATO meeting in Brussels.

While in Riyadh, Trump’s commerce secretary seemed impressed with Saudi Arabia’s lack of democracy. He marveled that,

“There was not a single hint of a protestor anywhere there during the whole time we were there.  Not one guy with a placard.”

What the U.S. President says has consequences. Shortly after the meeting in Saudi Arabia, the security forces of Bahrain stormed an opposition encampment.  This came after Mr. Trump promised the Persian Gulf nation’s king that there would be no more “strain” between their governments.  The strains concerned the Sunni regime’s crackdown on its Shiite opposition, which has escalated in recent months. Given a free hand, Bahrain killed at least five people and arrested hundreds in the bloodiest act of repression in years.

What the U.S. President says has consequences. Shortly after the meeting in Saudi Arabia, the security forces of Bahrain stormed an opposition encampment. This came after Mr. Trump promised the Persian Gulf nation’s king that there would be no more “strain” between their governments. The strains concerned the Sunni regime’s crackdown on its Shiite opposition, which has escalated in recent months. Given a free hand, Bahrain killed at least five people and arrested hundreds in the bloodiest act of repression in years.

Conservatives in Washington have been as critical of Trump’s total embrace of Saudi Arabia as some liberals have been. Writing in The American Conservative, Daniel Larison argues that,

“Trump’s visit to Riyadh was an embarrassing spectacle of groveling and sucking up to some truly wretched leaders…Trump praised Saudi counterterrorism efforts without a word of criticism for their funding Wahhabi extremists around the world. He offered the Saudis a massive $110 billion arms deal despite the fact that their brutal bombing of Yemeni civilians makes it potentially illegal. When the president courts favor with a regime guilty of numerous war crimes and lavishes praise on their leaders, that is bad enough, but doing so while aiding and abetting those crimes with more weapons sales is truly disgraceful.  On top of that, despite his posturing as a great negotiator, he gave the Saudis everything they wanted while subordinating our policies in the region for theirs.”

Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) said that he will attempt to force a Senate vote on the $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. In his view, at least some of the weapons being sold will be used in the commission of war crimes since the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has already committed many such crimes, leading to a strong argument that the sale itself would be illegal. Citing “multiple credible reports of recurring and highly questionable air strikes by the Saudi military that have killed civilians, the U.S. cannot continue to rely on Saudi assurances that it will comply with international law and agreements concerning the use of U.S.-origin equipment,” states Michael Newton, a Vanderbilt University law professor and former military judge advocate general.


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Prof. Newton says that the Saudi strikes in Yemen have continued “even after Saudi units received training and equipment to reduce civilian casualties and continued sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, and particularly arms used in air strikes, should not be presumed to be permissible” under the two statutes covering most sales of military equipment by the U.S. to foreign nations.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) pointed to the famine being caused by the Saudi intervention in Yemen:

“If Trump’s deal with the Saudis ignores the suffering of millions of Yemenis on the brink of starvation, I can assure you that members of Congress will act swiftly, using every tool at our disposal, from blocking weapons shipments to forcing a debate and vote on U.S. military involvement in Yemen, to end this incomprehensible tragedy.”

Without careful consideration of the consequences, the Trump administration seems to have completely associated the U.S. with Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy—-involving a series of battles with Shiites throughout the Middle East. This will complicate our ties with countries such as Iraq that want good relations with both sides. It will do nothing to advance the fight against ISIS-inspired terrorism, but will only hinder it.

Reviewing the Trump visit to Saudi Arabia, The Economist provided this assessment:

“…with a further tilt towards Saudi Arabia and the Sunnis, and against Iran and the Shias, the president has increased, not smoothed, the tensions that so bedevil the area. The message went down well.  The audience, consisting mostly of autocrats and dictators, spouted gushers of flattery. ‘You are a unique personality that is capable of doing the impossible,’ said Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s president. ‘I agree,’ said Mr. Trump, whose mood may have been lifted by the gigantic portraits of himself that his hosts had put up all around Riyadh.  He made clear that he would not press Arab leaders on such matters as human rights. The kingdom, which Mr. Trump once called ‘the world’s biggest founder of terrorism,’ has spent billions of dollars spreading its ultra-conservative brand of Islam. Some say that Mr. Trump’s strategy is short-sighted.  Arab autocrats offer stability, ‘but only by brutal suppression of dissidents, whose resentment ultimately helps breed more terrorists,’ says Mustafa Akyol of Wellesley College. The fact remains that most of the jihadists in the Middle East are Sunni, not Shia.”

It is good, of course, that President Trump made an effort to avoid statements concerning Islam which characterized his campaign. But his message to the Saudis and other Arabs was a dramatic departure from U.S. foreign policy.  His silence on human rights and democratic ideals stands in contrast to his two most recent predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Both of these former presidents promoted U.S. values as a component of their foreign policy strategies of combating radical and violent extremism in the region.

“It’s not about values in one category and interests in another,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, who served as deputy assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. “In the case of the two previous administrations, one Republican and one Democrat, they both saw it as congruous with counterterrorism efforts.  This administration is not even claiming to find a balance. They’re throwing it all out the window.”

If we seek to effectively fight terrorism and advance stability in the Middle East, the Trump administration would do well to rethink its total embrace of Saudi Arabia, a policy likely to exacerbate our problems and needlessly draw us into the virtual civil war now underway between Shiites and Sunnis, which we would do well to avoid.

 

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.