On his first overseas trip as president, Donald Trump traveled not to Canada, or to Mexico, or to Britain, or to France, but to Saudi Arabia, where he was, to his obvious delight, greeted like a king. According to a New York Times report from Riyadh, “The Saudis treated him like royalty, with red carpets, lavish meals and American flags flying everywhere.” During his two-day visit to the Wahhabi Kingdom, Trump was awarded a gold medal, danced along with Saudi swordsmen, and made time to sign a series of agreements with Saudi King Salman, which included a new arms deal totaling $460 billion over 10 years.
What a long way Trump has come since last year’s campaign, when, during the final presidential debate, he declared that “our country cannot afford to defend Saudi Arabia…and many other places.” During that debate, Trump also criticized the Clinton Foundation (“a criminal enterprise”) for accepting $25 million in Saudi money, because “these are people that push gays…off buildings. These are people that kill women and treat women horribly and yet you take their money.”
But once in office, Trump’s criticisms were quickly muted. By February, CIA director Mike Pompeo had traveled to Riyadh to bestow the George Tenet Award upon the kingdom’s interior minister, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef. And soon enough, reports were emerging of a Pentagon plan that would increase US support for the Saudis’ grotesque war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
So what explains the turnaround? The ease with which Trump abandons previously held positions is by now well known. But another factor that explains the turnaround is the power and skill of the Saudi lobby in reinforcing the already deeply entrenched view that US national interests are best served by an alliance with Riyadh in order to check Iranian influence in the region.
Obsession With Iran
From its earliest days, the Trump administration wasted little time in signaling that it would soon be turning President Obama’s Middle East policy, which could be characterized by a wariness of the Saudis and a willingness to negotiate with the Iranians, on its head.
Before his confirmation as defense secretary, retired general James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Iran “has proven to be the primary source of turmoil in the Middle East.” Mattis said, “Iranian malign influence in the region is growing. Iran is the biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East and its policies are contrary to our interest.”
Focusing on Iran to the exclusion of all else also has the benefit of appeasing the Israelis, while the blossoming friendship between Israel and Saudi Arabia also serves to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s hand in Washington. A revealing exchange between Lesley Stahl and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu on 60 Minutes in December sums up the new state of play in the Middle East: