Blogs: Paul Pillar

How John Bolton Handles Diverse Viewpoints and Expert Analysis

Saudi Fragility, and Why MbS Is No Ataturk

Paul Pillar

MbS plays the anti-Iran theme to the hilt.  In an interview with 60 Minutes, he talked about what an open and modern place Saudi Arabia supposedly was before 1979, and that he wants to return the country to what it allegedly was before four decades of darkness.  The event in 1979 that did have some darkening effects was the takeover by Sunni extremists of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, after which the Saudi regime made concessions to hardline religious conservatives regarding such matters as education and acceptable dress.  But the association MbS wants to encourage was with another event of 1979: the Iranian revolution—as if that revolution were responsible for the excesses of the religious police in Saudi Arabia.  In misrepresenting the actual, already mostly closed and backward, social atmosphere in pre-1979 Saudi Arabia, MbS has resorted to falsehoods, such as asserting that Saudi women were allowed to drive cars back then.

MbS also, in the 60 Minutes interview and on other occasions, has invoked the Nazi analogy, describing Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei as “the new Hitler”.  Like most invocations of that analogy, it is not only misleading but a trivialization of what the real Nazis did.  It also is rather rich coming from a leader of the Saudi regime, given—as Simon Henderson reminds us—that regime’s history of having some rather cordial relations with the real Hitler.

A strain of opinion in the United States is ready to overlook such history, just as it overlooks Trump’s softness toward some expressions of anti-Semitism in America, if part of the deal is support for the right-wing government of Israel notwithstanding the festering Palestinian problem.  Thus we hear praise for MbS's self-described reforms from quarters that usually are guided by that standard of supporting whatever and whoever supports the Israeli government.

The heavy dependence of MbS on U.S. backing—unmatched, especially in the era of shale oil, by any comparable degree of U.S. dependence on Saudi Arabia—implies significant U.S. leverage that could be used to protect and advance U.S. interests.  Unfortunately, that leverage is not being used.  Part of the problem may be the bromance between the inexperienced 30-somethings, MbS and Jared Kushner, with Kushner appearing to exert major influence on the Trump administration’s dealings with Saudi Arabia without even having a full security clearance.  The biggest immediate problem is the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen, where the administration does not seem to want to protect U.S. equities in the face of Riyadh’s persistence in folly.  It was inexcusable for the Trump administration to oppose a resolution on Yemen, which was defeated this week in a vote in the Senate, that would have affirmed the constitutional prerogative of the Congress to determine when and where the United States goes to war.

That’s one of the biggest immediate problems in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.  Over the long term is the hazard of becoming hitched so closely to a leader whose political future, along with the future of his vaunted reform program, is problematic.  Besides the immense political, social, and religious hurdles to that program’s success are serious questions about whether the program is even well-designed and whether its economic goals are realistic.

As a reminder of the hazards of such hitching, let us not forget the shah of Iran.  He, like MbS, was a self-styled modernizer, with his “White Revolution”.  He, too, was an heir rather than a founder of a dynasty founded only in the twentieth century.  He, too, became heavily dependent on the United States.  He also was not anything like Ataturk.

And Ataturk probably never had to lock up his own mother.

Image: A muslim pilgrim visits Mount Al-Noor, where Muslims believe Prophet Mohammad received the first words of the Koran through Gabriel in the Hera cave, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

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Trump's and Pompeo's Path to Nuclear Crisis

Paul Pillar

MbS plays the anti-Iran theme to the hilt.  In an interview with 60 Minutes, he talked about what an open and modern place Saudi Arabia supposedly was before 1979, and that he wants to return the country to what it allegedly was before four decades of darkness.  The event in 1979 that did have some darkening effects was the takeover by Sunni extremists of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, after which the Saudi regime made concessions to hardline religious conservatives regarding such matters as education and acceptable dress.  But the association MbS wants to encourage was with another event of 1979: the Iranian revolution—as if that revolution were responsible for the excesses of the religious police in Saudi Arabia.  In misrepresenting the actual, already mostly closed and backward, social atmosphere in pre-1979 Saudi Arabia, MbS has resorted to falsehoods, such as asserting that Saudi women were allowed to drive cars back then.

