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Trump’s Destructive Embrace of Mohammed bin Salman

Trump has been in favor of Mohammed bin Salman's destabilizing recklessness precisely because it is destabilizing.
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)

Dexter Filkins has written an extensive profile of Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) that includes some interesting details about the Trump administration’s embrace of the Saudis. This anecdote jumped out at me:

As Kushner knew, M.B.S. was involved in a messy battle over succession to the throne, which American security officials warned might destabilize the kingdom. And M.B.S. had his own ideas about how to remake the Middle East. But, Bannon told me, the message that he and Kushner wanted Trump to convey to the region’s leaders was that the status quo had to change, and in the more places the better [bold mine-DL]. “We said to them—Trump said to them, ‘We’ll support you, but we want action, action,’ ” Bannon said. No one seemed more eager to hear that message than the deputy crown prince. “The judgment was that we needed to find a change agent,” the former defense official told me. “That’s where M.B.S. came in. We were going to embrace him as the change agent.” [bold mine-DL]

Ever since Trump went to Riyadh, the administration has indulged the Saudis in virtually everything and the president has been a reliable booster of the crown prince and his father. This anecdote confirms that and creates the impression that Trump has been in favor of Mohammed bin Salman’s destabilizing recklessness precisely because it is destabilizing. What Bannon refers to as a “change agent” might be more accurately described as an agent of chaos. It is no wonder that MbS has assumed that he had the president’s support across the board.

None of this serves U.S. interests, and it just shows how bad the judgment of Trump and his advisers is that they thought backing MbS to the hilt was the smart move. The U.S. shouldn’t be encouraging any of its clients to engage in destabilizing behavior, and to the extent that it can it ought to be reining them in or cutting off our support for them. Giving a de facto ruler as reckless and inexperienced as MbS a green light to start setting fires in as many places as possible is as foolish as can be and also promises to drag the U.S. into more conflicts that it doesn’t need.

The Qatar crisis is one consequence of backing Mohammed bin Salman as a “change agent.” The profile backs up the claim that the blockade of Qatar received the White House’s support before it happened:

Behind the scenes, there were indications that the plan had been approved at the summit in Riyadh. As the blockade was getting under way, a senior American official received a telephone call just before midnight from Yousef Al Otaiba, the Emirati Ambassador, who told him what was happening. “I was very angry,” the official told me. “I tried to talk him out of it.” When the official complained that the State Department had been given no notice, Otaiba suggested that he’d already announced it to the Administration. “I’ve informed the White House,” he said. A former American intelligence official told me it was inconceivable that the Saudis or the Emiratis would have acted without approval from the U.S. “I think it’s pretty well understood that the White House gave the green light,” the official told me. (A senior Administration official denied this.)

The Saudi-led blockade of Qatar hasn’t compelled Qatar to change its foreign policy in the way that Mohammed bin Salman wanted. The crown prince has shown himself to be adept at breaking things and stirring up trouble, but he has not had any meaningful foreign policy successes to date. There is no reason to think that this will change anytime soon. Trump has foolishly put all of his chips on the success of a ruler who has presided over one messy failure after another, and the wider region will continue to suffer because of it.

The profile is comprehensive and does a reasonably good job of covering the crown prince’s destructive and foolish decisions. The war on Yemen isn’t ignored, but as with most coverage of the war there isn’t any discussion of Saudi and coalition responsibility for war crimes. Indeed the phrase “war crimes” never appears in the profile. There is only one reference to the blockade of Yemen, and the description of the coalition blockade creates the impression that it was imposed only as recently as last fall in response to missile attacks. That misses that the blockade has been in place for the entirety of the war and was tightened in November, and it doesn’t drive home that the world’s worst humanitarian crisis is largely the fault of the coalition because of that years-long blockade.

The scope of the humanitarian crisis is likewise minimized for some reason. The profile says “hundreds of thousands more are facing famine and outbreaks of cholera,” which significantly understates the severity of these crises. There have already been one million cases of cholera reported–more than any similar epidemic on record–and there are more than eight million on the brink of famine with many millions more suffering from severe malnutrition. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is the worst in the world, but Western coverage often omits or gets wrong the basic facts about the severity and size of the crisis. Western coverage of the war on Yemen is infrequent enough as it is that it makes it all the more important to get the facts right when it is mentioned. A profile of the chief authors of Yemen’s misery is the perfect opportunity to highlight the plight of the civilian population there, and unfortunately that didn’t happen.



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