Trump's Matryoshka Doll Mideast Crises

Trump's Matryoshka Doll Mideast Crises
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Meet President Donald Trump’s real geopolitical partner. This is new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, then the Saudi defense minister for two years when he met with Trump in the Oval Office last March. Think of him, ironically, as Trump’s version of the late Shah of Iran.

Meet President Donald Trump’s real geopolitical partner. This is new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, then the Saudi defense minister for two years when he met with Trump in the Oval Office last March. Think of him, ironically, as Trump’s version of the late Shah of Iran.

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While Democrats struggle to find the best way to engage the nonetheless flailing presidency of Donald Trump (throw-contents-of-kitchen-sink not actually being a strategy) and others set about establishing new international alliances, the aforementioned Duce Donald is embarked on what he evidently thinks is a hard and fast route to his own version of a new world order. That it is actually a nested series of crises masquerading as opportunities that could thoroughly destabilize the world is either a bug in the emerging Trumpist program or a fundamental design feature is something that may, or may not, have escaped the notice of our ADD attention addict-in-chief. Trump as ultimate agent of chaos is a slightly different topic.

Fittingly for someone so fatefully fixed in the world by his fixation on Russia, Trump is trapped in a set of matryoshka doll crises -- after the fashion of the not-so-ancient Russian folk art of dolls within dolls within dolls -- which he thinks is a bold geopolitical strategy.

It's bold, all right. Maybe even more than bold than Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's disastrously backfiring decision to ally with the Shah of Iran, which I discussed last month.

On the morning after the latest Democratic defeat in a House special election to replace a Trump appointee from a historically Republican congressional district -- $30 million for a non-hotshot 30-year old candidate who doesn't live in the district, running as a social liberal in Georgia, really? -- Trump phoned up Saudi Arabia's just appointed new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, to offer his heartiest congratulations.

At 31, the new crown prince, already the Saudi defense minister, with vast power over the petroleum complex and domestic economy, is less than half Trump's age. But, already a friend of Trump's own princeling Jared Kushner, he is easily the most powerful Saudi crown prince since Crown Prince Fahd emerged in the '70s after a princely UC Berkeley drop-out assassinated a rather troublesome king. And unlike Fahd, who went on to become a very powerful Saudi king in his own right in the '80s after sharing much of his power as crown prince with Western-oriented Oil Minister Zaki Yamani, the relatively liberal Harvard-educated architect of the Saudi rise to energy superpower status, Mohammed doesn't have to share the limelight with anyone.

Being the son of the king does that for the new crown prince, who lunched chummily with Trump in the White House just three months ago.

Indeed, it is the new crown prince and his desert oil Kingdom which is the ultimate nested doll at the heart of Trump's matryoshka of Mideast crises.

For the new Saudi leadership, under pressure from longstanding problems, is making some very dramatic moves internally and externally in a ballyhooed if belated bid for modernization.

But one man's modernization, and in Saudi, of course, they are all men, is another's desperation,

Having iced the hated Iranians and rival Russians by helping drive the price of oil far below its June 2014 level -- that is what has really hurt Russia, not post-Ukraine intervention sanctions, as Saudi Arabia is second only to Kuwait for lowest break-even production point -- was making plenty of money but falling far below what's needed to sustain a public sector budget purchasing popular acquiescence to the House of Saud with subsidies and make-work.

And with new King Salman finding it's much harder to raise the price that old King Abdullah helped push down, the new crown prince pushed both a post-resource extraction economic modernization plan and a truly massive internal and external security upgrade.

As a result, Saudi has become the world's fourth leading military spender, behind the US, China and Russia.

And the Trump administration may help them move ahead of Russia with a massive arms sales program announced during Trump's glittering tour of the Kingdom.

As I discussed a month ago , Trump is repeating the Nixon/Kissinger/Ford strategy of the 1970s in betting heavily on the build-up of one non-Israeli power in the Middle East. It just happens to be essentially targeted against that old American uber-ally from the 1970s. Where America's great friend the Shah of Iran confounded most of the experts by getting himself overthrown by a seemingly obscure Islamist named Ayatollah Khomeini.

Which may just make the Trumps' fine new friend the latter-day equivalent of the Shah of Iran. With the difference being that this alliance may wreak even more havoc.

The Shah, too, was a modernizer of a sort. And an autocrat, and ally whose obvious reliance on the American gear which I saw festooned on his forces as I made my way as a grad student tourist around his country, which felt a lot like a police state, not long before he was overthrown did so much to identify the U.S. as the longstanding enemy of the Iranian people.

For the House of Saud, like the Shah before it, is shaky.

President Richard Nixon, with top advisors, welcomes the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, to the White House. That is National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, in glasses, above and between Nixon and Pahlavi.

