After the Tunisian protesters sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for almost a quarter century, packing, the Central Intelligence Agency famously predicted the Arab revolt would not spread. Almost two years later, dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and a fifth appears on the ropes in Syria. Despite what regional experts and Arab autocrats hoped, the desire for freedom and liberty is contagious. So when Bashar al-Assad’s tenure ends with a bullet in his head or a broomstick in his bottom, what will be the next domino to fall?
There is no shortage of dissatisfaction across the Arab world. Just ask the Bahrainis. Tension is also high in Kuwait. Most Jordanians are seething at King Abdullah II and especially at the high-spending Queen Rania. But the next dynasty to fall may very well be the Saudi monarchy.
Saudi Arabia is an artificial state, cobbled together in the 1920s and 1930s by military force. Oil wealth has both helped paper over differences and promote a radical and intolerant reinterpretation of Islam. Still, regional identities remain, sectarianism is increasing, and the gap between rich and poor has bred resentment toward the ruling family whose grip on power will slip as octogenarians succeed octogenarians and factional rivalries percolate.
Human rights groups and journalists tend to focus on Bahrain. There certainly are myriad problems in that Arab island nation, but the focus is disproportionate, determined more by access than by degree of repression. While the Bahraini government uses rubber bullets, the Saudis prefer live ammunition, especially when the protesters are Shi’ites in the oil-rich Eastern Province.
If unrest strikes Saudi Arabia and if the monarchy falls, the results could reverberate further than former Egyptian President Mubarak’s fall:
- It’s one thing for Libyan oil to temporarily go offline, and quite another for Saudi oil to do so. Then again, if the White House encouraged greater shale exploitation, new pipelines, and new drilling offshore, then it could blunt any future Saudi oil shock. Even at the best of times, that’s a good idea.
- Saudi Arabia, like it or not, has been a key U.S. ally. Despite the conspiracy-ridden and often anti-Semitic blogosphere, America has never gone to war for Israel. It has, however, gone to war for Saudi Arabia. Kuwait’s 1991 liberation was as much about protecting Saudi Arabia from Iraqi aggression as it was about freeing the tiny emirate. If the Kingdom fell, upon whom in the Arab Middle East could the United States really count?
- On the other hand, when President Obama leads from behind, the country from behind which he leads is, more often than not, Saudi Arabia. Republicans are in no position to castigate the president for deference to Riyadh, however, because so many Republican presidents and secretaries have also sucked at the Saudi teat. Freed from the Saudi constraint, how might U.S. policy be different?
- There is a reason why Saudi Arabia has been an ally. Saudi Arabia may have incubated al-Qaeda and extremism, but they have also cooperated greatly on counter-terrorism. If the Saudi regime falls, would a new government be so forthcoming with counter terror aid and assistance?
- Next to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is most likely to fracture into its constituent parts if it ever faces state failure. The Hejaz might be more cosmopolitan and moderate, but Iran would make a full-court press to become the predominant influence in the Eastern Province. That could be the death knell for a more moderate regime in Bahrain. The question is what extremists in the Nejd would do, and whether they could be contained. What might happen if more extreme elements consolidate control across the country?
- Whether or not Saudi Arabia has been an American ally, its influence across the Islamic world has certainly been as malignant as Iran’s. If the Kingdom collapsed, would such subsidies continue? As some of my AEI colleagues have pointed out, for all the billions of dollars they have expended, the Saudis have failed to win hearts and minds across the broader region. Simply put, no one likes the Saudis. If the Western economy was shielded from a Saudi descent into chaos, would anyone really care?
- The end of the Saudi gravy train would reverberate not only across countries, but also among institutions in the United States. The Saudis have generously funded universities, think tanks, public relations firms, lobbyists, advocacy groups like CAIR, and writers. The Mujahedin al-Khalq in recent years may have exposed how so many American figures follow the dollar sign rather than principle, but that’s nothing compared to what the Saudis have managed. Who would fill that void, if anyone? Perhaps the world would be a better place if the advice put forward on the back of Saudi petrodollars no longer received such a favorable hearing in Washington, and if students were no longer indoctrinated by the curriculum Saudi oil money bought.
