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A Fairly Smooth Start to Trump’s Trip

President Donald Trump’s first overseas trip is going well enough, so far. There have been none of the glaringly undiplomatic moments that some feared, some begrudging praise for his speech in Saudi Arabia from the erstwhile Republican foreign policy establishment, and it managed to push all those stories about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia off the front pages and top-of-the-hour reports for a weekend.
No president goes to the Middle East and without provoking some controversy, of course, and Trump was never going to be an exception to that rule. There was some relatively minor quibbling about his swaying along with an all-male sword dance that the Saudis like to do, as well as the usual nitpicking about protocol. Although the left was obliged to praise the First Lady and First Daughter for refusing to cover their hair according to local custom, they also came up with the inevitable past “tweets” by Trump criticizing Democratic visitors for doing the same. The right was mightily pleased that Trump didn’t bow to the Saudi king, as President Barack Obama was accused of doing when he stooped a bit too low to shake hands with the much shorter monarch, but the left delighted in pictures of Trump also leaning a bit to accept a golden medallion from his relatively diminutive host.
There are also the more substantive controversies about more substantive matters, of course. A much-ballyhooed speech to an audience that included several heads of Islamic states managed to avoid the “Islam hates us” and “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on” rhetoric, which was a relief to to his critics on the left but a disappoint to some of his supporters on the right. The speech was quite clear in its opposition to Iran’s regional and global ambitions, which played well on the right and especially well with his Sunni audience, but naturally upset those on the left that had grown accustomed to Obama’s Shiite tilt, and was worrisome to the centrist types who thinks it’s best that America not take either side in the bloody millennia-and-a-half-year-old schism. There was no mention of human rights in the speech, and instead a clear disclaimer that Trump had no intention of telling anyone how to deal with their internal affairs, which these days wins both praise and criticism from certain sections of both sides of the aisle.
The visit also saw the signing of a $110 billion defense deal with the Saudis for some very high-tech weaponry, but that was pretty much the same deal that the Obama administration had negotiated, so no one in either party seemed to have much to say about that. There was also some high-brow discussion about how Trump’s apparent support for authoritarian regimes so long as they suppress terrorism will address the root causes of terrorism, which are thought to include U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes suppressing all sorts of needed reform movements, but in all fairness no one on either the right or left or anywhere in between seems to have figured out what the hell is going on.
Trump’s trip moves on to Israel and the Vatican and Belgium and a G-7 meeting full of wary world leaders before he gets home, so there’s still plenty of potential for something glaringly undiplomatic to happen, but he’s got figure it’s going pretty well so far. If he can keep his thumbs away from a “twitter” machine he might even be able to keep that Russia thing with Trump and Russia on the inside pages and bottom-of-the-hour updates for a whole week, with the inevitable controversies being more easily ignored.

— Bud Norman

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A New Year Opens in the Middle East