MbS also, in the 60 Minutes interview and on other occasions, has invoked the Nazi analogy, describing Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei as “the new Hitler”.  Like most invocations of that analogy, it is not only misleading but a trivialization of what the real Nazis did.  It also is rather rich coming from a leader of the Saudi regime, given—as Simon Henderson reminds us—that regime’s history of having some rather cordial relations with the real Hitler.

A strain of opinion in the United States is ready to overlook such history, just as it overlooks Trump’s softness toward some expressions of anti-Semitism in America, if part of the deal is support for the right-wing government of Israel notwithstanding the festering Palestinian problem.  Thus we hear praise for MbS's self-described reforms from quarters that usually are guided by that standard of supporting whatever and whoever supports the Israeli government.

The heavy dependence of MbS on U.S. backing—unmatched, especially in the era of shale oil, by any comparable degree of U.S. dependence on Saudi Arabia—implies significant U.S. leverage that could be used to protect and advance U.S. interests.  Unfortunately, that leverage is not being used.  Part of the problem may be the bromance between the inexperienced 30-somethings, MbS and Jared Kushner, with Kushner appearing to exert major influence on the Trump administration’s dealings with Saudi Arabia without even having a full security clearance.  The biggest immediate problem is the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen, where the administration does not seem to want to protect U.S. equities in the face of Riyadh’s persistence in folly.  It was inexcusable for the Trump administration to oppose a resolution on Yemen, which was defeated this week in a vote in the Senate, that would have affirmed the constitutional prerogative of the Congress to determine when and where the United States goes to war.

That’s one of the biggest immediate problems in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.  Over the long term is the hazard of becoming hitched so closely to a leader whose political future, along with the future of his vaunted reform program, is problematic.  Besides the immense political, social, and religious hurdles to that program’s success are serious questions about whether the program is even well-designed and whether its economic goals are realistic.

As a reminder of the hazards of such hitching, let us not forget the shah of Iran.  He, like MbS, was a self-styled modernizer, with his “White Revolution”.  He, too, was an heir rather than a founder of a dynasty founded only in the twentieth century.  He, too, became heavily dependent on the United States.  He also was not anything like Ataturk.

And Ataturk probably never had to lock up his own mother.

Image: A muslim pilgrim visits Mount Al-Noor, where Muslims believe Prophet Mohammad received the first words of the Koran through Gabriel in the Hera cave, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

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The Korea Talks and Why Policy Processes Matter

Paul Pillar

MbS plays the anti-Iran theme to the hilt.  In an interview with 60 Minutes, he talked about what an open and modern place Saudi Arabia supposedly was before 1979, and that he wants to return the country to what it allegedly was before four decades of darkness.  The event in 1979 that did have some darkening effects was the takeover by Sunni extremists of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, after which the Saudi regime made concessions to hardline religious conservatives regarding such matters as education and acceptable dress.  But the association MbS wants to encourage was with another event of 1979: the Iranian revolution—as if that revolution were responsible for the excesses of the religious police in Saudi Arabia.  In misrepresenting the actual, already mostly closed and backward, social atmosphere in pre-1979 Saudi Arabia, MbS has resorted to falsehoods, such as asserting that Saudi women were allowed to drive cars back then.

MbS also, in the 60 Minutes interview and on other occasions, has invoked the Nazi analogy, describing Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei as “the new Hitler”.  Like most invocations of that analogy, it is not only misleading but a trivialization of what the real Nazis did.  It also is rather rich coming from a leader of the Saudi regime, given—as Simon Henderson reminds us—that regime’s history of having some rather cordial relations with the real Hitler.

A strain of opinion in the United States is ready to overlook such history, just as it overlooks Trump’s softness toward some expressions of anti-Semitism in America, if part of the deal is support for the right-wing government of Israel notwithstanding the festering Palestinian problem.  Thus we hear praise for MbS's self-described reforms from quarters that usually are guided by that standard of supporting whatever and whoever supports the Israeli government.

The heavy dependence of MbS on U.S. backing—unmatched, especially in the era of shale oil, by any comparable degree of U.S. dependence on Saudi Arabia—implies significant U.S. leverage that could be used to protect and advance U.S. interests.  Unfortunately, that leverage is not being used.  Part of the problem may be the bromance between the inexperienced 30-somethings, MbS and Jared Kushner, with Kushner appearing to exert major influence on the Trump administration’s dealings with Saudi Arabia without even having a full security clearance.  The biggest immediate problem is the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen, where the administration does not seem to want to protect U.S. equities in the face of Riyadh’s persistence in folly.  It was inexcusable for the Trump administration to oppose a resolution on Yemen, which was defeated this week in a vote in the Senate, that would have affirmed the constitutional prerogative of the Congress to determine when and where the United States goes to war.