Will Saudi Arabia be Next to Fall?
Must-Reads from Magazine
A carney act.
We tried to warn you. We sifted through the rhetoric, dissected the policy pronouncements, and took Donald Trump far more seriously than he took himself. Especially when it came to then-candidate Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric in support of immigration restrictionism and border security, we said the Manhattanite who only recently converted to the GOP was simply playing a role. On Thursday morning, the president confirmed his critics’ assumptions.
At the risk of reveling in this reveal or offending those who subordinated their better judgment and common sense to a man who finally promised them their unrealizable ideal, we are obliged today to take an inventory of those warnings.
“The WALL,” Trump tweeted with cryptic urgency, “which is already under construction in the form of new renovation of old and existing fences and walls, will continue to be built.”
“Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, serving in the military? Really!” the president added, addressing the children of illegal immigrants who benefit from Barack Obama’s deferred deportation program DACA. “They have been in our country for many years, through no fault of their own—brought in by parents at a young age. Plus BIG border security.”
To what was the president referring? On Wednesday night, Trump struck yet another “deal” with the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, this time regarding immigration. “We agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly and to work out a package of border security excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides,” read a joint statement from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that was released following their “productive meeting” with the president on Wednesday night.
A White House official told New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman that, while the statement fudges the details, Trump did not want border-wall funding tethered to DACA. “Trump veered toward Democrats on DACA after receiving tough coverage for backtracking on pledge to preserve it,” she revealed.
Anyone who was not so besotted with Trump’s gall and his willingness to reinforce their own hardline delusions on immigration saw this coming.
As early as August of 2015—just a few weeks after Trump descended the escalator—reporters were poking holes in Trump’s allegedly uncompromising stance on immigration. “You know, the truth is I have a lot of illegals working for me in Miami,” Trump told a group of young DREAMers during a Trump Tower meeting in 2013. “Can’t you just become a citizen if you want to?” he asked his petitioners repeatedly. When they said they could not, Trump confessed, “you’ve convinced me.”
That same month, the Trump campaign published a white paper outlining in broad strokes his immigration policy. It contained some laudable elements, like a nationwide E-Verify program, much of which had been boilerplate Republican immigration policy for years. But it also included nativist delights that were both irresponsible and unfeasible.
Trump’s plan would eliminate birthright citizenship in the 14th Amendment and would enforce deportation mandates against all illegal immigrants, including the children of visa overstays and border crossers. “We have to keep the families together, but they have to go,” Trump told NBC News.
As former Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Holtz-Eakin estimated, deporting the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in America over the space of just two years would cost approximately $300 billion. Moreover, the removing of millions of productive Americans from the country would result in substantially reduced economic activity and create a recession. The red-hat crowd dismissed these warnings as the craven dissimulations of those who covertly support “amnesty” for all illegal immigrants.
This policy paper was Trump’s answer to what he derisively referred to as the “Schumer-Rubio” immigration reform bill of 2013, also known as the “Gang of Eight.” For Trump’s biggest fans, the obviously performative denunciation of this comprehensive effort was enough to earn their undying support even if they knew, deep down, he was only using them.
Of course, that white paper also indulged his supporters’ most vivid fantasy: The Wall. This was the most shameless of canards. Invoking a towering barrier of ever-increasing height, it soon evolved from a policy prescription into an applause line. Anyone who dared question the logistics or cost of such a barrier was accused of evincing a lack of zeal for the #MAGA cause. As Linda Chavez wrote for COMMENTARY in the spring of 2016, The Wall was pure fancy. She noted that the materials costs alone for such a projected would run in excess of $17 billion, to say nothing of the years it would take to survey the construction sites, perform environmental-impact studies, impound the land, reimburse the displaced, pay attorneys, and hire union labor to build the thing.
