The US-Saudi Relationship After Khashoggi

The US-Saudi relationship has been a rocky one, and its setbacks and scandals have mostly played out away from the public eye. This time, too, common interests and mutual dependence will almost certainly prevail over the desire to hold the Saudis to the standards expected of other close US allies.

.. But significant damage to bilateral ties, let alone a diplomatic rupture, is not in the cards, even if all the evidence points to a state-sanctioned assassination. Saudi Arabia is simply too crucial to US interests to allow the death of one man to affect the relationship. And with new allies working with old lobbyists to stem the damage, it is unlikely that the episode will lead to anything more than a lovers’ quarrel.
.. Saudi Arabia’s special role in American foreign policy is a lesson that US presidents learn only with experience. When Bill Clinton assumed the presidency, his advisers were bent on distancing the new administration from George H.W. Bush’s policies. Among the changes sought by Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, was an end to the unfettered White House access that Saudi Arabian Ambassador Bandar bin Sultan enjoyed during the Reagan and Bush presidencies. Bandar was to be treated like any other ambassador.
.. when Clinton needed a quote from the Koran to go alongside those from the Old and New Testament for a ceremony marking an Israeli-Palestinian accord, he turned to the Saudi ambassador.
.. Before Donald Trump assumed office, he frequently bashed the Saudis and threatened to cease oil purchases from the Kingdom, grouping them with freeloaders who had taken advantage of America. But after the Saudis feted him with sword dances and bestowed on him the highest civilian award when he visited the Kingdom on his first trip abroad as US president, he changed his tune.
.. Even the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, could not damage the relationship. Though al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, himself a Saudi national, recruited 15 of the 19 hijackers from the Kingdom, senior Saudi officials dismissed the implications. In a November 2002 interview, the Saudi interior minister simply deemed it “impossible,” before attempting to redirect blame by accusing Jews of “exploiting” the attacks and accusing the Israeli intelligence services of having relationships with terrorist organizations.
.. Bandar provided key insights and advice as President George W. Bush planned the 2003 Iraq invasion.

.. But Saudi Arabia wears too many hats for America to abandon it easily. Though the US no longer needs Saudi oil, thanks to its shale reserves,

  • it does need the Kingdom to regulate production and thereby stabilize markets.
  • American defense contractors are dependent on the billions the Kingdom spends on military hardware.
  • Intelligence cooperation is crucial to ferreting out jihadists and thwarting their plots. But, most important,
  • Saudi Arabia is the leading Arab bulwark against Iranian expansionism. The Kingdom has supported proxies in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen to contain Iran’s machinations. Any steps to hold the Saudis responsible for Khashoggi’s death would force the US to assume responsibilities it is far more comfortable outsourcing.

.. When the United Kingdom, the region’s colonial master and protector, decided that it could no longer afford such financial burdens, US leaders ruled out taking its place. Policymakers were too focused on Vietnam to contemplate action in another theater. Instead, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conceived a policy whereby Iran and Saudi Arabia, backed by unlimited US military hardware, would police the Gulf. While Iran stopped playing its role following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Saudis still do.

.. It is not only defense contractors who are going to bat for the Saudis. Before Khashoggi became Washington’s topic du jour, the Saudis paid about ten lobbying firms no less than $759,000 a month to sing their praises in America’s halls of power.

.. Former Saudi bashers such as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s confidant Dore Gold now meet with the Kingdom’s officials. Following the 2013 military coup that toppled Egypt’s democratically elected government, Israeli leaders urged US officials to embrace the generals. They are likely to do the same today if US anti-Saudi sentiment imperils their Iran strategy.

.. in the wake of Khashoggi’s disappearance, common interests and mutual dependence will almost certainly prevail over the desire to hold the Saudis to the standards expected of other close US allies.

Franklin Graham’s Uneasy Alliance with Donald Trump

Billy Graham met every President from Truman to Trump, but he was particularly close to Richard Nixon, an intimacy he came to regret when the Watergate tapes became public and Nixon was heard repeating anti-Semitic remarks that Billy had made to him. In 2011, Billy Graham admitted that this closeness was an error. “Looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now,” he told the magazine Christianity Today.

