How a smooth Saudi operative charms Washington and defends ‘the indefensible’

Even as evidence mounted last week that a Saudi Arabian hit squad had murdered and dismembered his friend, Jamal Khashoggi, Washington operative Ali Shihabi took to Twitter to do what he does best: defend the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

“Leaders and governments make mistakes, sometimes horrible ones,” the suave 59-year-old wrote in a 13-part Twitter thread on Oct. 20. “At present, the Saudi government has been humbled and chastened … But one horrible murder cannot and will not be allowed to put the country further at risk.”

The reaction from many quarters was scathing.

Keep cashing those checks, Ali,” wrote Karen Attiah, who edited Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post. “I cannot for the life of me understand how you sleep at night.”

The global outrage over Khashoggi’s murder has forced many Washington lobbyists and public relations pros to cut ties with the Saudi government. But not Shihabi, a Saudi national who may be the country’s most effective defender in the U.S. capital. Media savvy and politically shrewd, Shihabi has relationships with prominent journalists, Trump administration officials and think tank experts throughout Washington. The Saudi ambassador left Washington earlier this month and reportedly may not return, but it matters less given that many already consider Shihabi, who is close to the Saudi leadership, to be the kingdom’s unofficial envoy.

Unlike some Arab envoys who can be culturally out of step with their host city, Shihabi — whose father was Saudi and mother Norwegian — has a gracious European demeanor, a wry sense of humor and a taste for good wine. His daughter is even an actress.

.. Shihabi can often be seen on the D.C. circuit, hitting book parties hosted by the likes of the operative-hostess Juleanna Glover and dining at spots like the Monocle and the Four Seasons with such A-list media figures as Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

.. He calls himself a provocateur, but Shihabi can be just as on-message as any official Arab envoy. He is tall and bespectacled, with a booming voice he uses with little restraint, often talking over his opponents with a wide smile as he rationalizes beheadings as a means of executions, Saudi efforts to counter Iran’s government, and even conditions for the country’s imprisoned dissidents.

.. “Prison in Saudi Arabia is quite benign,” Shihabi once said during a television appearance with Khashoggi. “They are nothing like the dungeons of the Middle East.” (He later clarified he meant jails for political prisoners, but regretted the way he’d articulated the comment.)

.. Despite such head-scratchers, Shihabi has developed a sterling reputation among Washington foreign policy elites who consider him a loyal — but not completely doctrinaire — interlocutor between Washington and Riyadh.

.. “I would describe him as one of the sharpest people I’ve met in this town,” said Walter Cutler, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “I have high regard for him personally.”

“I’ve had conversations with him where I’ve said, ‘The Saudi government just did X. I don’t get it. It doesn’t strike me as smart,’” said Elliott Abrams, a former official in the George W. Bush administration. “He’d say, ‘I don’t think so either. I’m trying to get it reversed.’”

.. Shihabi’s skills are being tested as never before. He’s defending a Saudi version of events — that Khashoggi died after a fistfight with Saudi officials waiting for him in the consulate – that has been widely dismissed.

.. “He’s trying to defend the indefensible, and that never works out very well,” a former Obama administration official said on condition of anonymity. “The fact of the matter is that the story that the Saudis have concocted is so blatantly false that he damages his own standing, his own reputation, by trying to argue in defense of it.”

Further complicating matters is the fact that Shihabi had known Khashoggi for many years. The pair had even appeared on TV together to debate Saudi policy.

.. Shihabi calls himself a foreign policy “realist,” or “certainly not an idealist.” He is skeptical that liberal democracy can take root in his homeland anytime soon and prizes the idea of stability in Saudi Arabia.

.. “Do I worry about criticism going too far?” he told POLITICO. “Sure. Because I want to maintain access.”

Shihabi’s primary organ of influence in Washington is the Arabia Foundation, which he established in early 2017. He says he launched the organization after coming to believe that the Saudi monarchy was getting poor results for the millions it spent on lobbying and public relations in Washington.

.. Shihabi’s background is unusually varied for a Saudi citizen: His late father, Samir Shihabi, was a Jerusalem-born Saudi diplomat

.. He first wrote a novel, “Arabian War Games,” that explored what would happen if Iran invaded Saudi Arabia just as Israel tries to expel its Israeli-Arab minority into Jordan.

