Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project. He is also a senior fellow in Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy. As a young boy Riedel lived in Beirut, and he is a 30-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency, retiring in 2006. He served in the U.S. National Security Council as a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East for four presidents. Diwan caught up with Riedel in mid-June to discuss the U.S. relationship with the Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Michael Young: You recently wrote an article for Brookings arguing that the $110 billion in defense contracts that President Donald Trump allegedly agreed with Saudi Arabia was, in fact, “fake news.” Can you elaborate, and why have so few people investigated the veracity of these purported defense deals, given that they were regarded as a major success of the Trump visit to Saudi Arabia?
Bruce Riedel: The Office of the President has been seen as the most powerful institution in the United States by much of the world for generations. When it says the president has concluded $110 billion in arms sales with Saudi Arabia, the media and the public are inclined to take its statements as the truth. So Donald Trump has decades of presidential history on his side. Everyone assumes he is telling the truth.
But it is fake news. The White House and the Pentagon have had weeks now to show us the contracts for the alleged arms sales. They should be discussing what arms systems are in the deal. Notifications should be arriving at the Senate for approval of the sales. The deal should have been a centerpiece of the Joint Statement between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America issued at the end of the Riyadh summit. None of these things have happened.
The Senate was notified of a modest deal for more munitions for the Royal Saudi Air Force, to continue the Saudi bombardment of Yemen. On June 13, the $500 million deal narrowly won approval in the Senate, with 47 Senators voting against the sale, citing opposition to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. That was 20 more “no” votes then the last vote on a Saudi arms deal last year, showing that the momentum is turning against the Saudis. But this latest deal actually dates from the time of the Obama administration. Otherwise, under Trump there have been vague letters of interest with regard to other weapons, including four frigates and some helicopters, but no finished contracts.
The Israelis have always demanded compensation from Washington for any large arms sales to the Saudis. When Obama sold the kingdom $60 billion in weapons five years ago, including F-15 fighters, Apache gunships, and other weapons, Israel asked for and got a deal for additional F-35 stealth fighters to maintain its “qualitative edge” over the Arabs. If and when there is a real multi-billion dollar deal, you can be certain the Israeli government will have a voice. Then we will not have a fake news story.
MY: Since the U.S. president visited the Middle East in May, there has been a major escalation against Qatar by a number of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In what specific way do you think Trump’s trip to the Gulf was linked to the Qatar dispute?
BR: The Saudis played the Trump team like a fiddle before and during the Riyadh summit. They flattered the president and his family, they produced a captive audience of Muslim leaders, most of whom never got a chance to speak, and they ensured that there were no public demonstrations against Trump in his first foreign outing. A police state that beheads its critics will always be protest free.
In return, Trump blessed the kingdom as the leader of the Islamic world. The Saudis are the good guys, the Iranians are the bad guys. Good versus evil, white and black. King Salman got a blank check to go after his enemies. Qatar is apparently at the top of the king’s list.
The Trump team never thought about Qatar. The complicated politics of the Gulf Cooperation Council were not on their radar screens. Trump said Qatar was going to be another customer for America’s “beautiful” arms. But the complexity of Middle Eastern politics is news for Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. That’s not surprising. The president’s more experienced advisers were not much help. They have already been a disappointment when it comes to telling truth to power.
MY: How will the dispute with Qatar affect future relations in the Gulf?
BR: The Qatar crisis is a relatively small crisis by the Middle East’s standards. But the Trump response is chaotic. Tweets about Qatar as the decisive turning point for the global war against terror compete with more diplomatic calls for reason. If this is a trial run for crisis management in the Gulf, the results so far suggest the administration is not ready for prime time. They are not the team to confront real challenges. Imagine the Trump team dealing with a war in Gaza or Lebanon.
How this current crisis will turn out is unclear. Saudi foreign policy has traditionally been cautious and risk-averse. King Salman’s predecessors—his brothers Abdullah, Fahd, Khaled, and Faysal—usually avoided confrontation and worked subtly and behind the scenes. Money resolved most issues or at least helped.
