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Credulous Pundits and Foreign ‘Reformers’

Daniel DePetris chides the foreign policy pundits that got Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman so wrong:

And as with the rest of the foreign policy establishment in the Beltway, Friedman’s non-apology will be enough. He will continue to be invited to conferences the world over, continue writing columns for America’s paper of record, and continue selling books at a record clip. The media will continue to book him as a renowned foreign policy expert, despite his dubious track record in offering advice.

Meanwhile, Tom Friedman isn’t done making excuses for his shoddy analysis, and so this week he offers…more shoddy analysis:

It had nothing to do with M.B.S. personally. Personally, I don’t care if Saudi Arabia is ruled by M.B.S., S.O.S. or K.F.C.

It had to do with how I defined our most important national interest in Saudi Arabia since 9/11. And it is not oil, it’s not arms sales, it’s not standing up to Iran. It’s Islamic religious reform, which can come only from Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.

It is fitting that Friedman’s defense of his past enthusiasm for the crown prince should rely on making such an absurd assertion. The Saudi government happens to control Mecca and Medina, but that doesn’t endow the state or the country with any special authority or wisdom to promote religious reform for all of Islam. There is no particular reason why such reform would have to come from Saudi Arabia, and based on the history of the country there is no good reason to expect that it would. We can see why Friedman proved to be such a pushover for Mohammed bin Salman’s charm offensive. All that the crown prince had to do was make the right noises about “moderate” Islam, and Friedman immediately bought into everything else he said. In addition to whitewashing the record of a war criminal, Friedman demonstrated that he would take everything a Saudi royal told him at face value and then attach great significance to it because it was exactly what he wanted to hear.

I said this about Friedman and the other fans of the crown prince earlier this year:

When Western pundits are this credulous about a foreign leader, they are almost always kidding themselves and end up being misled at the same time that they mislead their readers. At best, this is unreasonably positive spin masquerading as analysis, and at worst it is just naked propagandizing on behalf of a foreign government.

The bigger problem for our foreign policy debates is that there is a constant demand for such spin on behalf of foreign governments and leaders. There appears to be no real penalty for serving as their cheerleaders. Ten years ago, many of the usual suspects were feting Saakashvili as a great democrat while ignoring his authoritarian tendencies and recklessness, and in another ten years we will be treated to the same excessive praise for some new “reformer” who just happens to have the “right” enemies in some other part of the world. Just as each new insurgency gets reinvented as a “moderate” opposition that deserves U.S. backing, there will always be some up-and-coming political figure that will be remade into a heroic “reformer” because he is sufficiently hostile towards one of his neighbors. This will keep happening as long as the U.S. maintains close ties with clients that have little or nothing to do with U.S. interests and as long as our government takes sides in regional rivalries. The shoddy analysis from pundits is just a symptom of our excessive and unwise entanglements in the conflicts of other nations.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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