Weapons deal repays Trump’s Saudi pivot
When Rex Tillerson lectured his new fiefdom, the about-to-be-decimated and sidelined State Department, earlier in May about how the Donald Trump administration would sometimes be detaching foreign policies from values such as freedom, dignity and “the way people are treated”, the Saudis quickly picked up on what rates in Trump’s Washington.
On Sunday they came up with 110 billion reasons for Trump to appreciate them – the amount in US dollars they plan to spend on American weapons during the next few years, plus a host of other deals that could put up to $US350 billion into the United States economy. No wonder Trump made Saudi Arabia the first foreign country to visit in his presidency.
His campaign rhetoric that Saudi Arabia was the place that enslaves women, kills gays and sent the 9/11 terrorists? So last year: now the country is a “sacred” and magnificent land. No mention of human rights and democracy at all.
The real villain was Iran. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region,” Trump said, adding: “Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”
His audience was about 50 leaders from Islamic nations, all majority Sunni, whom King Salman had flown into Riyadh for the visit. The spread of Saudi-style values in this grouping was emphasised last week when two young gay men each got 83 lashes of the cane in Indonesia’s Aceh region, and this week when Jakarta police arrested 141 young men at a gay haunt for vague “pornography” offences.
In making this pitch, Trump has put the US on one side of the great Sunni–Shiite schism in Islam that has been likened to the Thirty Years War between Catholicism and Protestantism in Europe.
The irony was that Iranian voters had just re-elected Hassan Rouhani, a moderate in the Iranian context, as their president by a thumping 57 per cent majority, decisively rejecting the tough former judge Ebrahim Raisi, who was the favourite of the theocratic hardliners. Iran’s contrast with the Saudi absolute monarchy has never been so clear.
Taking sides in a religious schism is one thing. Another is Trump’s eagerness to find ways to undermine the nuclear freeze in Iran negotiated by the US (under Barack Obama) and five other big powers, just as Iran is trying to build rapprochement with the outside world based on that deal. This threatens a rift with western Europe, which supports that process. It also puts Australia in an awkward position. Julie Bishop was quick to move on building ties with Iran once the nuclear deal was signed and sanctions lifted.
Another awkward fact that no one mentioned to Trump and Tillerson when they pointed the finger at Iran for terrorism was that nearly all jihadists in the Middle East, the subcontinent, South-East Asia and various diasporas are Sunni.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have done some terrible things, particularly against Israeli and Jewish targets, but the bigger global threat comes out of Sunni nations that mostly count as US friends.
Decades of propagation and funding for the Saudi fundamentalist school of Islam called Wahhabism across the Muslim world have developed the ground for more violent and nihilist sects to flourish. Trump’s announcement of a Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology and a Terrorist Financing Targeting Centre with the Saudis is ironic, to say the least.
Still, Trump is not one for nuance. His message to the Sunni leaders about terrorists was “drive them out”, repeated half a dozen times. “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them,” he said. “A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists.” The question is: drive them out to where? And how welcome has Trump made the Muslims he suddenly sees as the “good” who are victims of the “evil”?
This was all sadly underlined on Monday night in the English city of Manchester, when a suicide attacker blew up a satchel bomb packed with shrapnel amid a crowd leaving a concert by American pop singer Ariana Grande, who appeals to the teenagers and children among the 22 dead and 64 injured.
The bomber was a locally born 22-year-old of Libyan extraction who’d been to Libya several times. He was one of about 3000 or so “people of interest” on MI5’s radar for remarks in support of Daesh, but not one of the 40 people the security agency has the resources to watch for 24 hours at any one time. The Sunni extremists Daesh, facing imminent loss of their territory in Iraq and Syria, claimed credit, but it was not known immediately if the attacker was self-motivated or part of a wider plot.
After Saudi Arabia, Trump went on to spend about the same amount of time in Israel, where his close political friend Benjamin Netanyahu was having to crack the whip to dispel doubts about the US president.
He had to order his cabinet to turn up at Ben Gurion airport to welcome Trump en masse, after some said that if they weren’t going to get a presidential handshake, they wouldn’t bother. Just earlier, according to the US journal Foreign Policy, Israeli intelligence officials had been shouting in rage at US counterparts over Trump’s leak of intelligence from an Israeli agent in Syria to the Russians. The $US110 billion arms deal with the Saudis did not go down well either, as it erodes Israel’s technological lead over its neighbours.
Nor has Trump delivered on his campaign promise to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump did go straight to the Wailing Wall, a first for a sitting US president, but his officials made it clear Washington did not recognise that this holy site, captured 50 years ago in the Six-Day War, was Israeli territory.
However, Trump didn’t mention the two-state solution once in his six public appearances, didn’t push Israel any harder on settlements, and urged the Palestinian National Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas to rein in anti-Israeli violence. Netanyahu had just eased border-crossing and building controls on the Palestinians, a downpayment on his “outside-in” strategy to get the Saudis and Gulf states onside against Iran with Israel as well as the US. The Palestinians are starting to feel a bit dispensable to Arab leaders of not yet the Arab “street”.
Back in Washington, absent the president and many of his top officials, the political stink worsened around the Trump campaign’s links to Russian operatives.
US media reports said Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the White House princeling put in charge of making peace in the Middle East, was the latest “person of interest” in the FBI’s investigation of those links. Former FBI director James Comey, whom Trump told the Russians he’d dismissed as a “nut job” for pursuing the case, was preparing to testify at a congressional inquiry into the same subject.
Trump’s first appointment as national security adviser, retired general Mike Flynn, refused a subpoena to testify in congress, invoking the Fifth Amendment. His position was looking dodgy even without any self-incrimination as he’s been shown to have concealed his Russian and Turkish contacts when he applied to renew his top-secret security clearance last year with the Pentagon.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2017 as "Weapons deal repays Trump’s Saudi pivot". Subscribe here.