I was in the car during the President’s big speech on terrorism to a bunch of gilded heirs in a gilded palace, and there was a certain peculiar horror at hearing that voice saying those words. Even ignoring for a moment the substance of what he said, it was the fact that Donald Trump, who couldn’t be bothered to learn the first thing about terrorism other than “it’s bad, ok, believe me?”, was giving a major talk to rapt heads of state, forced to listen because this was the most powerful man in the world, representing the United States of America. It really put into stark relief the absurdity of our moment.
In a way, it was even worse that most of what he said was insipid and banal, a series of rolling cliches that sounded like the book report of a middling college Republican. His teleprompted bromides made him sound, in our dumb media formulations, “Presidential”. But you also didn’t have to dig very deep to see the bloody soil right beneath his feet.
The President made very clear that only one thing mattered: “defeating terrorism” by force. The drumbeat of his speech, the part they probably most want remembered, is when he dimly intoned with fake-machismo that the collected autocrats and kings should “DRIVE THEM OUT”. It’s a strange formulation, because for all his anti-PC swagger about how this is an Islamic problem, he seemingly ignores that you can’t just “Drive them out” without addressing the sicknesses and pathologies in society, both internal and imposed, that have led to ISIS.
Clearly, thinking about those contradictions aren’t important to Trump or Bannon or Miller. What’s important is to give free reign to the collected autocrats, which is why the triumph of the weekend was to sell the Saudis $110 billion worth of arms. We should remember that selling rich people something they want to buy could only be done by a master of the deal.
This landmark agreement includes the announcement of a $110 billion Saudi-funded defense purchase — and we will be sure to help our Saudi friends to get a good deal from our great American defense companies. This agreement will help the Saudi military to take a greater role in security operations.
And what are these security operations? Well, there is the internal defense of the Kingdom, of course. But he really gave away the game when he was talking about how the assembled countries are already…
“…making significant contributions to regional security: Jordanian pilots are crucial partners against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and a regional coalition have taken strong action against Houthi militants in Yemen. The Lebanese Army is hunting ISIS operatives who try to infiltrate their territory. Emirati troops are supporting our Afghan partners. In Mosul, American troops are supporting Kurds, Sunnis and Shias fighting together for their homeland.”
I was thinking that we can ignore that he pronounced “Houthi” as if it should be followed by “and the Blowfish”; that’s the sort of internet-type snark that obscures bigger issues. Every politician makes mistakes, and anyway, who can blame him? It’s doubtful he’d ever said, or maybe even heard, the word “Houthi” before.
But that’s sort of the point. He blithely lumps the Houthi faction in the overlapping Yemeni civil wars with ISIS, even though Sunni extremists and the Houthis are bitter enemies. And while there is no question that the Houthis aren’t exactly stabilizing the region, the greatest damage has been done by the Saudi coalition, recklessly carpet-bombing the country into a bleak future of starvation and war. And disease. Due to the country’s already fragile infrastructure being destroyed, the WHO estimates as many as 300,000 cholera cases over the next six months.
Yemen shows the disastrous focus of the Trumpian approach. “We won’t tell you how to do your business, as long as you fight ISIS and stand against Iran.” There are so many areas where that is contradictory nonsense. To the extent that the Houthis are aligned, it is with Iran, against the Sauds, and against Sunni extremists, whether that is ISIS or al-Qaeda (in fact, multiple bombings of Houthis by extremists helped start the latest round of fighting, and helped draw them further into national battles). Allowing, or in fact encouraging, Saudi Arabia to have free reign in a country that we see only an “area of active hostility” will hurt the enemies of ISIS and create the very same “safe zones” that the Administration decries.
The problem is that the the primary focus is Iran, and stopping Iranian power. It’s part of Jared Kushner’s big play to unite the Sunni Arab world to stand against Iran, and get a peace treaty for Israel and Palestine out of it. This is one of those grand world plans which was drawn by the great Arabists and Orientalists in the early 20th century, drawing lines on a map, and assuming that “If we get Sunnis here, we’ve got it made.” Those ended in failure and bloodshed, and weren’t drawn by idiots with zero experience.
The problem is that these people think it is simple: a matter of will, and some brilliant negotiating tactics. They have zero knowledge of history, zero concern for how the region actually works, and zero ability to see past their own shallow ideas. They think it is an easy math problem, a quick sell. And there might even be surface-level successes!
There is no doubt that the gilded heirs sitting in Arabesque thrones are happy to see one of their own, and that the strongman tyrants are glad to see someone who emulates them, with his soft hands yearning to be considered callous and callused. I’m sure there will be papers signed and treaties made and grins exchanged. But by papering over everything but the headlines, and focusing on quick results rather than intelligent gains, this administration will set back the cause of freedom, of peace, and of actual security, another generation.
For them, the Middle East is, as is everything else in their dumbshow lives, a quick con and a chance to soak up applause before getting out of town. In going international, we’re finally giving thr world the bill of goods we so eagerly bought.