Genocide in Yemen, turmoil in Lebanon, major power war, Jared Kushner, and Tom Friedman. We live in terrible times, with Mohammed bin Salman and his techno-tyrant ambitions at the center of them.
Sometime over Thanksgiving weekend, a holiday during which Allison and I were both sick and ended up ordering Chinese, I got a push notice on my phone from the New York Times letting me know that Thomas Friedman had an exclusive interview with the future king of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.
Hoping to salvage whatever dignity was left in the day, I set it down and turned back to my General Tsao.
The next day, it turned out the interview was as horrid and immoral as imagined, if not worse. It was full of Friedman-esque nonsense about anti-corruption and modernization, with the grotesque declaration that bin Salman’s power-grabbing purge of royal family enemies was the true “Arab Spring”.
Friedman bought, without even a scintilla of doubt, MBS’s claim that the purge was about ending corruption, and getting back money for the kingdom.
To better understand it I flew to Riyadh to interview the crown prince, known as “M.B.S.,” who had not spoken about the extraordinary events here of early November, when his government arrested scores of Saudi princes and businessmen on charges of corruption and threw them into a makeshift gilded jail — the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton — until they agreed to surrender their ill-gotten gains. You don’t see that every day.
Now, I have no doubt that these men have ill-gotten gains. But Friedman’s off-handed elisions about a “gilded jail” ignores credible reports that many of these men were tortured. He accepts with glee MBS’s claims that 90% of them just gave up their millions willingly and happily, because that’s what people do. And he doesn’t press MBS on his own ill-gotten gains, the kind that were used to buy a $400 million yacht.
This is all to be accepted. Friedman has always been easily influenced by rich, powerful people speaking TED-talkishly to him about reform and progress. And I don’t totally doubt that MBS wants to modernize the Kingdom, at least to an extent. But his real goal, and one that get short shrift in Friedman’s article of gilded nonsense, is to make Saudi Arabia the primary power in the Middle East.
And to do so, he’s confronting Iran, subverting governments, and committing genocidal wars across the region. That’s the major story, one that makes any talk of women being able to drive a barely-relevant piece of too-late trivia.
Saudi Arabia’s Destruction of Yemen is bin Salman’s SOP
In his interview, Friedman spends exactly one paragraph on Yemen. We’ll get to that paragraph in a second, not to linger on Friedman, per se, but to bore into the mindset that drives the power structure in this country and KSA. But first, let’s remember what is happening in Yemen.
Yemen has been the primary (or at least active) focus of MBS’s foreign policy, and that policy has been one of destruction. In order to battle against “Iranian-aligned” Houthi “rebels”, and back their chosen President of Yemen, MBS has wantonly bombed the country, blockaded its ports, and precipitated a generational humanitarian crisis.
Thousands are dead from cholera, with tens of thousands more at risk. Millions are facing starvation, and the Kingdom’s response is more blockades of food imports and medicine. And during all of this, indiscriminate bombing has ruined what was left of a fragile infrastructure and destroyed what was left of a Yemeni state.
You’ll notice, a few paragraphs above, that “Iranian-aligned” is in quotes, because that is one of the great ironies of this slaughter. (“Rebels” is in quotes because there is nothing left against which to rebel.)The Houthis were not aligned with Iran when their rebellion started in 2004, but as Saleh and Bush/Obama used alleged Iranian interference to justify, well, our interference, it drew Iran in more and more.
There is still an open question as to their involvement, but at this point, the war is seen by those not suffering its consequences as a proxy war.
And what is that proxy? A civilizational war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for control over the Middle East. In a limited and narrow way, between Sunni and Shi’ite, or Arab and Persian. But those are just the transitory terms we use to talk about any major power struggle. They make it easy to draw lines and rally allies, but this falls into the same war of influence we’ve seen play out over human history.
What’s interesting about this particular moment is that these are two mid-major powers, one of which (Iran) is awakening from a rare blip of non-dominance, and one which is attempting to assert itself politically and militarily for the first time in centuries.
They are playing this out in a region which is in a transition away from distant Western dominance, 150+ years of English, French, and American control, and reverting back toward regional power plays, with Russia and Turkey jostling for more direct influence.
Unfortunately, one of those old powers, the US, has sided 100% with the newer power, not just strategically, but ideologically. And that will bring us to Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump.
The Anti-Iranian Consensus, Amplified
There’s no question that, to Team Trump, Iran is the great danger of our time. It has been a particular obsession of aides from Michael Flynn to James Mattis, and of course to raving bigots and turtling nap-time generals like Seb Gorka and Newt Gingrich who want to envision themselves as new Churchills.
There is also the fact that President Obama scored a brilliant diplomatic victory with the Iranian nuclear inspection deal, which means that the right wing had to be against it. More than that, it means that Trump took it very personally, because if Obama did it, it had to be the worst thing. (This is another example of how the President’s pathologies perfectly line up with the obsessions of the right wing.) This was especially since it involved a deal, and nobody makes a better deal than Trump.
(Note: assertion not backed by any evidence)
And, regardless, anti-Iranian sentiment has been baked into our foreign policy establishment since 1979. Instead of recognizing the roots and reasons for the revolution, and understanding Iran as a historic regional power, we feared and hated them.
To be fair, their rhetoric and actions made that easy. But the US never saw them as a standard rival with an unusual vocabulary. They had to be a pure wildling evil.