.. While Saudi Arabia is known for promoting an austere form of Islam that many experts say breeds terrorism, Shihabi comes across as relatively open-minded and liberal – up to a point.

.. “Ali’s been very clear that the death of Jamal is wrong, is horrible, is indefensible,” said Adam Ereli, a former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain who serves on the advisory board of the Arabia Foundation.

But at the same time, the death of a journalist is what it is. It’s not the end of the world,” he added. “What are we supposed to do, stop doing everything? And just put the Middle East on hold while we vent our rage and punish everybody?”

Richard Rohr: Holy, Nonviolent Struggle

All of this would require a ceaseless jihad (which did not mean “holy war” but “effort,” “struggle”), because it was extremely difficult to implement the will of God in a tragically flawed world. Muslims must make a determined endeavor on all fronts—intellectual, social, economic, moral, spiritual, and political. Sometimes they might have to fight, as Muhammad did when the Meccan kafirun vowed to exterminate the Muslim community. But aggressive warfare was outlawed, and the only justification for war was self-defense. [5] . . . An important and oft-quoted tradition (hadith) has Muhammad say on his way home after a battle: “We are returning from the Lesser Jihad [the battle] and going to the Greater Jihad,” the far more important and difficult struggle to reform one’s own society and one’s own heart. Eventually, when the war with Mecca was turning in his favor, Muhammad adopted a policy of nonviolence. .

Like any religious tradition, Islam would change and evolve. Muslims acquired a large empire, stretching from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas, but true to Qur’anic principles, nobody was forced to become Muslim. Indeed, for the first hundred years after the Prophet’s death, conversion to Islam was actually discouraged, because Islam was a din [way of life] for the Arabs, the descendants of Abraham’s elder son, Ishmael, just as Judaism was for the sons of Isaac, and Christianity for the followers of the gospel.

Faith, therefore, was a matter of practical insight and active commitment; it had little to do with abstract belief or theological conjecture.

I would add that mature Islam beautifully parallels the Franciscan and Christian contemplative emphasis on orthopraxy (right practice) and the importance of nondual consciousness. For our jihad to be nonviolent and transformative, our actions must be rooted in an inner experience of love and communion—what we call contemplation. Opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to union takes lifelong practice.

Richard Rohr: Walk Gently on the Earth

When we are secure and confident in our oneness—knowing that all are created in God’s image and are equally beloved—differences of faith, culture, language, skin color, sexuality, or other trait no longer threaten us. Rather, we seek to understand and honor others and to live in harmony with them.

.. In the Qur’an, the people who opposed Islam when Muhammad began to preach in Mecca are called the kafirum. The usual English translation is extremely misleading: it does not mean “unbeliever” or “infidel”; the root KFR means “blatant ingratitude,” a discourteous and arrogant refusal of something offered with great kindness. . . . They were not condemned for their “unbelief” but for their braying, offensive manner to others, their pride, self-importance, chauvinism, and inability to accept criticism. [2] . . . Above all, they are jahili: chronically “irascible,” acutely sensitive about their honor and prestige, with a destructive tendency to violent retaliation. Muslims are commanded to respond to such abusive behavior with hilm (“forbearance”) and quiet courtesy, leaving revenge to Allah. They must “walk gently on the earth,” and whenever the jahilun insult them, they should simply reply, “Peace.”

.. There was no question of a literal, simplistic reading of scripture. Every single image, statement, and verse in the Qur’an is called an ayah (“sign,” “symbol,” “parable”), because we can speak of God only analogically. The great ayat of the creation and the last judgment are not introduced to enforce “belief,” but they are a summons to action. Muslims must translate these doctrines into practical behavior. The ayah of the last day, when people will find that their wealth cannot save them, should make Muslims examine their conduct here and now: Are they behaving kindly and fairly to the needy? They must imitate the generosity of Allah ..

.. By looking after the poor compassionately, freeing their slaves, and performing small acts of kindness on a daily, hourly basis, Muslims would acquire a responsible, caring spirit, purging themselves of pride and selfishness. By modeling their behavior on that of the Creator, they would achieve spiritual refinement [what I would call growing in God’s likeness].