Unsurprisingly enough, the first big story of the year is coming at us from the Middle East. That constantly troubled region was already troublesome enough for the rest of the world, what with civil wars breaking out in Syria and Libya and Yemen and elsewhere and the refugees spilling into the west in unmanageable numbers and ballistic missiles test being conducted by aspiring nuclear powers and terrorist attacks occurring from Paris to San Bernardino, but now we’ve got that whole Shi’ite versus Sunni thing coming to a head with increased tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Shi’ite versus Sunni thing goes back more than 1,400 years, and so far as we can tell has something do with whether Mohammad’s family or closest friends should have inherited his spiritual authority, but we’ll skip ahead to the present day when Iran is the most powerful Shi’ite country and Saudi Arabia is the most important Sunni country and the old hatreds still persist. The two countries were already fighting proxy wars in Yemen, where Iran-backed rebels had overthrown the Saudi-backed government, and in an even more complicated war in the former portions of Iraq and Syria that are now controlled by the Islamic State, which is Sunni but threateningly crazy even by Saudi standards, where the Saudis’ ineffectual fighters are also opposed by the Iran-backed Syrian regime and their suddenly dominant Russian ally, but now the tensions have again  been significantly increased. After a couple of decades of imprisonment the Saudis chose the date of January Second to execute, by beheading or firing squad, 46 crazy-even-by-Saudi-standards Sunni terrorists and one prominent Shi’ite cleric. That lattermost execution seemed calculated to inflame Shi’ite sensibilities and quickly led to an arson assault on by an angry mob on the Saudi embassy in Iran, which was clearly tolerated by the otherwise repressive Iranian regime. Since then there’s been a suspension of diplomatic ties and talk of outright war, as well as the usual diplomatic dissembling.
It’s enough to roil the international stock markets and recall Iran’s past assaults on its guest embassies and spur conspiracy theories about how the plunging price of oil is provoking a mutually beneficial war, and it’s bound to affect the ongoing politics of the United States of America. Even such harsh critics are ourselves won’t blame the Obama administration for the more-than-1,400-year-old Sunni versus Shi’ite thing, but even the administration’s most determined apologists can’t muster an argument that the past seven years of American foreign policy have worked out well. The retreat from Iraq is looking very much like a mistake, even if America’s entry into the country is so widely regarded as a mistake that even the leading Republican candidates feel obliged to say so, and that awful deal giving Iran $150 billion and no meaningful restraints on the nuclear weapons program they’ve been flouting ever since it went unsigned is looking more awful than ever, the planned retreat from still-troublesome Afghanistan now looks as if it might await another administration or two, and even modern liberalism’s exquisitely well-intentioned guiding principle about abandoning traditional allies and extending open hands to traditional enemies is now clearly called into question.
The Republicans will be challenged to come up with a plausible solution to this more-than-1,400-year-old mess, and we have little confidence they will, but we expect that even the most stridently xenophobic and reactionary policies they propose will seem more plausible than whatever the Democrats can come up with. The Democrats are by now obliged to pretend that whatever ails the world surely has nothing to do Islam, and that whatever more-than-1,400-year-old problems do seem to be occurring can surely be blamed on George W. Bush’s crazy cowboy ways, and that at any rate climate change is the more pressing concern, so we expect they’ll find themselves in a defensive position by Election Day. There’s no telling what will happen between now and then, but another terror attack on the west seems more likely than an outbreak of peace.
We have little regard for the terror-supporting and theologically totalitarian but not quite so crazy as Islamic State regime of Saudi Arabia, and none whatsoever for the terror-supporting and theologically totalitarian and soon-to-be-nuclear-armed regime of Iran, and at this point our only rooting interesting in the region is for democratic and humane Israel and the last of the Christians and Yazidis and Zoroastrians and secular agnostics and other religious minorities in that dismal part of the world, and we won’t pretend to have solutions to this more-than-1,400-year-old problem. Something different is obviously called for, however, and one way or another we do expect that will eventually occur.

— Bud Norman

Are You Serious? The Bad Guys Are

The pull-out quote of the day belongs to one Jassem Mohammed al-Bayati, a member of the Iraq parliament’s ruling coalition. Explaining to The Washington Post why his government has recently joined “a substantial and serious coalition” with Russia, Iran, and Syria in the fight against the Islamic State, he said: “Iraq has had enough of the unserious support and procedures of the international coalition.”
That unserious international coalition that al-Bayati refers to is the Obama administration and whatever partners it still has on board, so it’s hard to dispute his characterization of their efforts in the region. The administration’s apologists will note that the administration has spent a congressionally authorized $500 million to train and equip 5,400 Syrian good guys to get in on the fight against the Islamic State yet not on the side of Russia, Iran, and Syria, but after days of denial the Pentagon finally apologized last week for the fact that only 54 of them actually took the field, and that at the moment only four of five of them are still in the fight, and that one of them and his 70 or so ragged troops had recently surrendered all their equipment to a group backed by al-Qaeda, which has now reportedly put aside any theological quibbles and allied itself with the Islamic State in the ongoing troubles. Meanwhile, the once formidable fighting forces of the more or less moderates Kurds are getting pounded, largely due to a lack of support from their former American friends, erstwhile allies ranging from Israel to Saudi Arabia are also making plans for a post-American era in the Middle East, and everywhere from Ukraine to Japan people are figuring out that America’s amity has no benefits and America’s enmity brings no consequences. This is bound to strike any Middle Eastern observer as unserious, even in the unlikely event they share Obama’s assessment of the ascendant Islamic State as the “jayvee team” of terrorism.
Russia, Iran, and Syria, on the other hand, must appear quite serious to anyone with an existential stake in the situation. Russia is consolidating its recent gains in Eastern Europe as it assumes a new role as the power broker in the Middle East, Iran is gloating over a deal that gives them an easy path to a nuclear bomb along with a $150 billion signing bonus it can spend on terrorism against the country it continues to call “the Great Satan,” and Syria continues to feel free to cross any red lines that the administration might threaten. The Sunni monarchies that are threatened by both the Shiite Iranian-Syrian axis and the more radical Sunni Islamic State-al-Qaeda axis might yet team up with the Jewish state of Israel, which faces the same threats and suddenly finds itself with some very strange bedfellows, but any alliances that might occur will be made with the clear understanding that the Americans they once counted on are no long serious.
How this might improve America’s standing in the world remains to be seen, but we’re sure the administration’s apologists are already working on some explanation. If the combined might of Russia, Iran, and Syria were to defeat the Islamic State, or at least hold them in the current stalemate through the next election, it will surely indicate the Islamic State really was a “jayvee team” after all. That three of the world’s worst governments would hold sway in a key part of the world, where once valued allies and essential national interests are at stake, well, that can be blamed on George W. Bush or some other manifestation of America’s racist and Islamophobic and imperialist hubris. The vice president once boasted Iraq was a “stable government” and “one of the administration’s greatest achievements” when American troops were pulled out, in keeping with a campaign promise made long before the resultant catastrophe, but that shouldn’t stop him from stating the argument in a presidential campaign.
These are serious times, but we can’t argue with any Iraqi parliament member who thinks we have an unserious administration. We worry that he and a lot of other influential people around the world share our suspicion that the administration was elected and re-elected by an unserious country.