.. When I asked Graham if there was a lesson in his father’s regrets, he brushed off the question, and told me the story of his dad’s reaction to Nixon instead. “He was hurt by President Nixon, and things that Nixon said, when, like the Watergate tapes, he never heard President Nixon cuss, use profanity—so that was a shock to him, and he felt a little bit betrayed by that.”
.. Later, with Graham seated next to him, Trump warned of the stakes for Christians if Republicans lost in the midterms. “They will overturn everything that we’ve done, and they will do it quickly and violently,” he said. Later, by phone, I asked Graham what he thought of this rhetoric about “violence” from the left—didn’t it seem far-fetched to him? Graham defended Trump, invoking the Cold War era, when Christians faced persecution in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries. “I do agree, to some degree,” he said. “The Democratic Party is moving very quickly toward socialism, and I know what socialism does to the church.”
.. Graham has also been criticized for his relationship with Vladimir Putin, which began before Trump took office. Putin’s anti-gay legislation aligns with Graham’s views, and, in 2014, Graham wrote, “In my opinion, Putin is right on these issues. Obviously, he may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda.” In 2015, Graham spent forty-five minutes with Putin in Moscow, discussing the persecution of Christians and what evangelical Christianity actually entails, Graham told me.
.. He told me that he didn’t think Trump should have gotten “more aggressive” with Putin. “I don’t think that’s the way you get things done,” he told me. Graham has repeatedly denied the possibility that Trump colluded with the Russians to win the 2016 election, and is only slightly more circumspect on the issue of Russian interference. When pressed on the issue, he said, “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. But I do know that the United States has interfered in many countries’ elections. We’ve interfered in Iran, with the Shah. We interfered in Vietnam and put our own people in. We did this in Korea. And President Obama did this in Israel.” Graham, who is also a strong supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, was speaking about President Obama’s alleged support for the more liberal Israeli opposition during the 2015 election. This is one of the many conspiratorial half-truths that Graham has levelled as criticism against Obama. He has also supported outright lies, including the spurious accusation that Obama wasn’t born in the United States.
.. And Trump’s moral failings are old news, he told me. “Well, you take American Presidents in the past. Bill Clinton wasn’t the first man to have an affair in the White House,” Graham said. “We’re all flawed, and the Bible says we’re all sinners. And the Bible tells us that God sent his son to take our sins, to die for our sins. And America needs a heart transplant. And we need to put our heart and faith and trust in Jesus Christ, because every politician—I don’t care who they are, what party you put in there—they’re flawed men or flawed women.”“Do you think that President Trump really wants to turn the nation to God?” I asked.

“No,” Graham told me. “No. That’s not what he’s trying to do, no.”

.. “People think I’m closer to Donald Trump than I actually am, ” Graham said. “I haven’t seen Trump since my father’s funeral.” He didn’t want to go to the White House dinner, he told me, preferring to spend time with his family. “But people told me if I didn’t go it would look like a snub.”

.. “Can you imagine if the majority of the school board were controlled by God-fearing Christians?” he asked, continuing with a treatise on how secularism was no different from Communism, how abortion was murder, and how same-sex marriage was a sin against God.

 

The Jewish Crossroads

Can a mix of liberal politics and soft traditionalism survive a militant left and a right-wing Israel?

..Every #metoo scandal is different, but most are alike in at least one way.. the fall of prominent men usually accelerates some pre-existing debate about where the larger institution or culture should be going, and which side of its internal arguments deserves to gain.
.. In answering his accusers Cohen has embraced the clichés of male big shot contrition — promising a “consultation with clergy, therapists and professional experts” and “a process of education, recognition, remorse and repair.
.. his fall has inspired a critique not only of his behavior but also his life’s work ..  his sexual sins should prompt a larger reappraisal of “the troubling gender and sexual politics long embedded in communal discussions of Jewish continuity and survival.”
.. the longstanding angst within the American Jewish community around assimilation, intermarriage and fertility tends to sustain a kind of soft traditionalist pressure even in liberal Jewish life — one that defines Jewish identity in exclusionist terms, they complain, while marginalizing “single women, queer people, unwed parents, and childless individuals or couples.”
.. a “liberalism without/conservatism within” combination is common to minority populations, and it’s a particularly reasonable reaction to the experience of Jewish history: An oft-persecuted people’s flourishing can both depend on maintaining a certain conservatism about its own patterns of marrying and begetting and cultural transmission (and, in the case of Israel, the safety of its lonely nation-state), and on encouraging liberalism and cosmopolitanism in the wider, potentially-hostile order in which the diaspora subsists.
..  the fear among many politically liberal Jews that if they don’t sustain a certain familial traditionalism, they’ll just cede the Jewish future to the ultra-fecund ultra-Orthodox.)
.. Benjamin Netanyahu has embraced the view that European Jewry’s old enemy, Christian nationalism, is less dangerous to the Jewish future than the dissolving effects of liberal cosmopolitanism and the threat posed by Islamist anti-Semitism.
.. Thus you have the striking phenomenon of the Netanyahu government cultivating friends like Hungary’s Viktor Orban

How to Destroy Democracy, the Trump-Putin Way

All around the world, strongmen are seizing power and subverting liberal norms.

fascism came out of particular historical circumstances that do not obtain today—

  • a devastating world war,
  • drastic economic upheaval, the
  • fear of Bolshevism.

