America’s Destructive Love Affair With Dictators

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Harry Truman’s memorable reference to Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator, “Yes, he is a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch,” acknowledged America’s love affair with brutal dictators and affords an accurate insight into the formulation of U.S. foreign policy toward the Third World in the post-WWII era. The U.S. trumpets its commitment to human rights and representative government while supporting strongmen who can uphold short-term stability and deliver on America’s economic and military interests. In the Persian Gulf, the U.S. has followed this path to a T in its dealings with Iran and Iraq, and now in the case of Saudi Arabia it is even doubling down on its support with not one, but two likely black eyes to follow as events unfold.

After colluding with the British MI6 in 1953 to depose Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq and restore Mohammad Reza to the throne, the United States trained his brutal secret police, sold him sophisticated arms and proudly called him its “policeman” in the Persian Gulf, but ignored his human rights abuses and his oppressive governance. The Shah, because he had Washington’s support as long as he towed the U.S. line, became increasingly oppressive; and the average Iranian in turn connected his policies to the United States. The inevitable turmoil occurred, Iranians overthrew the Shah and played out their anger toward the United States.

After the taking of U.S. hostages in Tehran, the U.S., needing a new policeman, embraced a new “son of a bitch” in the person of Saddam Hussein. He was elevated to the status of an ally, supplied with military intelligence and WMD to be used on Iranians, and his ambassador to the United States was treated like the representative of an enlightened government by one of the America’s most respected newspapers, the Washington Post. Saddam Hussein, feeling assured of U.S. backing, doubled down on his brutality. He used chemical weapons on Iraqi Kurds, cracked down on his majority Shia population and invaded Kuwait. But after he threatened America’s Saudi oil interests, the U.S. had little choice but to embark on a costly war to depose him.

After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. cautiously embraced the Shia regime in Baghdad so as to contain Iran’s influence in Iraq and in the region generally as well as to bolster the fight against ISIS. But current hostile relations with Iran and an Iraq that is closely allied with Iran have led the Trump administration to throw caution to the wind and double down in support of King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his son and anointed successor, Prince Mohammad (MBS). On his first trip abroad President Trump went out of his way to show his support for King Salman, expanding the sales of arms endorsed by former President Obama and elevating U.S. cooperation with Saudi Arabia in their conflict in Yemen and in other parts of the region. Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East Tsar (Jared Kushner) has met MBS a number of times and the two have allegedly “bonded.” More recently, President Trump has stated that King Salman knows what he is doing and that he has the president’s full support. President Trump and his team have also launched a blistering attack on Iran (Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s regional nemesis).

Are the Al-Sauds, and specifically MBS, our newly super anointed SOBs or is MBS a democratic reformist deserving of America’s full backing? Are King Salman and MBS, and the Al-Saud tribe more generally, enlightened rulers? Are they builders of institutions, especially the rule of law and an independent judiciary? Do they seek pluralistic and flourishing societies? Are they devout Muslims who embrace justice as the central mission of Islam? I could go on and on but let me cut to the chase.

I have personally heard from a few members of the Al-Saud tribe that “the country is ours, Abdul-Aziz took it with the sword, others could have done the same but they didn’t.” More importantly, I have heard from an implacable source that the late Prince Nyef (Minister of the Interior and at the time of his death senior to the man who is now King Salman) spoke words to this effect to a group of senior Saudi business leaders before a dinner gathering: “We are not stupid as were the British royal family; we will never embrace a constitutional monarchy; we will fight till blood covers the streets to keep our inheritance; and if anyone doesn’t like it, the door is open to leave the kingdom.”

Lest there be any doubt about Al-Saud commitment to Islam, we only have to say that Islam preaches justice, modest lifestyles, sharing of God’s resources gifted to humanity, and prohibition of large inequality in income and wealth.

The Al-Sauds may be autocratic, but is MBS different, is he a committed reformist, and does his appointment ahead of thousands of other princes portend a bright future for Saudi Arabia? King Salman has upended the succession rules that had largely been adhered to, he has initiated succession by direct descent and he has given unprecedented power to his young son. We believe that at least a handful of princes resent his rapid rise to power ahead of hundreds of more senior princes. MBS decisions may be more ominous for the thousands of princes because he could break up the Gulf Cooperation Council, entangle Saudi Arabia in an armed conflict with Iran and lose U.S. backing when Trump gets cold feet or is out of office. In that eventuality, the Al-Sauds could be driven out of power and lose their position and their direct access to the national treasury, the thing that matters most to all princes given their over-the-top lifestyle.

MBS is no reformist. He is power hungry and acquisitive. His list of well-publicized asset purchases since his rise to power (on top of what he had accumulated before), include a $550 million yacht (purchased within a few hours on site in the South of France), a $450 million rare painting and a $320 million château in France. These expenditures were not financed by wealth accumulated through hard work, but by the country’s treasury. MBS has rounded up several hundred princes, senior government officials and businessmen on the grounds of corruption. All this without due process, with the release of those rounded up conditioned on a negotiated payment. Is this arrest of disgruntled princes who pose a threat to MBS, a shakedown or a long overdue effort to confront rampant corruption in Saudi Arabia? If MBS is a democratic ruler deserving U.S. support, then how does he explain his extravagant purchases paid for by the national treasury?

MBS has made a few superficial gestures in order to garner popular support among the younger generation in the kingdom and political backing in the U.S. He has decided to let women drive and to restore cinemas to the kingdom in 2018. While these steps may attract publicity, it is effective institutions that the country needs—a constitution, the rule of law, an independent judiciary, protection of private property, laws and their enforcement, progress towards representative governance, etc.

Most dangerous have been MBS’ foreign adventures, especially in Yemen where cholera and indiscriminate bombing by the Saudis could become the biggest humanitarian disaster since WWII. The U.S. and Britain have blood on their hands in their support of MBS, blood that could become a torrent. President Trump and his Middle East Czar, Jared Kushner, would be well advised not to make unintended commitments or to use ambiguous language in their dealings with MBS. Ambiguous words and polite talk could be erroneously interpreted as encouragement by the Crown Prince, which could drag the U.S. into unintended human and resource-draining conflicts.

Unchecked U.S. support for MBS and his adventures coupled with verbal attacks on Iran to support the Al-Saud obsession with supposed Iranian intentions to overthrow the Al-Sauds have also had consequences in Iran and have made dialogue with Iran more difficult. From 1979 to the election of President Trump, Iranians had the second most favorable opinion (after Israel) of the United States in the Middle East and they generally found the anti American words of their leaders suspect. All that has changed over the last year. Iranians now support their regime more than ever before, they believe their leaders when they say that the U.S., its regional alliances and bases pose a security threat and they enthusiastically endorse a more muscular defense. In the process, General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, has become the most popular leader in Iran and has a growing backing further afield in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

America’s love affair with dictators is a well-worn path of never-ending conflict with U.S. blood and treasure on the line. America’s backing of despots should be conditional on a timetable to establish effective institutions that include the rule of law, respect for human rights and representative governance, without which the turmoil America creates will nurture more and more disenfranchised human beings who could well become future enemies and terrorists. Today, the case in point and the danger for the United States is the Trump administration’s enthusiastic backing of MBS and his policies that could lead to unknown conflicts.