interesting times

Saudi Arabia Is a Brutal Human-Rights Violator — and Trump Appreciates That

Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

It wasn’t so long ago that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia was doing the rounds of various American muckety-mucks in business, politics, and pop culture. On his world tour, the fawning was extraordinary. He met Oprah and the Rock, Bloomberg and the Clintons, Bush after Bush, Gates and Bezos, Hollywood moguls and Wall Street machers, as well as his plutocratic wing man, Jared Kushner. Here was the new face of the Saudis, a reformer, a member of a new generation … well, take it away, Tom Friedman: “[MBS is] a young leader who is driving religious and economic reform, who talks the language of high tech, and whose biggest sin may be that he wants to go too fast.” Then this: “His potential is vast. M.B.S. is trying to forge a societal transformation in Saudi Arabia.” To be fair to Friedman, he also expressed some concerns: about the young prince’s aggressive foreign policy (a.k.a. near-genocidal pulverization of Yemen) and ostentatious wealth. But the general tenor of the public-relations campaign was that of a Saudi spring, especially for women, and a thawing of some of the most repressive theocratic tendencies of the regime.

So it must come as a surprise to all of MBS’s friends in the American elite that this youthful reformer returned from his Western tour and soon launched a new campaign against the very women who had most fervently resisted the theocracy’s misogyny. On May 19, “the Saudi Arabian authorities and government-aligned media launched a public smear campaign to try to discredit six prominent detained women’s rights defenders as ‘traitors’ following their arrest. Official statements in state media accused six activists and one other individual of forming a ‘cell,’ posing a threat to state security for their ‘contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric’.”

This campaign was completed last week with the detention of the last two prominent women’s rights activists, Nassima al-Sada and Samar Badawi. Badawi is the sister of a Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who set up an open forum website and was therefore lashed a thousand times in public and is currently serving a prison term of ten years. Both women have been persecuted for years. Amnesty International notes that “in 2014, [Badawi] was subjected to a travel ban and was also arrested in 2016 for her human rights work … Al-Sada has campaigned for civil and political rights, women’s rights and the rights of the Shi’a minority in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia for many years. She stood in municipal elections in 2015, but was banned from participating.” In response to the latest crackdown, the Canadian government tweeted its concern: “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights advocates in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.” Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, spoke out in part because Raif Badawi’s wife and three kids now live in Canada, and have been citizens since July.

In response, MBS has thrown a hissy fit of Trumpian proportions. The Canadian ambassador was given 24 hours to leave; 15,000 Saudi students in Canada were recalled home; trade with Canada was suspended; an order to sell all Saudi central bank and state pension fund shares in Canadian interests was proclaimed, according to the Financial Times. Saudi subjects receiving medical treatment in Canada are being transferred out of care, and about 800 Saudi medical residents and fellows in Canada have been ordered home. Saudi television channels have been gushing with anti-Canadian invective, and a Saudi propaganda channel tweeted a picture of a large plane heading into the center of Toronto, with the words: “Sticking One’s Nose Where It Doesn’t Belong!” attached to this threat: “As the Arab saying goes: he who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him.” The pièce de résistance of the counterattack was a Saudi assertion that Jordan Peterson is a political prisoner. How’s that for peak 2018?

As a kind of coda to the entire affair, the Saudis decided to, yes, crucify a criminal this week, a rare but gruesome spectacle, in which someone’s executed corpse is hung out in the open as a warning to others. You may remember such scenes from Game of Thrones. But this kind of barbarism still exists — and the regime that behaves this way has our president’s full support, and billions in arms sales.

Then, of course, there is the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The crown prince has been waging a brutal war on the Shi’a of Yemen, the Houthis, in coalition with the U.S. and the U.K. The relentless bombing campaigns — including indiscriminate attacks on civilians — have killed thousands, uprooted more, and generated famine and disease. This week in the horror show saw the Saudi coalition forces bomb a bus of schoolkids, many under the age of 10. A little under 30 children were killed, along with many others, in what the Saudis described as a legitimate military action, after the Houthis, still in charge of Yemen’s capital, landed a missile in a Saudi city. And this record of regional mayhem doesn’t even count the time when MBS decided it would be a great idea to invade Qatar, another U.S. ally.

