Pompeo Stresses Friendship With Saudis, Amid Stormclouds

Secretary of State reinforces alliance with kingdom while discussing Yemen, Khashoggi

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Monday with Saudi Arabia’s leaders, bearing a message of support for a close Trump administration ally at a time when the relationship is under pressure at home and abroad.

Mr. Pompeo met separately with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the royal court in the kingdom’s capital, telling reporters afterward that he raised at least two difficult issues—the war in Yemen and the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.

On those issues and on allegations of Saudi human-rights abuses, Mr. Pompeo stressed the friendly nature of ties between Washington and Riyadh.

“The Saudis are friends, and when friends have conversations, you tell them what your expectations are,” he said.

Mr. Pompeo’s stop in Riyadh came near the end of a multination Middle East trip and took place as U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for a re-evaluation of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, including its support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen.

But Mr. Pompeo, smiling in brief public appearances with the Saudi leaders and other officials, adhered closely to the administration’s stance regarding Saudi Arabia since the Oct. 2 killing of Mr. Khashoggi. He pressed for accountability, but avoided personally blaming Prince Mohammed, who U.S. intelligence officials have concluded likely gave the order for the killing.

Mr. Pompeo and other officials consistently have emphasized the enduring nature of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and its vital role in countering Iran, a main thrust of Mr. Pompeo’s trip, which has included stops in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

In Saudi Arabia, Mr. Pompeo said he broached the issue of human rights, but didn’t specifically address allegations that a Saudi crackdown on dissent has included acts of torture against jailed women’s-rights activists, including lashings and electric shocks.

On Yemen, the U.S. mission to the kingdom said on Twitter that Mr. Pompeo and the crown prince discussed the conflict and “agreed on need for continued de-escalation and adherence to Sweden agreements, especially cease-fire and redeployment in #Hudaydah,” referring to the Red Sea port city that is the gateway for the vast majority of the country’s food and aid.

The administration has accelerated its efforts to secure a peace agreement in Yemen, for a conflict that has killed tens of thousand of people and caused a humanitarian crisis.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have been battling Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who Riyadh sees as proxies of their rival Iran, and they have used U.S.-made bombs and intelligence assistance in their bid to defeat the group.

“We discussed with Pompeo the joint effort in fighting Iran’s expansionist policies that harm regional and international security,” former Saudi foreign minister Adel Al Jubeir said, according to the Saudi state-owned Ekhbariya news channel.

The officials discussed the crises in Yemen and Syria, the situation in the Red Sea region, and efforts to fight terrorism and extremism, Mr. Jubeir said, according to the channel.

Mr. Pomeo also addressed a pair of Twitter messages sent Sunday by President Trump in which he vowed to devastate Turkey’s economy if it targets Kurdish populations in northern Syria as the U.S. withdraws its forces. Mr. Trump called for a 20-mile safe zone between the Turkish border and U.S.-allied fighters, and also called upon America’s Kurdish allies not to provoke Turkey.

“The president’s aim there, I think, is the one that we’ve been talking about for some time. Which is that we want to make sure that the folks who fought with us to take down the caliphate and ISIS have security, and also that terrorists acting out of Syria aren’t able to attack Turkey,” Mr. Pompeo said, referring to Islamic State by an acronym.

The exact method of achieving these “twin aims” has yet to be determined, the secretary said. “If we can get a space—call it a buffer zone; others might have a different name for it—if we can get the space and the security arrangements right, this will be a good thing for everyone in the region.”

Mr. Pompeo planned to return to the U.S. earlier than planned to attend a family funeral, the State Department said on Monday. After departing Saudi Arabia, the secretary was traveling to Oman for meetings with leaders there, but planned to forgo a scheduled stop in Kuwait.

The secretary’s swing through the Middle East was aimed at reassuring partners and promoting a new regional alliance. Mr. Pompeo arrived in Riyadh from Doha, where the U.S. and Qatar held their second strategic dialogue.

During his remarks in Doha, the secretary pledged to continue trying to broker an agreement between Qatar and the four states—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt—that have isolated the country over allegations of support for terrorism.

The schism threatens to derail U.S. plans to form a Middle East Strategic Alliance envisioned as a counterpart to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Asked about his hosts’ reaction to his comments in Doha, Mr. Pompeo said the Saudis also hope to heal the rift with Qatar.

“We can certainly provide assistance and support, but at the end of the day those countries have to get it back together,” Mr. Pompeo said.

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.

Why Russia’s Middle East Gamble Has a Limited Payoff

To many countries, ties with Moscow are just a way to leverage stronger U.S. backing

“Nobody is pushing America out of the Middle East, it’s just pulling out by itself and leaving a vacuum behind,” said Alexey Khlebnikov, a fellow at the Russian International Affairs Council, a state-run think tank. “Russia has no real allies in the region, just partners with which it can do business despite political disagreements on many issues. Russia is not an alternative to them, it’s just a way to diversify their portfolio of relations.”

