The signature triumph of President Trump’s trip to the Middle East was the sale of $110 billion of weapons to a totalitarian, Islamist government that funds terrorism, arrests women for driving, and is deliberately engineering a famine in the region’s poorest country.
Headlines hailed the arms deal as a testament to Trump’s deal-making skills — and to those of his son-in-law. Liberal pundits grudgingly conceded that the president’s trip to the Middle East succeeded on its own terms. Sword dances commenced; orbs were touched.
But like so many other episodes of this reality-TV presidency, Trump’s big sale was a stage-managed stunt. As the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Reidel writes:
I’ve spoken to contacts in the defense business and on the Hill, and all of them say the same thing: There is no $110 billion deal. Instead, there are a bunch of letters of interest or intent, but not contracts. Many are offers that the defense industry thinks the Saudis will be interested in someday. So far nothing has been notified to the Senate for review. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the arms sales wing of the Pentagon, calls them “intended sales.” None of the deals identified so far are new, all began in the Obama administration.
… Moreover, it’s unlikely that the Saudis could pay for a $110 billion deal any longer, due to low oil prices and the two-plus years old war in Yemen. President Obama sold the kingdom $112 billion in weapons over eight years, most of which was a single, huge deal in 2012 negotiated by then-Secretary of Defense Bob Gates … With the fall in oil prices, the Saudis have struggled to meet their payments since.
Trump’s been mounting a Potemkin presidency from day one. The president spent his first weeks in office rebranding various corporations’ months-old expansion plans as deals he personally brokered, and signing executive orders that toothlessly reiterated his campaign promises for crowds of flashing cameras.
But his stunts do seem to be growing more audacious. It takes no small amount of chutzpah to present a list of prospective weapons sales put together by the Obama administration as a landmark agreement that will create “many thousands,” if not many “millions,” of jobs.
And that’s not all Trump says he brought back from his trip to Riyadh. The president also claims that he convinced the Gulf monarchies to stop funding radical sects of Islam.
The idea that Qatar is singularly responsible for financing the spread of intolerant forms of Islam is laughable. Last year, Trump derided the Saudis as “the world’s biggest funders of terrorism.” And for once, his mindless hyperbole wasn’t wholly off base. The Saudis openly export their brand of hateful, literalist Islam across the Middle East, through a network of Wahhabi religious schools.
After visiting countries throughout the Islamic world, the State Department’s former envoy to Muslim communities, Farah Pandith, wrote last year, “If the Saudis do not cease what they are doing, there must be diplomatic, cultural and economic consequences.”
The Saudis have not ceased what they were doing. Instead, according to Brookings, they’ve done this:
Saudi Arabia has orchestrated a campaign to isolate Qatar. This weekend Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt broke relations with Qatar. Saudi allies like the Maldives and Yemen jumped on the bandwagon. Saudi Arabia has closed its land border with Qatar.
This is not the first such spat but it may be the most dangerous. The Saudis and their allies are eager to punish Qatar for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, for hosting Al-Jazeera, and keeping ties with Iran. Rather than a united front to contain Iran, the Riyadh summit’s outcome is exacerbating sectarian and political tensions in the region.
Meanwhile, Trump is taking his false-advertising game to the next level on the home front. On Monday, the president kicked off infrastructure week with a signing ceremony — not for an actual piece of legislation, or even a toothless executive order, but merely for a White House memo:
At an East Room event that was choreographed like the elaborate ceremonies for enacting major legislation, Mr. Trump signed a memo and letter to Congress outlining his principles for overhauling the nation’s air traffic control system. He handed out pens to lawmakers who had been invited to attend, and reveled in several rounds of applause. But Mr. Trump’s announcement did not have any binding effect.
The Trump presidency is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying our nation’s tragicomic decline.