Mike Pompeo’s evangelical zeal could complicate his new diplomatic life

And it will do so in unexpected ways

.. People who cherish America’s church-state separation like to cite the Tripoli treaty of 1797 between America and the Muslim overlords of North Africa, which assured them that “the government of the USA is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion” and pledged respect for Islam.

Conservative American Christians retort that despite that pact, their country went on to fight two tough wars against those Muslim rulers, who were a threat to American merchant ships—though of course religion may not have been a factor.

.. it was a Democratic and not-very-religious secretary of state, John Kerry, who acknowledged the spiritual by creating an Office of Religion and Global Affairs to help American diplomats engage with faith leaders.

.. For all his reputed hostility to Islam, even President Donald Trump last year praised the rulers of Saudi Arabia for hosting “the holiest places of one of the world’s great faiths”. He must have been hoping his evangelical supporters were not listening.

.. Mr Pompeo comes across as an educated person whose negative ideas about Islam are more thought-through, and hence perhaps more worrisome, than the “visceral, almost incoherent” suspicion of that faith which Mr Trump exuded as a candidate.

.. Watched closely, the video does not show him to believe that all Muslims think that way. What is more striking is the remedy of Christian solidarity he proposes: Islam-inspired terrorists “will continue to press against us until we make sure…we know that Jesus Christ is the only solution for our world.”

.. As a Congressman, he said Muslim leaders who failed to condemn the outrage, and to call it incompatible with Muhammad’s teaching, were “potentially complicit”

.. Mr Pompeo’s record in Congress is the campaign he waged to have the global Islamist movement known as the Muslim Brotherhood formally designated as a terrorist organisation.

.. there is a widespread fear among Muslim-Americans that such a designation would lead to the banning of civil-society groups in America which lobby peacefully against discrimination, on the grounds that they are tainted by alleged links with the Brotherhood.

.. It has been reported that CIA professionals are among those who oppose the move

.. During the Middle Eastern travels of Vice-President Mike Pence, a passionate evangelical, some of the greatest hostility he encountered was from fellow Christians in the region, who felt America’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was unhelpful to peace.

.. He received a rave reception from Jewish members of the Knesset for a speech that was laced with scriptural references; but leaders of traditional Christian churches in the region were unwilling to meet him. Mr Pompeo should anticipate similar shocks.

Billy Graham Built a Movement. Now His Son Is Dismantling It.

If you want to understand the evangelical decline in the United States, look no further than the transition from Billy to Franklin Graham.

.. in 1949, William Randolph Hearst looked at the handsome thirtysomething evangelist with flowing blond hair and famously directed editors in his publishing empire to “puff Graham.”
.. the puffery never stopped.
.. while the nineteenth-century lawyer-turned-evangelist Charles Finney must be credited with inventing modern revivalism, Graham perfected and scaled it, turning evangelicalism into worldwide impulse that has transformed Christianity in recent decades in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
.. But almost two decades ago, Graham handed over the keys of the empire to his son, Franklin. And if you want to chart the troubled recent course of American evangelicalism—its powerful rise after World War II and its surprisingly quick demise in recent years—you need look no further than this father-and-son duo of Billy and Franklin Graham.
  • .. The father was a powerful evangelist who turned evangelicalism into the dominant spiritual impulse in modern America.
  • His son is—not to put too fine a point on it—a political hack, one who is rapidly rebranding evangelicalism as a belief system marked not by faith, hope, and love but by fear of Muslims and homophobia.

..  Graham got into bed with the wrong man in Richard Nixon. And while he must be praised for integrating his revivals (which he called crusades) and for inviting the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to deliver an invocation at his massive New York City crusade in 1957, he was missing in action when it came to civil rights legislation.

.. After King imagined in his 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech” a “beloved community” in which “little black boys and little black girls will join hands with little white boys and white girls,” Graham dismissed that dream as utopian. “Only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children,” he said.

..  ultimately chastened by his chumminess with Nixon

.. worked hard to transcend the racism and anti-Semitism that swirled around him as a farm boy in North Carolina

.. understood (at his best) that the Christian message (at its best) is about love rather than fear, inclusion rather than exclusion.

