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The Perils of ‘Rooting’ for a Foreign Leader

Whenever Western observers feel as though they ought to "root" for a foreign leader, they ignore the leader's many flaws and bad decisions that they should be taking as warning signs.
Senior White House Adviser Jared Kushner, and his wife, Assistant to the President Ivanka Trump, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus are seen as they arrive with President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump to the Murabba Palace as honored guests of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, Saturday evening, May 20, 2017, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

The shameful spinning for the Saudis doesn’t stop. Here’s John Bradley in The Spectator touting Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) as the “real deal”:

We have a Saudi crown prince who is being more frank about Wahhabi-inspired terrorism than the British. Just last year, the UK government saw fit to suppress a report that found a link between Saudi-funded mosques and Isis-inspired terrorist attacks. It was kept quiet because we didn’t want to upset the Saudis. So not only does bin Salman have a thicker skin than his predecessors, he has inadvertently shone a bright light on the cowardice of our own political leaders.

It really doesn’t take much to impress the crown prince’s fan club. Just think about this argument. Bradley tells us that Mohammed bin Salman deserves credit for being more forthcoming about Wahhabi-inspired terrorism than the British government, and he says we know this because the British government suppressed evidence as recently as a year ago (when MbS was already a leading figure in the Saudi government) that showed a link between Saudi-funded mosques and terrorism. Note that Bradley isn’t saying that MbS is actually cracking down on that funding, nor has the prince actually done anything that would make us think that he disapproves of the British government’s efforts to cover for the Saudis. He said some of the right things, and his overeager admirers believe every word of it.

Bradley allows that some skepticism is “absolutely necessary” when dealing with the Saudis, but then proceeds to cast all skepticism aside. This assertion struck me as especially unwise and premature:

Most importantly, Bin Salman is not hated in the way that the Shah and Mubarak were.

That could be true now, but that doesn’t tell us very much. It is only three years from the start of his father’s reign and less than one year since he was made crown prince. Maybe we should wait until he has been in power more than a few years before we making sweeping assessments of how popular and lasting his future reign will be. It took decades for people to grow to loathe Mubarak to the point where they overthrew him, but eventually they did. It took decades of the Shah’s rule before the revolution occurred, but it happened. There may not be a popular backlash in the near term, but it is far too soon to know. If the crown prince’s reform agenda proves to be much less successful than promised, people in the kingdom might start to tire of him sooner than anyone expects. It is also possible that the crown prince has already made so many internal enemies with his power grabs and purges that he will face a different kind of backlash.

Instead of looking at what the crown prince says or promises to do, we would do well to look at the fruits of the policies he has already supported. He may talk a good game about combating jihadists, but in practice the war that he has presided over for the last three years has strengthened jihadists in Yemen and Saudi policy in Syria has led to the funding and arming of Islamist and jihadist groups. The Saudi government continues to stoke sectarian hatred as part of its foreign policy, and it is through this fueling of sectarian hostility that Mohammed bin Salman has placated Wahhabist clerics at home. Insofar as he is at all serious about changing things at home, the trade-off for that is that the Saudis will continue exporting more fanaticism, misery, and destruction to the rest of the region and perhaps beyond.

We don’t hear anything about this from the crown prince’s Western fans, and as usual we hear nothing from them about the Saudi-led coalition’s own myriad crimes in Yemen. Whenever Western observers feel as though they ought to “root” for a foreign leader, they ignore the leader’s many flaws and bad decisions that they should be taking as warning signs. That causes them to misjudge the leader’s abilities and staying power with sometimes disastrous consequences.