That diversification is made easier by the fact that President Donald Trump’s administration doesn’t seem to mind Russia’s new prominence in the Middle East.

..  Russia, despite its military abilities and its sophisticated diplomatic and intelligence networks, doesn’t really have the means to project power across the region: its midsize economy is roughly the size of Australia’s or Spain’s.
.. unlike the Soviet Union, which inserted itself in Middle Eastern conflicts as a way to promote the Communist ideology during the Cold War confrontation, modern Russia has no alternative social and economic model to spread.
.. Russia—unlike the U.S.—has proved that it backs its allies, no matter how unsavory they may be. By contrast, the U.S. under President Barack Obama embraced the 2011 protests that ousted such longstanding American allies (and autocrats) as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia.
.. Even many of those Arabs who hold little love for Syria’s Mr. Assad confess admiration for how Mr. Putin didn’t hesitate to use military force to prevent a similar downfall of the Syrian regime.“Egyptians see Putin as someone who’s a statesman that stands by his friends, someone who doesn’t let them down the way the Americans did with Mubarak,

.. “Russia has nothing to deliver,” he said. “The Russians know that our strategic relationship with America is vital and will always be there. I don’t think there is a big future to Egyptian-Russian relations.”

.. countries such as Egypt and Turkey are using Russia—and actual or threatened purchases of Russian weapons—as leverage to improve their negotiating position where it still really matters: in Washington.
.. “But Russia is an imaginary alternative. The optical effect here is much larger than the substance. All these countries understand perfectly well how limited Russia’s influence really is.”

Trump to Dictators: Have a Nice Day

Watching President Trump recently accuse Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of stabbing him in the back prompted me to Google a simple question: How many Canadians were killed or wounded since April 2002 fighting alongside Americans in Afghanistan? The answer: 158 were killed and 635 wounded.

.. And yet, when their prime minister mildly pushed back against demands to lower Canada’s tariffs on milk, cheese and yogurt from the U.S., Trump and his team — in a flash — accused Trudeau of “betrayal,” back-stabbing and deserving of a “special place in hell.”

A special place in hell? Over milk tariffs? For a country that stood with us in our darkest hour?That is truly sick.

.. Everything is a transaction: What have you done for ME today?

The notion of America as the upholder of last resort of global rules and human rights — which occasionally forgoes small economic advantages to strengthen democratic societies so we can enjoy the much larger benefits of a world of healthy, free-market democracies — is over

.. “Trump’s America does not care,” historian Robert Kagan wrote in The Washington Post. “It is unencumbered by historical memory. It recognizes no moral, political or strategic commitments. It feels free to pursue objectives without regard to the effect on allies or, for that matter, the world. It has no sense of responsibility to anything beyond itself.”

.. But what’s terrifying about Trump is that he seems to prefer dictators to our democratic allies everywhere.

.. As Trump told reporters about the North Korean dictator on Friday: “He speaks, and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”

.. Trump later said this was a joke. Sorry, no U.S. president should make such a joke, which, alas, was consistent with everything Trump has said and done before: He prefers the company of strongmen and, as long as they praise him, does not care how leaders anywhere treat their own people

.. Harb, an enormously decent British-educated surgeon, was imprisoned merely for tweeting mild criticism of Sisi’s crackdown on dissent... “The message is clear that criticism and even mild satire apparently earn Egyptians an immediate trip to prison.”

.. “For the second consecutive year, more than half of those jailed for their work around the world are behind bars in Turkey, China and Egypt

.. in once pro-Western Poland, the country’s most powerful politician, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is trying to replace the independent judiciary with judges selected purely for their loyalty to him and his party, snubbing his nose at the European Union’s liberal, rule-of-law values.

.. Trump doesn’t even have ambassadors in Turkey and Saudi Arabia today to whisper.

.. “In America, we’re going to survive Trump,” says Michael Posner, director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at N.Y.U. Stern. “We have strong institutions and plenty of people committed to maintaining our democratic processes. But places like Egypt, Turkey or the Philippines are fragile states where activists for decades relied on the U.S. to stand up and say, ‘There are consequences for your relations with the U.S. — trade, aid, military, investment — if you crush peaceful dissent.’

.. Today, we have a president who is not only not critical, he actually congratulates leaders on their fraudulent elections and seems to endorse their bad behavior.

.. Remember: These leaders are not repressing violent radicals, Posner adds; they are literally “criminalizing dissent and debate.” And their citizens now think that we’re O.K. with that.

If that stands, the world will eventually become a more dangerous place for all of us.