.. When asked to join in common cause with Jerry Falwell after the foundation of the Moral Majority in 1979, Graham refused to yoke his organization to the cultural wars of the Religious Right and the Republican Party.

.. Shortly after 9/11, Franklin Graham provided the sound bite of today’s culture wars when he denounced Islam as “a very wicked and evil religion.” He later became thestandard bearer for the view that Islam is, in his words “a religion of hatred . . . a religion of war.”

.. In addition to purveying the birther nonsense

.. suggested that President Barack Obama was not a Christian and might in fact be a secret Muslim.

.. he demonstrates no awareness of the ways in which his political pronouncements are breaking down the evangelical witness his father devoted so much energy to building up.

.. During World War II era, European churches were hurt badly by the affiliation of Christianity with right-wing political movements

.. Americans witnessed a powerful religious revival after the war, thanks in part to Billy Graham. That revival is over. Religion is now declining in the United States, and evangelicalism with it

.. the portion of white evangelical Protestants in the United States declined from 23 percent to 17 percent.

.. 27 percent of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and another 18 percent as “neither religious nor spiritual.”

.. There are many reasons for this decline in religious believing and belonging. But the most important in my view is the increasing identification of the Christian churches with right-wing politics.

.. Reinhold Niebuhr, who criticized Graham for his “pietistic individualism” and his neglect of social sin.

.. stuck for the most part to his simpler message that the world would be saved only through individual regeneration.

.. mistake the gospel of Christ for the gospel of American civilization.

.. Graham had a humility almost entirely lost among the public preachers of our day, his eldest son included.

McMaster and the Challenge of Sharia Supremacism

Like his familiar bipartisan Beltway camp, he underestimates the threat.

.. Ms. Rice was in the job because she was simpatico with her boss’s developed worldview; he was not a work-in-progress she was tutoring.

.. That is not how either admirers or detractors on the right view President Trump. He is a transactional actor. Obama was a hard-left ideologue who, in the manner of the breed, pretended to be above and beyond ideology. Trump is an authentic non-ideologue. He goes by instinct, guile, and a degree of self-absorption unusual even inside a Beltway teeming with solipsists.

.. Reluctant Trump backers don’t project; they make the real-world calculation that, in this administration more than any before it, personnel is policy.

You get past your misgivings about Trump because

  • Pence, not Kaine, is one heartbeat away;
  • Gorsuch, not Garland, is on the Supreme Court;
  • Sessions rather than Lynch is at Main Justice;
  • the CIA is run by Pompeo, not Morrell;
  • America’s seat at the U.N. is filled by Nikki Haley, not Anne-Marie Slaughter;
  • the Federalist Society, not the American Constitution Society, is vetting judicial nominees;

and so on.

.. I was as energetic a naysayer on the pact as anyone. That, however, was because I understood that Obama’s objective was to change the facts on the ground so dramatically that no successor could undo the deal.

.. Personally, I would renounce it. I don’t get how the administration can bring itself to reaffirm the deal every 90 days (as the law mandates), since doing so requires saying two things that are not true: Tehran is in compliance, and continuation of the self-defeating arrangement is in our national-security interests.

.. McMaster does not really support the deal — he thinks it’s a lousy commitment we need to hold our nose and honor until we find an advantageous off-ramp.

.. Alas, as I pointed out during and after the campaign, this might be a sign of real resolve; or, in the alternative, Trump might have no idea what he was talking about — it might be another exhibition of his talent to sense the divide between irate Americans and their smug government, and to tell the former what they want to hear.

Islam must be seen either as

  1. a big problem that we have to work around, or
  2. a part of the solution to our security challenge.

I am in the first camp. McMaster seems solidly in the second

.. In the first camp, most of us do not dispute that there are authentically “moderate” interpretations of Islam (non-aggressive is a better descriptor). We recognize, however, that there is a straight-line nexus between Islamic scripture and Muslim aggression and — critically — that this aggression is not only, or even mostly, forcible. That is why “sharia supremacism” is more accurate than “radical Islam,” and by leaps and bounds more accurate than “radical Islamic terrorism.”

“Sharia supremacism” conveys the divine command to implement and spread Islam’s societal framework and legal system. It demonstrates that our quarrel is not with a religion per se but with a totalitarian political ideology with a religious veneer.

