There is an influential group of pro-Israel think-tank mandarins who ply the Democratic foreign policy circuit. They’re columnists for major newspapers, advisors to Democratic presidents, and ambassadors. There are many in the group who’ve earned their living offering sage advice to a series of U.S. leaders. But in this post I want to focus on Tom Friedman, Dennis Ross and Daniel Shapiro, because they have all raved about the “reforms” of Mohammed bin Salman, but have offered pro forma condemnation of his butchery in Turkey.
The backdrop for all this is Israel’s bi-polar relationship with the Saudis and Iran. In its hysterical pursuit of the demolition of the Iranian regime, Israel cultivated the House of Saud and its authoritarian Sunni allies. Beginning with cooperation on terror operations and sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program, and proceeding to secret meetings coordinating such strategy, and moving to a more open relationship brokered by Jared Kushner and the Trump administration, the two regional powers have all but declared war on Iran. Though no actual military attack has developed yet, this is probably only due to Trump’s unwillingness (so far) to commit to U.S. participation in the scheme.
Given the blossoming bromance between Israel and Saudi Arabia, it’s no accident that these pro-Israel foreign policy mandarins would follow suit. Here is how Susan Glasser in the New Yorker portrayed Friedman’s dabbling in MBS-phoria:
Public scorn, meanwhile, has also been directed at those who shared the Trump Administration’s high regard for the crown prince and hailed him as a modernizing young reformer. The Times columnist Tom Friedman has taken endless grief for his column “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last,” from November, 2017, which was filled with encomiums for M.B.S.
Tom Friedman on criticism of his Mohamed bin Salman article: “fuck that” (the whole clip is really something) pic.twitter.com/vv3psVHzay
— Tom Gara (@tomgara) December 3, 2017
Unfortunately, she omits the worst example of Friedman’s prickly defensiveness regarding MBS. Watch this video in which he curses his critics with an unapologetic “fuck that.” The noblesse oblige of such cruel, cynical disregard for human life (Khashoggi’s) is breathtaking. Friedman has also doubled down with a second column on MBS. In it, he boasts about knowing Khashoggi and mourns his death, but calls only for the “censure” of MBS. Yes, let’s slap the very bad man on the wrist and tell him not to be bad again. Then let him go back to doing all the good things we praised him for before he did all those nasty things.
Friedman appears to believe, like so many westerners before him, that MBS is a brave religious reformer and that his tough love is what will cure the kingdom of its worst flaws. Remember Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush calling for a new age of democracy in the Middle East; and Condi Rice saying that Israel’s 2009 butchery of Lebanon constituted the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” When will these people get through their skulls that it’s delusional to think you can turn the Middle East into an Arab version of Anytown, USA?
Glasser also interviewed another long-time Beltway Democratic functionary, Dennis Ross, who offered some equally noxious palliatives which defended MBS, despite his excesses:
Dennis Ross, the veteran Middle East diplomat who served Presidents of both parties, from George H. W. Bush to Barack Obama, is one of them. Like Friedman, Ross is no Trump apologist, but he wrote effusively about M.B.S.’s reforms, seeing them as a hopeful sign of Western-style moderation, not the centralizing impulse of the rising autocrat M.B.S. has turned out to be. “America should get behind Saudi Arabia’s revolutionary crown prince,” Ross wrote in the Post in February, in an article that has earned him loads of hate tweets this week…
Ross told me that the latest controversy was a reminder of the uncomfortable truth about America’s decades-old alliance with Saudi Arabia: “The relationship with Saudi Arabia has always been based on interests, not values.” Ross said that he still sees M.B.S. as a religious modernizer whose country is a key partner for the United States, but that Trump has postponed an inevitable rebuke by failing to take a tougher line. “This cannot pass without a consequence, not only because of the Saudis but because everybody’s watching,” Ross told me. “You have to have norms, you have to have consequences, you have to show there are behaviors that really can’t be tolerated so this doesn’t become the new normal.”
This is typical Rossism: MBS is a crazy wild-man of the desert. We can’t control him. But despite all that he’s the best thing we’ve got going there so we have to stick with him, within limits. No, that’s precisely the problem with this sort of thinking. It is amoral and based on no guiding principle except cold, hard calculations of power and interest. MBS is all we have, so we have to manage him as best we can and hope he doesn’t do anything else to embarrass us.
The final figure in this Beltway Trinity is Dan Shapiro, who began his political rise as Obama’s Jewish outreach director, later becoming the ambassador to Israel. Currently, he works for an Israeli think tank and writes banal columns for Haaretz. His tweets are equally excruciating to read. His latest, Why the Khashoggi Murder Is a Disaster for Israel, argues that the worst thing about the Khashoggi murder is that it takes our eye off the ball: Iran. Shapiro too has little moral dudgeon for Khashoggi. His death is an unfortunate inconvenience which distracts from the real threat posed by Iran. He mourns this new-found alliance between Israel and the Saudis and its likely demise with the murder of the Saudi journalist. Once again, there are no values or principles here. The murder of a journalist, even one who was a U.S. resident, is a mere traffic bump threatening far more important matters.
Here is how he justifies his amorality:
There are no boy scouts in the Middle East, and the U.S.-Saudi alliance has persisted through decades of repressive Saudi policies against their own people.
Really? Are we calling the beheading and grisly murder of a former Saudi insider as just another example of “decades of repressive Saudi policies?” I don’t remember previous Saudi royals beheading their critics inside foreign embassies. In fact, what has raised this killing above previous Saudi misbehavior is that it crossed all norms of international relations and exceeded the worst that the Saudis have offered in the past. MBS has crossed a Rubicon of blood, while these pro-Israel mavens call him just another Saudi autocrat who’s misbehaved.
American interests could still be served by some of the economic and social reforms that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has championed, and by the advancement of the joint strategic goals of checking Iranian aggression in the region. Those considerations cannot be so easily dismissed.
You want to continue to work with this bloodthirsty killer because he had the potential to make the Saudi trains run on time? Really? As for Iran, if confronting it rests solely on MBS maintaining his role as crown prince, then either there is something wrong with the entire policy or just with the fellow on whom you’ve pinned all your hopes.
My view is that both are rotten: the notion that Israel and the Saudis are going to defang Iran or topple it is a fantasy. The U.S. and Israel have been trying to do this going back to 1979 (Israel came on board some years later). They’ve failed. Obama at least diverged from this scenario in his promising nuclear agreement. Now we are back with the regime change agents like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo running U.S. foreign and military policy. You can be sure they’re planning major military action against Iran; and that it will end disastrously.
Here are a few more equally disturbing tidbits from Shapiro:
His [MBS’] legitimate campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi in Yemen has been prosecuted with total disregard for the vast suffering of civilians it has caused…
Get that? Bombing the crap out of Yemen was OK because those damnable Houthis were armed by Iran. If only MBS had killed a few less civilians or starved a few less babies it might’ve worked. Where have we heard before that a Middle East invasion had the best of intentions and, if prosecuted properly, could have worked?
And this one:
Saudi repression is not new, and perhaps the American political system could accommodate it if it stayed below a certain level of visibility.
Speechless, is all I can say…