At best, Trump’s critics contended, the president would manage to reinforce existing border security measures, the strongest of which were included in the 2013 immigration reform bill the president so callously disparaged on the stump. All these warnings were disregarded.
By mid-2016, even Trump’s own campaign surrogates—stalwart supporters like New York Rep. Chris Collins and his eventual Energy Secretary, Rick Perry—were dismissive of the catechisms of The Wall. “I have called it a virtual wall,” Collins averred while also dismissing Trump’s “deportation force” as a “rhetorical” exercise. “Maybe we will be building a wall over some aspects of it; I don’t know.”
“It’s a wall, but it’s a technological wall, it’s a digital wall,” Perry said after conceding that Mexico would not be paying for or reimbursing America for the costs of any kind of construction on the border. “There are some that hear this is going to be 1,200 miles from Brownsville to El Paso, 30-foot high, and listen, I know you can’t do that.”
The Republican Party made a tradeoff when it nominated Donald Trump; a more liberal outlook on issues like health care and tax code reform for an unconventionally hawkish approach to immigration. Those of us who saw the real Trump, not the confection whipped up by his apologists and image-makers, knew that so much of his border hawkishness was an act. The dropping of that veil is a bittersweet moment; it is a reminder of the opportunities that were lost.
And what has it bought us?
Last Friday, September 8th, 2017, the national debt of the United States went over $20 trillion. This compares with an estimated GDP of $19.3 trillion. For the first time in 70 years, since the immediate aftermath of World War II, the national debt exceeds 100 percent of GDP.
In other words, in the last nine years, the federal government has borrowed more money than in the previous 219 years of the government’s existence. During those 219 years, we fought three wars of unprecedented size and ferocity, numerous small wars, and suffered through six deep and prolonged depressions, including the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the greatest economic catastrophe in American history.
In the Civil War, the national debt went from $60.8 million to $2.7 billion, but it saved the Union. In the 1930’s, the debt went from $16.1 billion to $42.9 billion, but it saved the American economy. In World War II, the debt went from $42.9 billion to $269.4 billion, but it saved western civilization.
But what have we gotten for this massive latter-day rise in public indebtedness?
Exactly nothing, unless vote-buying is a virtue. Since 1970—a near half century of no great wars, no deep and abiding depressions, and extended periods of great prosperity—the national debt has gone up by a factor of 54. GDP in that period rose by a factor of only 19.
Until the 1930’s deficit spending was regarded, by both parties, as an evil, if sometimes an unavoidable one. Once the cause of the deficit spending—wars and depressions—ended, the government paid down its debt as quickly as possible. It ran 28 successive annual budget surpluses after the Civil War, reducing the debt from $2.7 billion to $961 million, while the American economy soared. After World War I, we had 11 years of surpluses, reducing the total debt by nearly 40 percent.
After World War II, while we did not pay down the debt, its increase was sharply curtailed, rising from $269.4 billion in 1946 to $286 billion in 1960, an increase of only six percent. We even ran surpluses in 1951 and 1952, at the height of the Korean War. The American GDP in those years more than doubled. This reduced the debt as a percent of GDP (the important measure of the size of the debt) from 130 percent to 57.7 percent. The debt continued to decline as a percentage of GDP in the 1960’s to 37 percent.
But budgetary discipline vanished from Washington, D.C., with the so-called Budget Control Act of 1974. It effectively removed the president as a major player in making budget decisions. (He still submits a proposed budget every year, but Congress often declares it “dead on arrival.”) The budget was now in the hands of 535 members of Congress, not one of whom represented the national interest. Instead, they represented the parochial interests of 50 states and 435 districts. Those interests are served by ever-increasing flows of federal money. And politicians are always first, last, and always in the re-election business. Self-interest forces them to bring home the bacon.