It’s at this point that you begin to absorb quite how indifferent the Trump administration is to any concept of human rights. Trump’s initial response to the Saudi attacks on Qatar was to endorse them enthusiastically (even as what was left of the State Department tried to keep the peace). And his administration’s response to the Saudi assault on Canada is to take no side in the dispute. Between a barbaric absolute monarchy that jails and tortures dissidents, obliterates women’s opportunity, and crucifies criminals in the streets … and Canada, for Pete’s sake, Trump cannot pick a side. In 2012, the State Department gave Samar Badawi the International Women of Courage Award, but now the State Department will not criticize her arrest. (The U.K. has been miserable in this regard as well.)

Trump, of course, is not the only U.S. president to suck up to the theocratic tyrants in Riyadh. Every previous president has done so, for obvious realpolitik reasons (oil, and the defense of Israel). But the Saudi connection is tighter now. Despite no official relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, MBS and Netanyahu are now joined at the hip with Trump because they all want a war against Iran (and are having considerable success laying the groundwork). The Saudis are also useful to the Israelis as a way to delegitimize any genuine form of Palestinian self-determination — because the Saudis have been prepared to throw their Arab neighbors under the bus in order to fight a regime in Tehran that MBS has said “makes Hitler look good.” Trump’s hatred of Iran and Kushner’s hopes for Israel’s expansion keep this unholy trinity together. The idea that either Trump or his mute dauphin give a hoot about human rights is preposterous. The more brutal a regime’s human rights abuses are, the more likely it is that Trump admires it.

Canada will survive, of course, despite the intense international bullying from the Saudis, and America’s and Britain’s abandonment of their ally. Canada will even survive Trump (though whether America does is another matter). But to watch the West disintegrate as a moral force, even on a purely rhetorical level, is beyond depressing. And yet it appears to be our future. It’s also a much darker one for every dissident in every political prison across the planet.

How Trump Is Beating the Russia Probe

The second-biggest fear I have about the Mueller investigation is that it will indeed show a conspiracy between a foreign government and an American campaign to deploy stolen emails to damage their mutual opponent. My biggest fear is that it will not matter in the slightest. The way in which Trump has driven the narrative on this — with his usual crude, blaring denials — has largely worked to frame the story to his favor. Mickey Kaus, as I recall, once summed up this kind of strategy with the phrase: “I’m not guilty. I’m not guilty. I’m not guilty. It’s old news.” Trump has repeatedly lied and lied and lied again with respect to the Trump Tower meeting and the Don Jr. press statement. But when each lie is exposed, there is no catharsis, no sudden recognition that he’s acted in a treasonous fashion, and clearly broken the law. There is merely a trivial tribal realignment, in which the lie and what the lie was covering up change almost no one’s mind, and the bar for actual malfeasance keeps getting raised so Trump is not guilty of anything. And in our short-attention-span culture, the ability to see all of it in one piece, and to be as shocked by it as we should be (and once were) is attenuated.

Then there is the way Trump has successfully tribalized the entire investigation. Mueller, a lifelong Republican, is really a Democrat, according to Trump’s constant propaganda, in charge of 12 other “Angry Democrats” on his staff. The real collusion was between the Clinton campaign and Russia. It’s a witch hunt. A WITCH HUNT! The FBI is rigged. The CIA is out to get him. And so on. None of this persuades anyone with an open mind — in fact, the multitude of conflicting excuses, deceptions, and accusations suggest someone extremely guilty — but it does keep the 40 percent of the country that is wedded to Trump engaged and angry and suspicious of Mueller enough that there will never be enough votes in the Senate to convict Trump of anything. So he’ll get clean away with whatever crimes he may have committed. He may even benefit from it politically, if it stirs up the base in the run-up to a presidential election.

