State Department Flak Reveals Key Pillar of Saudi Arabia's Dictatorship: U.S. Silence

The mild question from David Clark of Agence France Presse about President Trump's trip to Sauid Arabia went straight to the point:

“While you were over there, the Secretary [of State Rex Tillerson] criticized the conduct of the Iranian elections. He did so standing next to Saudi officials. How do you characterize Saudi Arabia’s commitment to democracy? Does the administration believe that democracy is a buffer or a barrier against extremism?”

Spokesman Stuart Jones’ 20 seconds of silence was a crash course in the realities of  U.S. policy in the Middle East.

When Words Fail

Jones could not speak about Saudi Arabia’s “commitment to democracy” because it has none. The Saudi monarchy brooks no dissent, controls the press, relegates women to second-class citizenship, avoids elections, and imprisons its critics.

Jones could not affirm that the administration believes democracy is a bulwark against terrorism, because it does not. In fact, Saudi Arabia demonstrates the reverse: that an autocratic monarchy imbued with extremist interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism is the world’s primary breeding ground for terrorists, including ISIS.

As religious scholar Karen Armstrong notes, "[T]he Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, condemning IS in the strongest terms, has insisted that 'the ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism do not belong to Islam in any way.' Other members of the Saudi ruling class, however, look more kindly on the movement, applauding its staunch opposition to Shiaism and for its Salafi piety, its adherence to the original practices of Islam."

Saudis constitute the second largest nationality in the ranks of Islamic State fighters. They comprised 15 of the 19 hijackers in the 9/11 attacks.

A recent study cited by CNN's Fareed Zakaria found that 96 percent of terrorist casualties since 2001 were inflicted by Wahhabist militants, many of them funded by sponsors in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf satrapies. Only 4 percent of terrorism casualties were caused by Shiite Iran and its allies.

Who wants to talk about that? Not Rex Tillerson. Who wants to talk about the fact that our enemy, Iran, has elections and our ally, Saudi Arabia, does not? Not Stuart Jones.

Who wants to admit that Iran has an imperfect democracy in which religious fundamentalists and national security officials play an outsized role, but can be outvoted by the majority, which recently re-elected moderate president Hassan Rouhani by a wide margin? Not anyone in Washington. 

As Jones' ordeal shows, it is painfully difficult to explain, much less defend the reality of U.S. Mideast policy in front of TV cameras. President Trump aligned himself with Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip because the Saudis are a reliable source of oil, a big customer of U.S. defense contractors, an ally of Israel, and the sworn enemy of our traditional enemy, Iran. Another plus for Trump, they didn't care for Barack Obama.

Democracy is not a factor in Trump's policy toward Saudi Arabia and counterterrorism is only a secondary priority. Silence is the best—maybe the only—explanation for this state of affairs.

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