Ending the seniority system, whereby the senior member of the majority party in each congressional committee was automatically chairman, greatly exacerbated the situation. The senior members were, almost by definition, in safe seats and so could exert spending discipline for the sake of the country as a whole. Elected chairmen had to promise goodies to get elected.
And so the United States went on a gigantic, four-decade-long spending spree, not to fight a great war or depression but largely to improve the re-election prospects of members of Congress. And they paid for it with our grandchildren’s money.
Are there solutions? Sure, and simple ones, too. But implementing them won’t be easy for they involve curbing the powers of politicians and political institutions. And as that great political scientist James Madison explained, “Men love power.” They don’t surrender it easily.
Power has a "problem from hell."
People who served in the Obama administration are raiding the repositories of Holocaust memory, seeking Syrian absolution.
Earlier this month came a Holocaust Museum computational “study” that purported to prove that it was “very difficult from the beginning for the U.S. government to take effective action to prevent atrocities in Syria, even compared with other challenging policy contexts.” The study concluded that a more forceful American intervention wouldn’t have improved the situation and might have made things worse.
The museum suspended the project and scrubbed the “findings” from its website following an exposé in Tablet. It wasn’t lost on anyone that this episode came after three Obama National Security Council alumni were appointed to the museum’s Memorial Council and two others joined its staff.
Now comes Samantha Power’s tribute to Elie Wiesel in the Forward. The essay is excerpted from the former U.N. envoy’s introduction to a new edition of Wiesel’s harrowing Holocaust memoir, Night. Hers is a far more sophisticated exercise in self-absolution than the Holocaust Museum’s algorithmic shenanigans. But it is self-absolution all the same. The giveaway is that Power makes no attempt at applying Wiesel’s lessons to recent events in Syria.
The theme of Power’s essay is moral witness. “It can be hard to imagine that there was a time when the prevailing wisdom was not to bear witness,” Power asserts. “But that is precisely what it was like when Elie was writing.” The word “witness” and the phrase “bearing witness” appear five times in Power’s brief piece. Wiesel spoke out, she writes, when others—publishers, journalists, even survivors—preferred to forget or remain silent.
This is an obvious, almost banal point. Of course Wiesel bore witness! But his witness to Nazi evil had a future-tense moral purpose: to help counter other mass murderers and totalitarians. Wiesel campaigned for refuseniks trapped behind the Iron Curtain. He implored Bill Clinton to act in Bosnia. And most recently, he compared the Syrian regime and its Iranian patrons with the Nazis, asking: “How is it that Assad is still in power?” Wiesel didn’t just remember historical crimes; he decried contemporary inaction.
Samantha Power, by contrast, legitimized inaction. Having built her journalistic reputation examining America’s failure to stop mass murder in the 20th century, Power ended up lending moral cover to the Obama administration’s bystander policy on Syria (“Bystanders to Genocide” was the title of Power’s career-making 2001 Atlantic magazine report on the Clinton administration’s response to Rwanda). At the U.N., Power denounced Bashar Assad and his backers in Moscow and Tehran. But she refused to do the one honorable thing that might have jolted the Obama administration out of its moral torpor: resign.
Now she writes of Wiesel’s witnessing, as if forgetting a crime after the fact is a greater moral evil than failing to stop it at the time. In a companion interview with the Forward’s Jane Eisner, Power did mention Syria, noting that “amid the challenges associated with whether and how to intervene in Syria, we, the United States, and the world didn’t find a way to respond” to reports of industrial-scale torture in Assad’s prisons. Don’t blame us, the people who ran the executive branch when Assad’s butchery took place. It was “the United States” and “the world” that let down the Syrians.
In the months and years ahead, we can expect more such efforts at altering the moral record on Syria, including by making use of the Holocaust and Jewish memory. Those who were alive between 2011 and 2016 shouldn’t let Obama alumni get away with it. We should bear witness.
The first shots of the Republican civil war.