.. When Naomi Wolf and others insisted that George W. Bush was taking us down the path of 1930s Germany, I thought they were being histrionic. The essence of fascism after all was the obliteration of democracy. Did anyone seriously believe that Bush would cancel elections and refuse to exit the White House?

.. So maybe fascism isn’t the right term for where we are heading. Fascism, after all, was all about big government—grandiose public works, jobs jobs jobs, state benefits of all kinds, government control of every area of life. It wasn’t just about looting the state on behalf of yourself and your cronies, although there was plenty of that too. Seeing Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the press conference following their private meeting in Helsinki, though, I think maybe I’ve been a bit pedantic. Watching those two thuggish, immensely wealthy, corrupt bullies, I felt as if I was glimpsing a new world order—not even at its birth but already in its toddler phase. The two men are different versions of an increasingly common type of leader:

  • elected strongmen ‘who exploit weak spots in procedural democracy to come to power, and
  • once ensconced do everything they can to weaken democracy further,
  • while inflaming powerful popular currents of
    • authoritarianism,
    • racism,
    • nationalism,
    • reactionary religion,
    • misogyny,
    • homophobia, and
    • resentments of all kinds.

.. At the press conference Putin said that associates of the billionaire businessman Bill Browder gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign $400 million, a claim Politifact rates “pants on fire” and about which The New York Times’ Kenneth Vogel tweeted, “it was so completely without evidence that there were no pants to light on fire, so I hereby deem it ‘WITHOUT PANTS.’”

.. A Freudian might say that his obsession with the imaginary sins of Clinton suggests he’s hiding something. Why else, almost two years later, is he still trying to prove he deserved to win? At no point in the press conference did he say or do anything incompatible with the popular theory that he is Putin’s tool and fool.

.. These pantsless overlords are not alone. All over the world, antidemocratic forces are winning elections—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—and then using their power to subvert democratic procedures.

There’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—remember how when he first took office, back in 2014, he was seen as a harmless moderate, his Justice and Development Party the Muslim equivalent of Germany’s Christian Democrats? Now he’s shackling the press, imprisoning his opponents, trashing the universities, and trying to take away women’s rights and push them into having at least three, and possibly even five, kids because there just aren’t enough Turks.

.. Then there’s Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe these elected authoritarian regimes, now busily shaping the government to his own xenophobic ends, and

.. Poland’s Andrzej Duda, doing much the same—packing the courts, banning abortion, promoting the interests of the Catholic church.

Before World War II Poland was a multiethnic country, with large minorities of Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, and other peoples. Now it boasts of its (fictional) ethnic purity and, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, bars the door to Muslim refugees in the name of Christian nationalism.

One could mention

  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,
  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,
  • Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and
  • India’s Narendra Modi as well.

Pushed by anti-immigrant feeling, which is promoted by

  • unemployment and
  • austerity,

right-wing “populist” parties are surging in

  • Italy,
  • Greece,
  • the Netherlands,
  • France,
  • Germany,
  • Austria, and even
  • Sweden and
  • Denmark.

And don’t forget Brexit—boosted by pie-in-the-sky lies about the bounty that would flow from leaving the European Union but emotionally fueled by racism, nativism, and sheer stupidity.

.. At home, Donald Trump energizes similarly antidemocratic and nativist forces. Last year, outright neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, and Trump called them “very fine people.” This year, Nazis and Holocaust deniers are running in elections as Republicans, and far-right misogynist hate groups like the Proud Boys are meeting in ordinary bars and cafés.

.. The worst of it is that once the leaders get into power, they create their own reality, just as Karl Rove said they would:

  • They control the media,
  • pack the courts
  • .. lay waste to regulatory agencies,
  • “reform” education,
  • abolish long-standing precedents, and
  • use outright cruelty—of which the family separations on the border are just one example—to create fear.

While everybody was fixated on the spectacle in Helsinki, Trump’s IRS announced new rules that let dark-money groups like the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity keep their donors secret. 

.. American democracy might not be in its death throes yet, but every week brings a thousand paper cuts.

.. There’s nothing inevitable about liberal democracy, religious pluralism, acceptance of ethnic diversity, gender and racial equality, and the other elements of what we think of as contemporary progress.

.. He has consolidated a bloc of voters united in their grievances and their fantasies of redress. The

  • fundamentalist stay-home moms, the
  • MAGA-hat wearing toughs, the
  • Fox-addicted retirees, the
  • hedge-fund multimillionaires and the
  • gun nuts have found one another.

.. Why would they retreat and go their separate ways just because they lost an election or even two? Around the world it may be the same story: Democracy is easy to destroy and hard to repair, even if people want to do so, and it’s not so clear that enough of them do.