There are too many unanswered questions about the White House’s role in advancing Saudi ambitions.
Jared Kushner slipped quietly into Saudi Arabia this week for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, so the question I’m trying to get the White House to answer is this: Did they discuss American help for a Saudi nuclear program?
Of all the harebrained and unscrupulous dealings of the Trump administration in the last two years, one of the most shocking is a Trump plan to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia that could be used to make nuclear weapons.
Even as President Trump is trying to denuclearize North Korea and Iran, he may be helping to nuclearize Saudi Arabia. This is abominable policy tainted by a gargantuan conflict of interest involving Kushner.
Kushner’s family real estate business had been teetering because of a disastrously overpriced acquisition he made of a particular Manhattan property called 666 Fifth Avenue, but last August a company called Brookfield Asset Management rescued the Kushners by taking a 99-year lease of the troubled property — and paying the whole sum of about $1.1 billion up front.
Alarm bells should go off: Brookfield also owns Westinghouse Electric, the nuclear services business trying to sell reactors to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi swamp, meet American swamp.
It may be conflicts like these, along with even murkier ones, that led American intelligence officials to refuse a top-secret security clearance for Kushner. The Times reported Thursday that Trump overruled them to grant Kushner the clearance.
This nuclear reactor mess began around the time of Trump’s election, when a group of retired U.S. national security officials put together a plan to enrich themselves by selling nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia. The officials included Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, and they initially developed a “plan for 40 nuclear power plants” in Saudi Arabia, according to a report from the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The plan is now to start with just a couple of plants.
As recently as Feb. 12, Trump met in the White House with backers of the project and was supportive, Reuters reported.
No one knows whether Prince Muhammed will manage to succeed his father and become the next king, for there is opposition and the Saudi economic transformation he boasts of is running into difficulties.
Trump and Kushner seem to be irresponsibly trying to boost the prince’s prospects, increasing the risk that an unstable hothead will mismanage the kingdom for the next 50 years. Perhaps with nuclear weapons.
The U.S. has leverage over Riyadh. Let’s use it.
In fact, I’ve felt reasonably safe in Saudi Arabia. Officials were respectful and courteous even when I was painfully frank. But people also seemed more afraid to speak to a journalist than before, and mingled with the oppressiveness, there was an aggrieved nationalism in the air.
.. Senior Saudis privately accept that M.B.S. ordered Khashoggi’s death but insist that the Saudi-U.S. relationship is more important than one man’s life. For the sake of stability in the region, they say, America should stand by Saudi Arabia.
To which my answer is: The problem is not only that M.B.S. is a murderer, but also that he has destabilized the region, starved Yemeni children and undermined the interests of Saudi Arabia and the United States alike. Everything he touches, he breaks.
President Trump and Jared Kushner have placed their bets on the prince, and in a narrow sense they may be right. King Faisal managed to oust his incompetent predecessor, King Saud, in 1964, but I saw no sign that M.B.S. is in jeopardy of losing power.
My most interesting interaction was with a group of young professionals who believe that I am getting it all wrong.
“I don’t know why the media focuses on the bad side,” protested Tariq Buhilaigah, a consultant in Riyadh. Sure there have been missteps, he said, but the most important things going on are the modernization of the country and the diversification of the economy away from oil.
.. But modernity isn’t just about cappuccinos and iPhone apps; it’s also about human dignity and the rule of law. While M.B.S. is bringing social progress, he’s also reckless, oppressive and brutal, and I am skeptical of his economic competence. He hasn’t even been able to organize an initial public offering for Aramco.
Trump’s bizarre defense of the prince reflects what has been wrong with the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It has become all transactional. The Saudis have treated us like body guards, and we have treated them like gas station attendants.
I suspect the real reason Trump and Kushner embrace M.B.S., aside from the hope that he will back their Middle East peace plan, is business: the belief that Saudis will invest in their personal real estate projects for decades to come.
The truth is that as Saudi Arabia’s significance as an oil producer diminishes, we need Saudi Arabia less. In 25 years, if we’re freed from the tyranny of imported oil, we may not need it at all.
Some Saudis kept trying to suggest to me that if we block weapons sales to Riyadh, the kingdom will turn to Moscow. That’s absurd. It needs our spare parts and, more important, it buys our weapons because they come with an implicit guarantee that we will bail the Saudis out militarily if they get in trouble with Iran.
Saudi Arabia on Monday delivered a rebuke to the U.S. Senate for passing a resolution that blamed the kingdom’s crown prince for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a rare criticism by Riyadh for its most important ally.
The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the Senate’s conclusion that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the killing as based on “unsubstantiated claims and allegations.” The rebuttal used unusually blunt language for a diplomatic communiqué, showing how the Khashoggi killing has inflamed tensions between Saudi Arabia and much of Washington’s establishment.“The kingdom categorically rejects any interference in its internal affairs,” the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. “And any attempts to undermine its sovereignty or diminish its stature.”The Saudi government has vowed to hold the perpetrators of the Oct. 2 murder accountable and repeatedly denied that Prince Mohammed knew about the operation that led to the death of Mr. Khashoggi—a critic of the Saudi government and a Washington Post columnist—inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.But while the Trump administration has defended the crown prince, arguing there is no direct link between him and the murder, hostility toward Saudi Arabia is mounting in Congress and goes beyond the Khashoggi killing.
The Senate on Thursday also passed a resolution with bipartisan support calling for the U.S. to withdraw its backing for the Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen. The measure, opposed by House Republicans, is unlikely to affect U.S. military policy in the region for now. The Senate is separately reviewing a bill that would halt weapons sales to the kingdom.
In a classified assessment, the CIA determined that, in the hours before and after the journalist’s death, the crown prince sent at least 11 messages to a top aide who oversaw the operation, The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.It also highlighted areas of bilateral cooperation, including the kingdom’s role in
- keeping oil prices stable and
- countering Iran in the Middle East.
What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.
Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.
.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.
.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.
.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.
Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.
.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.
When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.
A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.
.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.