McMaster’s familiar bipartisan Beltway camp holds that Islam simply must be good because it is a centuries-old religion that nearly 2 billion people accept. Sure, it has scriptures ill-suited to the modern world, but so does the Bible. Bellicose Muslim scriptures have, in any event, been nullified or “contextualized” to apply only to their seventh-century conditions — just ask anyone at Georgetown . . . even if they don’t seem to have gotten the memo in Riyadh, Tehran, Kabul, Baghdad, the Nile Delta, Peshawar, the Bekaa Valley, Aceh Province, Chechnya, or in swelling precincts of London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Malmö, Copenhagen, Rotterdam, Vienna, or pretty much anyplace else in the West where the Muslim population reaches a critical mass (roughly 5 to 10 percent).

.. Terrorists must, therefore, be understood as perverting the “true Islam” — indeed, they are “anti-Islamic.” In fact, they are best seen as “violent extremists” because Islam is no more prone to instigate aggression than any other religion or ideology taken to an extreme (you know, like those violent extremist Quakers). If more Muslims than other religious believers are committing terrorist crimes, we must assume there are economic and political explanations

.. The principal flaw in the second camp’s reasoning is that, by removing Islam as an ideological catalyst of terrorism, it turns terrorists into wanton killers. With the logic and aims of the violence thereby erased, also concealed is the cultural (or even “civilizational”) aggression spurred by the same ideology. This, in turn, diverts attention from the tenets of that ideology, which are virulently anti-constitutional, anti-Western, anti-Semitic, and corrosive of individual liberty, equality, privacy, free speech, freedom of conscience, and non-violent conflict resolution. To accommodate the ideology in the West is to lose the West.

.. On balance, besides their can-do discipline, modern military officers — especially warrior-scholars in the McMaster, Mattis, Petraeus mold — tend to be politically progressive and prudently cautious about the wages of war.

.. accommodations made to Islamists in places where we have no choice but to deal with them are not accommodations that should be made here at home. On our turf, sharia principles contradict our culture — as evidenced by the Islamists’ perdurable resistance to assimilation (see, e.g., Europe’s parallel societies).

.. accommodations made to Islamists in places where we have no choice but to deal with them are not accommodations that should be made here at home. On our turf, sharia principles contradict our culture — as evidenced by the Islamists’ perdurable resistance to assimilation (see, e.g., Europe’s parallel societies).

Democrats, Start Aiming for the Gut

Donald Trump has swollen.

Every character flaw he had before taking office — from his serial lying to his intellectual laziness to his loyalty just to himself and his needs — has grown only larger and more toxic as he has been president. He seems not to have grown a whit in the job. He has surprised only on the downside — never once challenging his own base with new thinking or appearing to be remotely interested in being president of all the people, not just his base.

What strikes me most about Trump, though, is how easily he still could become more popular — fast — if he just behaved like a normal leader for a month: if he reached out to Democrats on health care, taxes or infrastructure; stopped insulting every newsperson who writes critically about him; stopped lying; stopped tweeting inanities; and actually apologized for some of his most egregious actions and asked for forgiveness. Americans are a forgiving people.

.. Trump connects with these gut issues and takes them in a destructive direction. It’s vital for Democrats to connect with them and take them in a constructive direction.

What issues? Here’s my list:

  1. We can’t take in every immigrant who wants to come here; we need, metaphorically speaking, a high wall that assures Americans we can control our border with a big gate that lets as many people in legally as we can effectively absorb as citizens.
  2. The Muslim world does have a problem with pluralism — gender pluralism, religious pluralism and intellectual pluralism — and suggesting that terrorism has nothing to do with that fact is naïve; countering violent extremism means constructively engaging with Muslim leaders on this issue.
  3. Americans want a president focused on growing the economic pie, not just redistributing it. We do have a trade problem with China, which has reformed and closed instead of reformed and opened. We have an even bigger problem with automation wiping out middle-skilled work and we need to generate more blue-collar jobs to anchor communities.
  4. Political correctness on college campuses has run ridiculously riot. Americans want leaders to be comfortable expressing patriotism and love of country when globalization is erasing national identities. America is not perfect, but it is, more often than not, a force for good in the world.