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Tomgram: William Hartung, Trump's Love Affair With the Saudis

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Not that anyone in a position of power seems to notice, but there's a simple rule for American military involvement in the Greater Middle East: once the U.S. gets in, no matter the country, it never truly gets out again. Let's start with Afghanistan. The U.S. first entered the fray there in 1979 via a massive CIA-led proxy war against the Soviets that lasted until the Red Army limped home in 1989. Washington then took more than a decade off until some of the extremists it had once supported launched the 9/11 attacks, after which the U.S. military took on the role abandoned by the Red Army and we all know where that's ended -- or rather not ended almost 16 years later. In the "longest war" in American history, the Pentagon, recently given a free hand by President Trump, is reportedly planning a new mini-surge of nearly 4,000 U.S. military personnel into that country to "break the stalemate" there. Ever more air strikes and money will be part of the package. All told, we're talking about a quarter-century of American war in Afghanistan that shows no sign of letting up (or of success). It may not yet be a "hundred-years' war," but the years are certainly piling up.

Then, of course, there's Iraq where you could start counting the years as early as 1982, when President Ronald Reagan's administration began giving autocrat Saddam Hussein's military support in his war against Iran. You could also start with the first Gulf War of 1990-1991 when, on the orders of President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. military triumphantly drove Saddam's army out of Kuwait. Years of desultory air strikes, sanctions, and other war-like acts ended in George W. Bush's sweeping invasion and occupation of Iraq in the spring of 2003, a disaster of the first order. It punched a hole in the oil heartlands of the Middle East and started us down the path to, among other things, ISIS and so to Iraq War 3.0 (or perhaps 4.0), which began as an air campaign in August 2014 and has yet to end. In the process, Syria was pulled into the mix and U.S. efforts there are still ratcheting up almost two years later. In the case of Iraq, we're minimally talking about almost three decades of intermittent warfare, still ongoing.

And then, of course, there's Somalia. You remember the Blackhawk Down incident in 1993, don't you? That was a lesson for the ages, right? Well, in 2017, the Trump administration is sending more advisers and trainers to that land (and the U.S. military has recently suffered its first combat death there since 1993). U.S. military activities, including drone strikes, are visibly revving up at the moment. And don't forget Libya, where the Obama administration (along with NATO) intervened in 2011 to overthrow autocrat Muammar Gaddafi and where the U.S. military is still involved more than six years later.

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Last but hardly least is Yemen. The first U.S. special ops and CIA personnel moved into a "counter-terrorism camp" there in late 2001, part of a $400 million deal with the government of then-strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the CIA conducted its very first drone assassination in that country in November 2002. Almost 16 years later, as TomDispatch regular Bill Hartung reports, the U.S. is supporting a grim Saudi air and ground war of terror there, while its own drone strikes have risen to new highs.

It's a remarkable record and one to keep in mind as you consider Hartung's account of President Trump's fervent decision to back the Saudis in a big league way not just in their disastrous Yemeni war, but in their increasingly bitter campaign against regional rival Iran. After so many decades of nearly unending conflict leading only to more of the same and greater chaos, you might wonder whether an alarm bell will ever go off in Washington when it comes to the U.S. military and war in the Greater Middle East -- or is Iran next? Tom

Destabilizing the Middle East (Yet More)
The Saudi Regime Is Playing Donald Trump With Potentially Disastrous Consequences
By William D. Hartung

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At this point, it's no great surprise when Donald Trump walks away from past statements in service to some impulse of the moment. Nowhere, however, has such a shift been more extreme or its potential consequences more dangerous than in his sudden love affair with the Saudi royal family. It could in the end destabilize the Middle East in ways not seen in our lifetimes (which, given the growing chaos in the region, is no small thing to say).

Trump's newfound ardor for the Saudi regime is a far cry from his past positions, including his campaign season assertion that the Saudis were behind the 9/11 attacks and complaints, as recently as this April, that the United States was losing a "tremendous amount of money" defending the kingdom. That was yet another example of the sort of bad deal that President Trump was going to set right as part of his "America First" foreign policy.

Given this background, it came as a surprise to pundits, politicians, and foreign policy experts alike when the president chose Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, as the very first stop on his very first overseas trip. This was clearly meant to underscore the importance his administration was suddenly placing on the need to bolster the long-standing U.S.-Saudi alliance.

Mindful of Trump's vanity, the Saudi government rolled out the red carpet for our narcissist-in-chief, lining the streets for miles with alternating U.S. and Saudi flags, huge images of which were projected onto the Ritz Carlton hotel where Trump was staying. (Before his arrival, in a sign of the psychological astuteness of his Saudi hosts, the hotel projected a five-story-high image of Trump himself onto its fa├žade, pairing it with a similarly huge and flattering photo of the country's ruler, King Salman.) His hosts also put up billboards with pictures of Trump and Salman over the slogan "together we prevail." What exactly the two countries were to prevail against was left open to interpretation. It is, however, unlikely that the Saudis were thinking about Trump's much-denounced enemy, ISIS -- given that Saudi planes, deep into a war in neighboring Yemen, have rarelyjoined Washington's air war against that outfit. More likely, what they had in mind was their country's bitter regional rival Iran.

The agenda planned for Trump's stay included an anti-terrorism summit attended by 50 leaders from Arab and Muslim nations, a concert by country singer Toby Keith, and an exhibition game by the Harlem Globetrotters. Then there were the strange touches like President Trump, King Salman, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi laying hands on a futuristically glowing orb -- images of which then circled the planet -- in a ceremony inaugurating a new Global Center for Combatting Extremist Ideology, and Trump's awkward participation in an all-male sword dance.

Unsurprisingly enough, the president was pleased with the spectacle staged in his honor, saying of the anti-terrorism summit in one of his many signature flights of hyperbole, "There has never been anything like it before, and perhaps there never will be again."

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Here, however, is a statement that shouldn't qualify as hyperbole: never have such preparations for a presidential visit paid such quick dividends. On arriving home, Trump jumped at the chance to embrace a fierce Saudi attempt to blockade and isolate its tiny neighbor Qatar, the policies of whose emir have long irritated them. The Saudis claimed to be focused on that country's alleged role in financing terrorist groups in the region (a category they themselves fit into remarkably well). More likely, however, the royal family wanted to bring Qatar to heel after it failed to jump enthusiastically onto the Saudi-led anti-Iranian bandwagon.

Trump, who clearly knew nothing about the subject, accepted the Saudi move with alacrity and at face value. In his normal fashion, he even tried to take credit for it, tweeting, "During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar -- look!" And according to Trump, the historic impact of his travels hardly stopped there. As he also tweeted: "So good to see Saudi Arabia visit with the King and 50 countries paying off... Perhaps it will be the beginning of the end of the horror of terrorism."

Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution hit the nail on the head when he commented that "the Saudis played Donald Trump like a fiddle. He unwittingly encouraged their worst instincts toward their neighbors." The New York Times captured one likely impact of the Saudi move against Qatar when it reported, "Analysts said Mr. Trump's public support for Saudi Arabia... sent a chill through other Gulf States, including Oman and Kuwait, for fear that any country that defies the Saudis or the United Arab Emirates could face ostracism as Qatar has."

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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