However, King Salman and his son, Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, are much more belligerent and willing to take risks. The signature policy of their two and a half years in power is the war in Yemen, the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today according to the United Nations. Operation Decisive Storm is a quagmire wrapped around a stalemate. Iran is the only winner. If Yemen is a harbinger for Qatar, expect a long-drawn-out and messy process.
MY: Can you explain how this seemingly most anti-Muslim of presidents appears to be only really popular among a group of leaders in the Middle East? And were there any long-term consequences, do you feel, of his visit to the region, or like much else with Trump was it a high-profile affair that will have little follow-through?
BR: Trump is profoundly unpopular with Muslims around the world. Even in Saudi Arabia only a handful of citizens, when polled last fall, wanted him to be elected. Muslim Americans are rightly fearful that the administration is not their friend. Trump is still trying to get his Muslim ban enacted.
So the Saudi embrace of Trump puts the kingdom at odds with the umma, or the community of Muslims. The Saudi royal family embraced Trump because he is not Barack Obama. He doesn’t care about human rights or gender equality, he hates the free press, and he loves strong men. There is no more criticism of Saudi support for sectarian violence against the Shi‘a.
In the United States, Trump’s embrace of the Saudis only antagonizes the large community of Americans who distrust the kingdom. Remember the vote to override Obama’s veto of the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, or JASTA? It was virtually unanimous. Close association with the Saudi government is not popular, especially with Trump’s own supporters.
A more nuanced approach to this very important alliance is crucial. Saudi Arabia is America’s oldest ally in the Middle East. The alliance dates back to 1943 when then-prince Faysal visited the White House and it was sealed two years later when King Abdel Aziz Al Saud and Franklin D. Roosevelt met on Valentine’s Day 1945 on the USS Quincy. Together we have confronted many challenges, from Soviet imperialism to Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda. It’s a partnership that needs a sure touch not a blind eye.
MY: You’ve written a great deal about South Asia. That puts you in a good position to enlighten us about the U.S. approach to Afghanistan, which appears to be facing increasingly bloody attacks taking place in the country.
BR: The war in Afghanistan is America’s longest war ever, with no end in sight. Trump needs a comprehensive policy and strategy not just another troop surge.
The crucial relationship is with Pakistan whose intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), still backs the Afghan Taliban by allowing them safe havens inside Pakistan. The ISI is the Taliban’s essential ally. Trump had a perfect opportunity to discuss this with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the recent Arab Islamic American summit in Riyadh in May. Instead he ignored the democratically-elected leader of the only Muslim country with nuclear weapons. Sharif has his own quarrel with the ISI. He is the best partner Trump is likely to have in Pakistan. Instead the president didn’t give him the courtesy of a one-on-one meeting.
MY: Who, to your mind, was behind the recent bomb attack in the diplomatic district of Kabul? The Taliban denied it was them.
BR: The Afghan government says it was the Haqqani network. I believe that they know what they are talking about. That means it was effectively carried out by an arm of the Pakistani ISI. Pakistan is the most complicated and dangerous country in the world. The Trump team has the expertise in the National Security Council and other places to deal with the issue. Let’s see if they use the expertise on hand.
MY: You served under previous administrations. Does anything keep you up at nights?
BR: What keeps me from sleeping peacefully is the Trump administration. We have had bad presidents before. Richard Nixon was a crook who tried to steal our democracy. George W. Bush was a clown who failed America on 9/11 and made the greatest foreign-policy mistake in American history by invading Iraq. But Donald Trump is a con man who is deceiving the American people and the world. He is totally unqualified for the hardest job in the world.
Trump is hiding something from the judicial process about his relationship with the Russian government. The American media will expose Trump sooner or later. But that may take years. In the meantime much damage will be done to the globe.
Photo Source: Bruce Riedel