That’s one of the biggest immediate problems in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.  Over the long term is the hazard of becoming hitched so closely to a leader whose political future, along with the future of his vaunted reform program, is problematic.  Besides the immense political, social, and religious hurdles to that program’s success are serious questions about whether the program is even well-designed and whether its economic goals are realistic.

As a reminder of the hazards of such hitching, let us not forget the shah of Iran.  He, like MbS, was a self-styled modernizer, with his “White Revolution”.  He, too, was an heir rather than a founder of a dynasty founded only in the twentieth century.  He, too, became heavily dependent on the United States.  He also was not anything like Ataturk.

And Ataturk probably never had to lock up his own mother.

Image: A muslim pilgrim visits Mount Al-Noor, where Muslims believe Prophet Mohammad received the first words of the Koran through Gabriel in the Hera cave, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

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Entertaining Our Way into Falsehoods

Paul Pillar

MbS plays the anti-Iran theme to the hilt.  In an interview with 60 Minutes, he talked about what an open and modern place Saudi Arabia supposedly was before 1979, and that he wants to return the country to what it allegedly was before four decades of darkness.  The event in 1979 that did have some darkening effects was the takeover by Sunni extremists of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, after which the Saudi regime made concessions to hardline religious conservatives regarding such matters as education and acceptable dress.  But the association MbS wants to encourage was with another event of 1979: the Iranian revolution—as if that revolution were responsible for the excesses of the religious police in Saudi Arabia.  In misrepresenting the actual, already mostly closed and backward, social atmosphere in pre-1979 Saudi Arabia, MbS has resorted to falsehoods, such as asserting that Saudi women were allowed to drive cars back then.

MbS also, in the 60 Minutes interview and on other occasions, has invoked the Nazi analogy, describing Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei as “the new Hitler”.  Like most invocations of that analogy, it is not only misleading but a trivialization of what the real Nazis did.  It also is rather rich coming from a leader of the Saudi regime, given—as Simon Henderson reminds us—that regime’s history of having some rather cordial relations with the real Hitler.

A strain of opinion in the United States is ready to overlook such history, just as it overlooks Trump’s softness toward some expressions of anti-Semitism in America, if part of the deal is support for the right-wing government of Israel notwithstanding the festering Palestinian problem.  Thus we hear praise for MbS's self-described reforms from quarters that usually are guided by that standard of supporting whatever and whoever supports the Israeli government.

The heavy dependence of MbS on U.S. backing—unmatched, especially in the era of shale oil, by any comparable degree of U.S. dependence on Saudi Arabia—implies significant U.S. leverage that could be used to protect and advance U.S. interests.  Unfortunately, that leverage is not being used.  Part of the problem may be the bromance between the inexperienced 30-somethings, MbS and Jared Kushner, with Kushner appearing to exert major influence on the Trump administration’s dealings with Saudi Arabia without even having a full security clearance.  The biggest immediate problem is the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen, where the administration does not seem to want to protect U.S. equities in the face of Riyadh’s persistence in folly.  It was inexcusable for the Trump administration to oppose a resolution on Yemen, which was defeated this week in a vote in the Senate, that would have affirmed the constitutional prerogative of the Congress to determine when and where the United States goes to war.

That’s one of the biggest immediate problems in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.  Over the long term is the hazard of becoming hitched so closely to a leader whose political future, along with the future of his vaunted reform program, is problematic.  Besides the immense political, social, and religious hurdles to that program’s success are serious questions about whether the program is even well-designed and whether its economic goals are realistic.

As a reminder of the hazards of such hitching, let us not forget the shah of Iran.  He, like MbS, was a self-styled modernizer, with his “White Revolution”.  He, too, was an heir rather than a founder of a dynasty founded only in the twentieth century.  He, too, became heavily dependent on the United States.  He also was not anything like Ataturk.

And Ataturk probably never had to lock up his own mother.

Image: A muslim pilgrim visits Mount Al-Noor, where Muslims believe Prophet Mohammad received the first words of the Koran through Gabriel in the Hera cave, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

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