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Washington’s Shameful Fondness for Saudi Arabia

President Trump’s state visit to Riyadh and his actions there should deeply trouble all Americans. The president not only inked a deal to sell the Kingdom $110 billion [1] in U.S. armaments, but he greatly intensified the overall security relationship. He proposed a Middle East version of NATO [2]—a thinly disguised, Saudi-led alliance against Iran—and indicated that there would be strong U.S. backing for that association. Trump also celebrated the establishment in Riyadh of a global center to combat extremism [3].

It is difficult to justify those measures on the basis of rational U.S. security calculations. It is impossible to do so on the basis of any decent moral considerations. Unfortunately, President Trump is perpetuating and intensifying an extremely questionable bilateral relationship that has gone on for decades.

Saudi Arabia is an exceptionally duplicitous power that cannot be considered a U.S. ally, much less a friend. Indeed, given the Kingdom’s track record of promoting Islamic radicalism, building a center to combat global extremism in Riyadh is akin to having placed a center to combat fascism in 1930s Rome or Berlin. As Malou Innocent and I document in our book, Dubious Partners [4], the Saudi regime abets extremism in multiple ways. Riyadh has funded schools (madrassa) in various Muslim countries for decades to promote the Wahhabi religious cult that has intimate ties with the royal family. Wahhabi clerics indoctrinate youth in a most virulent anti-Western perspective.  

Numerous analysts have noted that 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9-11 were Saudi nationals, but that was hardly the extent of Riyadh’s culpability. Some Saudi officials had at least a disturbingly tolerant relationship with Al Qaeda for years before those terrorist attacks. And the promotion of armed extremist groups did not begin or end with that association. As early as the 1980s, Riyadh made a concerted effort, in collusion with Pakistan, to make sure that the bulk of the financial and military assistance that Washington was providing Afghan insurgents resisting the Soviet occupation went to the most extreme Islamist factions. More recently, Riyadh backed [5] extremist forces [6] trying to unseat the governments of Iraq and Syria. Some of those groups eventually coalesced to form ISIS.

In terms of moral considerations, Washington’s de facto alliance with Saudi Arabia is even less justified. Riyadh has a dreadful human-rights record [7], not only treating women and religious minorities in a shabby fashion, but routinely imprisoning and executing even peaceful critics of the regime. The Saudi-led war in Yemen has been characterized by deliberate attacks on civilians and an assortment of other war crimes, including the use of banned cluster bombs [8]. Washington’s willingness to endorse Riyadh’s military campaign, and even provide logistical support to it, makes America an accomplice [9] in those atrocities [10].

Some of the U.S. emphasis on close ties with Saudi Arabia reflects the ongoing American obsession with viewing Iran as a mortal threat to stability in the Middle East. That simplistic perspective misconstrues the nature of a Sunni-Shiite struggle for dominance [11] in the region. Washington has always favored Saudi Arabia in that contest, but Trump’s actions makes the bias far more pronounced. That is a mistake on both a strategic and a moral level. There are far more Sunnis than Shiites in the Middle East, and thanks to Saudi Arabia, there are also even more Sunni extremists than Shiite extremists. The United States should not have a dog in an Iranian-Saudi fight, but if the Trump administration felt it had to pick a side, it probably chose the wrong one. Fostering an Arab NATO puts America in the middle of not only the current Sunni-Shiite struggle, but even more long-standing Arab-Persian tensions. Moreover, tilting toward the stronger side is counterproductive if Washington’s goal is greater stability. It is as myopic as if Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had decided to tilt toward the Soviet Union rather than China in that bilateral feud.

Iran is hardly an admirable power, but the U.S. refrain that Tehran is the chief state sponsor of terrorism is overdone. Indeed, given Riyadh’s track record, Saudi Arabia may be a stronger candidate for that title. Domestically, Iran is certainly a repressive society, but it does have some features of openness. Women have a better status there than in the Saudi kingdom, and there are competitive (if constrained) elections featuring candidates with different views [12]. None of that is allowed in Saudi Arabia.

Trump and his advisers seem oblivious to all of this. A key illustration came when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held a joint press conference with the Saudi foreign minister. All American journalists (who might ask the Saudi official probing questions) were excluded [13]. Tillerson spent much of the session condemning Iran for supporting terrorism and practicing repression at home. The secretary admonished the Iranians [14] to withdraw their backing from terrorist groups and move toward greater democracy and freedom domestically.

To criticize Iran for its domestic failings while on the same platform with an official of a totalitarian theocracy was appalling. Saudi Arabia makes Iran, for all its faults and repressive aspects, look like a Jeffersonian democracy. Even if Tillerson had no sense of shame, he should at least have had a sense of irony in lecturing Tehran in the setting he chose.