Maybe it was because Steve Bannon was too close to the president. Maybe he just wasn’t viewed as a worthy adversary. Whatever the reason, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist has up to now mobilized insurgencies aimed at taking down Republican incumbents unscathed by return fire. Now, following his brief stint as the right hand of the president, Bannon’s latest effort to remake the GOP in his own image is finally meeting with some resistance.
“Steve Bannon is dead wrong,” read a statement released on Wednesday evening by Steven Law, president and CEO of the Mitch McConnell-linked Senate Leadership Fund. “Every fact that has come out about James Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation has affirmed the rightness of President Trump’s decision.”
There’s a lot to unpack here.
Ostensibly, Law’s statement is aimed at comments Bannon made about former FBI Director Comey in an interview with “60 Minutes.” But Law’s comment is a dishonest one. Bannon never said what is being implied here.
“It’s been reported in the media I was adamantly opposed to that,” Bannon confirmed when pressed by Charlie Rose as to whether he agreed with Trump’s decision to terminate Comey. “I am a big believer in this city that it’s a city of institutions, not individuals. . . The FBI is the institution.”
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that if James Comey had not been fired, we would not have a special counsel,” he added.
“Someone said to me that you described the firing of James Comey—you’re a student of history—as the biggest mistake in political history,” Rose concluded. “That’d probably be too bombastic even for me, but maybe modern political history,” Bannon concurred.
At no point did Bannon discuss the merits of the case against Comey; he talked only about its political implications. The former White House strategist suggested that it was dangerous to make an adversary out of an institution in Washington D.C.—particularly one as well-connected and influential as the FBI. He noted that it was a straight line from Comey’s dismissal to the establishment of a vexing and costly special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign. Finally, Bannon asserted that Comey’s removal was among the biggest explicitly political blunders a president has made in living memory. It’s hard to argue with any of that. The Senate Leadership Fund is flailing at straw men.
But why? Obviously, they see that Bannon is a threat today in a way he wasn’t yesterday, and now Bannon knows it. This broadside was fired following reports by Politico and others indicating that the former Trump aide is huddling with deep-pocketed, anti-establishmentarian donors in the effort to secure his place as kingmaker. Bannon hopes to field a slate of non-ideological Donald Trump cutouts to challenge sitting Republicans who don’t seem inclined to bend the knee before the president. Their willfulness must be punished.
That represents a direct assault on the Senate Leadership Fund, which has only one objective: to keep incumbent Republican senators, whatever they believe, in their seats. Outside of the White House but with his working links to the president reportedly intact, Bannon can’t be allowed to organize his mutineers unmolested.
In attacking Bannon, not on the merits of what he actually said but, rather, by echoing sentiments shared by much of the pro-Trump right, Law and his McConnell-backed institution are aiming at Bannon’s support among pro-Trump Republicans. Unfortunately for them, this shot across Bannon’s bow was wildly off the mark. Not only did they attack Bannon for saying something he didn’t say, they’re also going after him for believing something he likely doesn’t believe. That looks desperate, distressed, and disorganized, and it will only embolden the very people they hoped to intimidate.
The good news for the Senate Leadership Fund is that they will get many other opportunities to make up for this missed one. It is, to say the least, unlikely that Bannon has been deterred. Given his reported intention to target occasional Trump skeptics in the Senate, including Tennessee’s Bob Corker, Mississippi’s Roger Wicker, Nevada’s Dean Heller, and Arizona’s Jeff Flake, Bannon’s forces will be coming up against McConnell’s in the near future. For their sake, here’s hoping that by then the Senate Leadership Fund comes up with a more subtle line of attack. Otherwise, the Republican civil war will be a short one.
We all know "What Happened."
So I spent the day reading What Happened, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s simultaneously interesting and dreadful book about the 2016 campaign.