President Richard Nixon, with top advisors, welcomes the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, to the White House. That is National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, in glasses, above and between Nixon and Pahlavi.

Getty Images

The late Fred Dutton, whom I came to know through his role on the University of California Board of Regents before I ever went to the region, was the Saudis' chief American counsel in the days when Oil Minister Yamani and Crown Prince Fahd were making Saudi Arabia Earth's preeminent petro-superpower. Dutton, who was Pat Brown's and Bobby Kennedy's campaign manager, as well as a top JFK aide, before essentially saying the hell with it after the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, played the lead role in forging a very powerful pro-Saudi lobby in America. But that accomplishment pales next to the sudden Saudi alliance with the Trumps.

The thing is, Dutton told me that he believed the Saudis had a window of a few decades in which to assert themselves in the region and develop a modern society and economy.

That still has not happened.

So now Saudi, the only country on the planet named for its ruling family, is ramping up the security apparatus and embarking on risky foreign adventures. And Trump, who would be absolutely lost on the ground outside the cosseted enclaves in which he has spent his entire pampered life, is on board for all it.

And so, at least for now, are we.

Not only does Trump back the internal autocracy of Saudi Arabia (Trump's Manhattan billionaire Commerce Secretary pal Wilbur Ross loved the absence of protesters anywhere in Riyadh), he backs the Saudi side in all the interventions promoted by the young Saudi defense minister. Each constitutes a metaphorical nested doll, in this case proceeding outward from the Saudi crown prince at the middle of it all.

Like the ill-fated Saudi war ostensibly against Iranian proxies in Yemen, site of terrible civilian casualties and the worst new humanitarian crisis on the planet.

Like the Saudi move against neighboring Qatar, home of the Al Jazeera news network which infuriated the Kingdom with its pro-Arab Spring coverage.

Like the military dictator of Egypt, backed to the hilt by the Saudis now and in his brilliantly deceptive popular coup (a triumph of 'maskirovka' in Soviet parlance) against the only democratic government in Egypt's history.

Like the new more weapons-free/"collateral damage"-heavy campaign against Isis, intended to get U.S.-aligned forces in position to win quicker than those backed by Iran. Not that they actually are, and so much for Trump's supposed secret plan during the campaign to beat Isis.

Like the increasing showdown in what has been eastern Syria between U.S., Assad regime, Iranian, and Russian forces (de facto allies of Iran), which could easily kindle a much wider war.

Like Trump's determination to, once again, escalate U.S. forces in another part of what the Bush/Cheney administration rather imperiously dubbed "the Greater Middle East," the quite different Central Asian failed state of Afghanistan. Again, in part, to counter Saudi's arch-enemy, Iran.

But having visited Afghanistan as a grad student tourist, during the heyday of the "Hippie Trail," not long before two major regime changes there, including the Soviet invasion which ultimately helped undo the Soviet empire, it occurs to me that any renewed "Great Game" there is just as much an illusory exercise as it was in Rudyard Kipling's day.

While we can and should have a kinetic presence in Afghanistan, it should be much more narrowly defined as a limited (and thus much more easily explained) means to deny serious basing to jihadists who would strike the American homeland, as they did on 9/11.

The unfortunate reality here, as I discussed during the Obama administration, is that well-meaning Democrats not only went along with the Obama administration's extension of the Bush/Cheney post-9/11 state of emergency, but also backed Obama's expanded state of emergency to include secret drone strike and special ops wars around the world and an even larger surveillance state.

And supposed overseers, like then Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin and Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, failed in two major respects. They did not probe effectively to ensure that operations made sense and did not engender serious negative repercussions. And they failed to imagine what it would mean for a less benign actor to gain these new presidential powers.

Not to worry, I was told, Obama can be trusted.

Now all that and the authority for much more is in the hands of President Donald J. Trump.

Who has now chosen to take this nation along on a very risky set of adventures/crises with a 31-year old autocrat in the Arabian desert.

But what of Vladimir Putin? Is the Trump-Putin alliance -- not all bad, as we can do some things with Putin, though some of his behavior has of course been so outrageous it merits a 'Godfather'-esque "horse's head" response -- that might have been now dead? Is it just too hot to pursue, at least for now?

Or is Trump distracted by another bright and shiny object that seems to hold the promise of another dramatic path to world historical leadership worthy of his megalomania?

For Saudi interests are not at all coincident with Russian interests, as we saw with the sharp oil price drop of June 2014. Which was always a problem for Trump and Russia with respect to Trump's Iran hawk side, now getting stoked anew not only by his new alliance with Riyadh and his old friends in Israel but also by the Iran hawks he has appointed to high office.

Something's got to give.

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