The close U.S. association with Saudi Arabia has long been a stain on America’s honor. Trump and Tillerson have deepened that stain.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 10 books, the contributing editor of 10 books, and the author of more than 650 articles on international affairs.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Washington’s Shameful Fondness for Saudi Arabia"

#1 Comment By SDS On May 23, 2017 @ 9:51 am

It all makes perfect sense if you consider that now that Mr. Trump is president; he has no need to pretend to support any of the positions he espoused during the campaign. He can now hustle the big boys; and I expect he is doing just that. S.A.,et. al., could easily pay him off in a multitude of ways; mostly passing legal muster; and there’s no one; certainly not his lap-dog Congress; to stop him.
And unless S.A. suddenly loses their wealth; I don’t see how Iran could offer him a big enough bribe for him to change horses at this point.

SAD…..

#2 Comment By Sandra Hershfeld On May 23, 2017 @ 11:38 am

Another “moral” outrage overlooked in this article: Saudi Arabia BANS all Christian churches on its soil, as well as overt Christian worship.
Unlike Iran — which also still has a Jewish diaspora. The only possible Jews in Saudi Arabia would be MOSSAD…

#3 Comment By Eric On May 23, 2017 @ 11:39 am

“Why is Trump expanding the U.S. alliance with the Kingdom?”

Because, on his first day in office, the CIA showed him THEIR film of JFK’s assassination.

#4 Comment By Dennis On May 23, 2017 @ 12:35 pm

And his actions are completely opposite to things Trump has said in the past about Saudi Arabia, both before he was a formal candidate and during the election. Just another sign he has already been corrupted and co-opted by the Washington establishment neo-con agenda.

#5 Comment By Room 237 On May 23, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

What is especially weird about it is that thanks to fracking we no longer really need Saudi oil.

#6 Comment By Phillip Mezzapelle On May 23, 2017 @ 2:08 pm

The Founding Fathers of our country are not turning over in their graves, they are doing somer saults. What more will it take to make the average “joe” on the street to realize that not only are both parties the same, but that they both have sold their soul to the NWO leaders.

#7 Comment By Simon94022 On May 23, 2017 @ 2:25 pm

it is appalling – but not surprising – that Trump gets so little D.C. or media flak for this slavish devotion to the Sunni Muslim powers and his constant lies about Iran.

Meanwhile, in the one area where he has tried to do the right thing — build a constructive, non-adversarial relationship with Russia – he is demonized and even accused of treason.

#8 Comment By Patrick O’Connor On May 23, 2017 @ 2:39 pm

Make America Sunni Again

#9 Comment By Procivic On May 23, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

The meeting in Saudi Arabia was to cement an arms deal and investments in the U.S. If it was aimed at fighting terrorism, Trump’s hosts as well as most of the attendees should have been arrested on the spot

#10 Comment By Fabian On May 23, 2017 @ 3:52 pm

I must that this trip smells like rotten eggs. And I’d also like to hear about the European reaction; Saouds just flushed away $ 100 billion and can’t a refugee from Syria.

#11 Comment By Dean_Sears On May 23, 2017 @ 4:16 pm

I believe this support for Saudi Arabia by Trump is because the Saudis have invested large amounts of money into Trump’s brand name. From booking whole floors of his hotels after the election to donating money to a charity run by Ivanka, it seems that countries like China and Saudi Arabia have found an easy way to win over our President; give him money and make him feel #1.

#12 Comment By balconesfault On May 23, 2017 @ 4:56 pm

Why is Trump expanding the U.S. alliance with the Kingdom?

I’m reminded of the Willie Sutton quote … “because that’s where the money’s at”.

#13 Comment By jk On May 23, 2017 @ 7:39 pm

The saddest or most interesting part is that the Clintonite left and MSM is not even critical of Trump and his warmongering and escalating support of Saudi since Hillary is and would be guilty of all the above.

The anti-war left has been marginalized to the point it is associated with SJW losers.

The weary-of-war Right is more active on that front.

#14 Comment By Gjackson On May 23, 2017 @ 10:24 pm

Mr. Trump has never been an ideologue and is proving to be more pragmatist than populist.

I can’t say he is wrong on this. IMHO, the colossal failure of the last two administrations in their regional policies here was a childlike embrace of the so called, “Arab Spring” and the idea, proven wrong over and over, that there is an alternative between supporting governments like the KSA’s and either, Islamic extremist anarchy or authoritarian regimes who despise us like Syria’s or Iran’s. I would cite Egypt as an example. Mubarak ruled as a corrupt authoritarian for decades, (But valuable US ally.) and yet, we pulled the rug out from under him under the idiotic notion that Egypt would become a democracy. We got the Muslim Brotherhood instead. Don’t like the regime in the KSA? Who exactly do you think will replace the House of Saud if we turn out backs on them as well? I can almost 100% guarantee that it would not be anyone to our liking but would be much more dangerous for us and what few allies we have left there.

#15 Comment By Didi On May 24, 2017 @ 9:00 am

2020 financial rewards from the MIC.

#16 Comment By Thomas Eddlem On May 24, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

But … but … but … they help prop up the U.S. dollar with the Petro-dollar deal.

And that’s all that matters.

#17 Comment By Marino On June 3, 2017 @ 12:38 pm

It is probable that President Trump is utilizing the Muslim tactic of ‘taqquia.’ Makes sense to me.