First, let us dispense with the ludicrous idea that she shouldn’t have written or published it, which was bandied about last week on social media by worried Democrats. First, she probably didn’t actually write all that much of it (she gives credit in the acknowledgments to Dan Schwerin and Megan Rooney, her campaign speechwriters, whom she describes “sitting side by side on my couch, computers on their laps, working on a piece of text”). Second, after the personal abuse she received from Donald Trump in 2016, she owed and owes him no honeymoon deference. Third, Democrats who worry her words will somehow harm their path forward are being both unkind and unjust. And finally, because in concept What Happened is a refreshing and original attempt to offer a candid assessment of a political failure from the perspective of the person who failed. Had it been good, it would have been an instant classic.
It isn’t good, but it’s bad in ways that are instructive. It turns out Mrs. Clinton does not have a gift for genuine introspection; most of her acknowledgments of error are grudging and incomplete, or accompanied by passionate self-justifications and accusations of unfair and unjust treatment at the hands of Trump, the Republicans, the media, men, racists, right-wingers, Matt Lauer, and Bernie Sanders. It’s hard to blame her for this; most of us could not examine our own faults comfortably in print. But it makes the experience of reading the book somewhat tiresome.
To say on the one hand that she won the popular vote and only lost by 77,000 votes in three states and on the other that she lost because of misogyny and racism and nativism is the stuff that would make any reader who isn’t automatically of her camp scratch his or her head in bafflement. Barack Obama won two commanding victories with absolute majorities in 2008 and 2012; how then was her defeat, the defeat of one of the whitest people in America, the result of hatred of black people? The illogic is discomfiting and circular.
She is on firmer ground when she goes after James Comey for his outrageous handling of the email investigation into her. She is right to complain bitterly that his July press conference, in which he all but alleged she had engaged in criminal behavior while announcing no charges against her, was a shocking dereliction of duty. And her argument that his late intrusion into the campaign with his October 28 letter announcing the FBI was examining new information spelled her doom cannot be dismissed.
But this is the problem with examining what happened without really examining it. You could make the claim that Hillary’s defeat was written in the cards at the very beginning of her campaign when she made Huma Abedin her closest aide. Why? Because Abedin was married to Anthony Weiner, the disgraced sex-texting former Congressman and NYC mayoral candidate whose seized-by-the-FBI laptop was the reason Comey reopened the investigation. Clinton could not have known that would happen 20 months earlier, of course. What she could and should have known is that her presidential campaign needed to be as far away from Anthony Weiner as possible because he is a human disease. As unfair as that might have been to her loyal aide Abedin, her political cause on behalf of herself, her party, and the country should have been deemed bigger than the loyalty she might owe any one person. A better and tougher campaign would have kept Abedin on the outside. That is the kind of hard-headed–even hard-hearted–decision a savvy and cool-eyed politician must make. And this is the sort of observation that a tough-minded self-examination would have offered.
She complains that she did everything she should have done and said everything people said she should have said and still lost. She offers convincing proof that this is so and openly expresses bafflement that she was not given credit for speaking to the white working class and its issues, etc. The problem that she cannot face, as her bafflement suggests, is that people didn’t believe she meant what she said, in part because what she said was an endless series of platitudes she could not convince anyone was anything more than platitudes. Whatever Trump is, he’s not platitudinous.
The most interesting part of What Happened comes when she examines the reasons Vladimir Putin had for feeling antipathetic toward her and her own growing concern about Russian intrusion into the West’s political processes. The least interesting, and the most risible, sections involve her effort to come across as a regular person who loves hot sauce (“I’ve been a fan since 1992, when I became convinced it boosted my immune system, as research now shows it does”) and occasionally eats ice cream (“One hot night in Omaha, Nebraska, I was consumed with the desire for an ice cream bar . . .[an aide] called an advance staffer, who kind picked some up from the drug store and met us at the plane on our way out of town”). The falsest moment comes when she explains why she chose to run for president again, which she unconvincingly pretends was a choice that was hard for her to make: “It was the chance to do the most good I would ever be able to do.”
Gimme a break, Tartuffe.