You see this in Friedman’s article, how easily he regurgitates the consensus. Soak in the intense immorality of this paragraph, which is the only mention of Yemen in the entire article.
He insisted that the Saudi-backed war in Yemen, which has been a humanitarian nightmare, was tilting in the direction of the pro-Saudi legitimate government there, which, he said is now in control of 85 percent of the country, but given the fact that pro-Iranian Houthi rebels, who hold the rest, launched a missile at Riyadh airport, anything less than 100 percent is still problematic.
That’s it. A “humanitarian nightmare”, which he writes in a completely neutral manner, as if his interviewee isn’t soaking in blood. Accepting without question that the “pro-Saudi” government is legitimate, which is really a far more complex question.
Worst of all is the clause (I just realized that the mention of the foremost humanitarian disaster facing the world is actually one sentence) in which he blithely parrots the “pro-Iranian claim, and asserts that one attack on KSA retroactively and proactively justifies all past and future war crimes. It’s the assumption that KSA has the right to do whatever they want in Yemen, but any retaliation is a crime beyond the pale.
Sound familiar? Sound familiar? You bet: this is essentially US foreign policy, more so in the time of Trump, with its inflated sense of persecution. And that’s why there is a perfect alignment. The other perfect alignment is MBS with Jared Kushner, two shallow boy-kings who think they alone can control a swirling world.
Kushner, MBS, and Idiocy in Dangerous Times
Jared Kushner has been having a rough go of it at home as of late. Chief of Staff Kelley has curtailed his vast and inexplicable influence, and more importantly, he’s certainly a step in Mueller’s roll-up operation. But he still has a huge hand in Middle East policy. These are not unrelated.
See, Kushner has always been the most absurd part of this idiotic administration. It’s a sure sign of Trump’s laziness and vanity that he believes the guy who married his daughter can, with no experience whatsoever, solve the Middle East and bring peace to Israel (and Palestine, but that’s a clear throat-clearing afterthought).
But Kushner does have a strategy. Align with Saudi Arabia, have them get all the Sunni countries on board against Iran, and with that coalition, make a peace treaty with Israel and Palestine. There are a few questions, such as: how? And: why would that create a peace treaty that the Palestinians would accept? And how exactly would this collation work?
Ah, but these are the kind of questions only asked by people who actually know what they are doing. The strategy, such as it is, is exactly what you get when you have someone who is not as bright as he thinks he is looking at the issue for the first time, and coming up with th idea that “Sunnis and Shi’ites don’t get along, therefore, all Sunnis will get along.”
Needless to say, this has been encouraged by Saudi Arabia, who reluctantly approve of the Trump admin’s “let’s do whatever Saudi Arabia wants” plan. Indeed, MBS and Kushner are reportedly very close, with Kushner and him having talks into the night.
That’s where we are. Kushner, with his shallow B-school understanding of the world, thinks he can gameplan chesspieces in a historic void. He encourages MBS, who seems to be manipulating him into giving the kingdom carte blanche. They all speak the same language.
What is important to politely point out is that this is all dangerous madness. Even if you accept Kushner’s half-baked dorm-room strategy, and believe without evidence that the Sunni countries will all accept Saudi dominance, you have to understand that you are putting all the US eggs into MBS’s basket.
Remember, the war in Yemen is a disaster. Not just for Yemen, which is a non-starter, because no one in the US policy world cares, but for Saudi Arabia. They are sucked into an unwinnable quagmire which is an enormous drain on their economy. No government they install will be legitimate, which will mean they’ll either be there forever, leave and lose face, or accept a tiny rump state that is their essential ward. And the war is entirely MBS’s doing, the signature move that helped pave the way for his unlikely advancement.
His signature move is a disaster! His other main foreign policy move, removing Said Hariri, hasn’t quite worked out, has almost certainly strengthened Iran, and certainly moved a never-exactly-strongfooted Lebanon toward more uncertain slopes. In other words, the vainglorious assumptions of a shallow and power-hungry 30-something have been met with disaster in the real world, and he’s being rewarded for it by his idiot patrons.
The Middle East is at a historic inflection point. This transition away from the 20th-century, which itself was a difficult and many-dawned move away from the Ottoman centuries, has been horrifyingly bloody, suffering cuts from internal and external factors.
That we are meeting this moment with a tottering superpower, led by a truly ignorant dope, allowing a weak, power-hungry tyrant to push his blithely murderous ideas across a region, is terrifying. The dope is backed by an entire foreign policy establishment, at least when it comes to Iran, because there is a weird consensus that Iranian power is somehow insouciant. That makes these ideas even harder to dislodge.
As we see, the President has succor from erstwhile opponents, simply because the king speaks in post-human techno-English, the kind that unites elites who don’t see the poverty and suffering and raw grinding terror of the day-to-day existing just out of sight, just beyond their screens, just out of the self-congratulating nonsense that unites reality show nightmare people and heavily-expensed columnists and back-slapping generals and green-room cave-dwellers.
There are two different worlds right now, and the one in power is incapable of concerning itself with the one that isn’t. That’s the story of our time. These two worlds aren’t separate, though. They are on a collision course. The friendship between Mohammed bin Salman, and the death, destruction, and chaos that will result, is a snapshot of our moment. May we live long enough to fix it.