Once upon a time, there was a deeply troubled Republican president who determined to go all in on reshaping the Middle East, picking one Islamic power as an even greater ally of America.
He engaged in a rapid and massive program of arms sales to this rich Muslim oil power in a bid to help it become one of the leading military powers on the planet. Heavy American aid went also to the country's program to ramp up internal security as well as the ability to project power throughout the region.
As he did so he moved to smooth the way with America's traditional ally in the region. The State of Israel, the Middle East's only democracy. And Israel was willing, even to the point of a tacit, de facto alliance with the Islamic power. Because the alternative seemed worse.
It was a big gamble for the president, an audacious gamble, a spectacular roll of the dice at remaking history.
But by the time the magnitude of his strategy's failure was evident, Richard Nixon was back home in Southern California, years removed from his ill-fated presidency.
As he moves on to the European phase of his very fortuitously timed first big road trip as president, Donald Trump, also embroiled in profound controversy over his legitimacy in power, is proving in another respect to be a mirror image of the scandal-plagued Nixon.
And as a mirror image, his big move in the Middle East is extremely similar to Nixon's, just flipped.
For Nixon's Middle East lynchpin Iran, substitute Shia Iran's venerable Sunni enemy Saudi Arabia. In each case, the president promised a vast military build-up for the already large forces of America's new close ally.
As a result of the policies of Nixon and his personally picked successor, Gerald Ford, half of America's global arms sales went to Iran. Just a few years later, the Shah of Iran was overthrown, replaced by the reactionary Islamist revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Trump, who trotted out Nixon and Ford geopolitical strategist Henry Kissinger for a surprise photo op following his foolishly timed meeting with the Russian foreign minister the day after firing FBI Director James Comey, has something remarkably similar in mind for Saudi Arabia. He announced a whopping $110 billion in arms sales to Saudi when he arrived in Riyadh for his spectacular visit to the desert Kingdom, the only nation on Earth named for its ruling family. And he promises much more arms and tech to come as the House of Saud ramps up its internal security as well as its external power projection in the wake of beginning major cuts to programs which have purchased popular acquiescence for the sprawling royal family.
As Trump forges a new super-alliance with Saudi Arabia that would be beyond the dreams of former Bobby Kennedy and Pat Brown campaign manager Fred Dutton -- my old friend from the University of California Board of Regents who forged the early Saudi lobby as the Kingdom's chief American counsel in the 1970s -- he is doing something even more risky than Nixon's losing gamble. For Trump seeks to form a powerful alliance not only for America but against Iran.
Thus Trump parachutes firmly on to one side of a vast and complex religious schism that predates our Declaration of Independence by 1144 years. What can possibly go wrong?
But Trump must have it all figured out, right? Including how the Saudis -- whose Wahhabist religionism fuels anti-Western sentiment across the Muslim world and whose suspiciously well-funded citizens attacked America on 9/11 -- are no longer the bad guys Trump tweeted about a few years ago.
Don't count on it. After all, Trump also seems to be moving to bring Israel into his grand alliance as well. Which would include Trump making a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Beyond marveling at the notion as "the ultimate deal," however, Trump offers little else of substance on what would have to be one of the most complex achievements in history.
Plan? What plan?
One is reminded of Mark Twain's warning about "innocents abroad" back when Americans began roaming the world, looking for adventure and influence.
Could Trump's Saudi gambit go as spectacularly badly as Nixon's Iran gambit? For which the hapless Jimmy Carter gets the rap, incidentally. He didn't like the Shah of Iran nearly as much as Nixon and Ford and Kissinger did but rather grudgingly admitted the Shah to the U.S. for medical treatment after he abdicated. That is what finally triggered the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, along with all those famous hostages. Which meant that Ronald Reagan reaped the benefit of his fellow Republicans' disastrously backfired strategy.
Trump's move just might turn out as badly. The House of Saud has a lot of internal problems. And that's without getting into the possibility of this leading to yet another war.
I can't say I predicted the Shah of Iran would fall after my first trip there as a student tourist, in 1977. But it was clear then that the Shah was substantially less popular than U.S. officials supposed.
And I could see American gear everywhere in a country which had quite a few hallmarks of a police state. No wonder the "Death To America" stuff became so resonant, down to this day.
There is plenty more to say on Iran, its geopolitical dynamics, and Trump's fateful fixation thereon as we go forward.
Because, contrary to a lot of recent media hype, Trump won't be leaving the White House any time real soon.
Will he be forced from office? Hey, only if sanity prevails.
In the meantime, despite the problems discussed -- which the news media isn't really discussing -- this is, so far at least, a good trip for the embattled president.
Trump is coming off coherent and not deranged. The new standard of excellence in devolutionary America? Well, no. Or, not yet. But he has definitely not been embarrassing on the world stage.
And it's a good time for him to be doing all this splashy summitry, what with some new developments in the Russia affair (Flynn takes the 5th!) and the unveiling of a ludicrously reactionary, DOA Trump budget proposal which would drastically cut spending for low-income folks and dramatically cut taxes for the rich.
Not exactly what he promised. But what else is new?
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