The only piece of evidence that suggests that justice might indeed be served is that weird new recording of Devin Nunes that Rachel Maddow played last Wednesday night. He seems so so so desperate to keep the House because of the Mueller investigation, you can’t help wondering if he really thinks Mueller could bring down the president: “If Sessions won’t un-recuse and Mueller won’t clear the president, we’re the only ones, which is really the danger. That’s why I keep — and thank you for saying it by the way — I mean, we have to keep all these seats. We have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away.” All of what goes away? But again: it’s going to take a very dramatic revelation of evidence for Mueller to put the skids under Trump. The tribalism is so intense at this point that much of the GOP base would probably support collusion with Russia if the alternative were impeachment or a Democratic president.

All of which means to say that Trump has probably already won the Russia challenge. I say probably, because we simply do not know what Mueller has found out, and perhaps some of it will be so shocking it will change everything. But we may soon be facing the very real possibility that a sitting president will be clearly guilty of conspiring with a foreign government to tamper with a domestic American election … and will face no political or legal consequences. The political system will have effectively declared him above the law. That is not a republic in decline and fall. It is a republic committing suicide.

Corbyn’s Anti-Semitism Debacle

The crisis over anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party appears to be reaching a critical moment. At issue this time is whether the party should adopt the near-universally accepted definition of anti-Semitism, approved by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association, as a way to monitor and discipline Jew-baiting when it emerges among party members. Labour recently did just adopt the definition — but decided not to endorse four of the eleven examples of anti-Semitism cited in the document. It was a revealing set of omissions. Labour did not regard it as anti-Semitic to compare Israel to Nazi Germany; to imply that Jews are more loyal to Israel than their own country; and to deny the Jewish people the right to self-determination.

Given the now countless outbreaks of anti-Semitic rhetoric on the left of the Labour Party, you’d think it would be a no-brainer just to adopt the full definition as a way to begin to regain trust with the Jewish community. When you’re buried in a mountain of anti-Semitism, best not to keep digging. But no. For Corbyn and his inner circle, these were real sticking points. And you can see why: these formulations have become quite common on the far left in the U.K.; if they were adopted, a large number of Labour members would be subject to expulsion (including a large swath of Corbynista Twitter). Corbyn himself, for example, once attended an event on International Holocaust Day with the title: “Never Again For Anyone: From Auschwitz to Gaza.” A Corbyn appointee once criticized the British Ambassador to Israel because he “proclaimed himself to be a Zionist,” whereas he should have had “roots in the U.K.” so that he “can’t be accused of having Jewish loyalty.” Many hard leftists do believe that the creation of the Jewish state was a racist act. And so no decision has yet been taken even though a big majority of Labour MPs want to get this past them, and even though the Labour Party desperately needs to draw a line under this scandal if it is to get a hearing on anything else.

Last Saturday, the deputy-leader of the party, Tom Watson, spoke out. “This is one of those moments when we have to take a long, hard look at ourselves,” Watson said in an interview with the Observer, “stand up for what is right and present the party as fit to lead the nation – or disappear into a vortex of eternal shame and embarrassment.” Twitter was then swamped by Corbynistas deploying the hashtag #ResignWatson. Yesterday, Corbynite Twitter was organizing a protest of the BBC — #BBCswitchoff — for its continuing focus on the issue. But even Corbyn’s closest allies in his activist group, Momentum, are losing patience. Its leader, a veteran Jewish Labourite, Jon Lansman, is putting pressure on Corbyn to give way. Corbyn’s close ally, John McDonnell, is also apparently lobbying for compromise. A meeting will be held in early November where the issue will be settled. According to the Independent, Corbyn is willing to allow the first three examples of anti-Semitism, but is still resisting the fourth. He’s still insisting that to call Zionism racism or to oppose the existence of a Jewish state is not necessarily anti-Semitic.

This tells you something about Corbyn, as I explain in an essay in these pages this week: He is close to incapable of changing his mind. And this issue of Palestine/Israel has been extremely dear to his heart for decades — and is also deeply important to his closest circle, particularly Seumas Milne, who appears to have something of a grip on Corbyn’s not-too-agile mind, and who is on record believing the creation of Israel was a “crime,” and that it is a “racist state.” This may well drag on through August. It’s almost a parable of how Corbyn’s radicalism is undermined by his extremism, and how a newly emboldened and popular left is sometimes its own worst enemy.

See you next Friday.

Saudi Arabia Is Awful on Human Rights. Trump Admires That.