— Bud Norman

Our First Kind Words for the First Lady

Unaccustomed as we are to saying nice things about the First Lady, we have to offer her our kudos for the fashion statement she made Tuesday in Saudi Arabia. She was wearing another one of those garish garments that all the fashion critics swoon over, but it conspicuously did not include the submissive sort of head cover that women are expected to don in deference to the Islamic kingdom. One can only hope that the rest of the diplomatic entourage will be just as bold in asserting western values over foreign custom.
The Saudis are already miffed about America’s recent lack of assertiveness in the region, with the recently deceased king making no secret of his disdain for the administration’s disappearing “red line” in Syria, its solicitous courtship of Shiite and Persian Iran during that country’s ongoing attempt to build nuclear weapons that will threaten Sunni and Arab countries, and its general lack of reliability to longstanding allies. Which is why the president and his wife were flying into Saudi Arabia for some placating words with the new king. The visit will no doubt include assurances that America continues to overlook the country’s horrible human rights record and support for terrorism and world-wide funding of a radical Wahhabi strain of Islamism, and probably some talk about the president’s Islamic parentage and education and his instinctive empathy for the victims of western colonialism and all that, but the reputed Obama charm will have to be more effective than usual. The troublesome Islamic State continues its rampage in Syria, where the troublesome dictator is still in power, American allies in neighboring Yemen have recently had to head for the hills, no one in the Middle East can help noticing that even America’s friendship with Israel has been severely strained, and it will take some rather silver-tongued oratory to teach the Saudis to stop worrying and learn to love the Iranian bomb. There’s a new king in Saudi Arabia, but the view from the throne remains the same.
At this point we can’t think of much more the president might have to offer except an I-Pod full of speeches about the Islamic world’s glorious contributions to world civilization and the Republicans’ diabolical desire for dirty air and dirty water. Retreat and apologia haven’t had the intended pacifying effect on the Middle East, the spats with Israel have not only failed to ingratiate us with the Sunni and Arab countries that suddenly find themselves threatened by the same Shiite and Persian Iran but have also reinforced an American reputation for fecklessness, and resuming our former role as a deterring power in the region is of course impossible for ideological reasons. In the post-FDR and pre-Obama era all the talk on a trip to Saudi Arabia would have been oil prices, which have lately been low due hydraulic fracturing and the Saudi’s efforts to undercut America’s domestic industry as well as the Iranian government into submission, but this issue attracted little attention in the news coverage. Given Obama’s ideological opposition to fossil fuels and his political desire to take credit for the oil boom, we would have been interested to hear what he said if the subject ever did come up.
So, we figure the First Lady might as well keep her head uncovered while visiting Saudi Arabia. Perhaps it was just a fashion statement, or just a manifestation of that sense of entitlement that is so frequently annoying in a domestic context, or even some signal that the administration is about to sign off on Persian and Shiite hegemony in the Middle East, but we’d like to think she was making a small gesture on behalf of the right of women everywhere to freely choose what they wear. This would imply a broader criticism of the treatment of women in much of the Islamic world, and call into question the validity of the cultural relativism that has become an unassailable tenet of the western left, and although we doubt she intended to go quite that far we credit her with taking a small step.

— Bud Norman

Foul Language and Fouler Policies

The vulgar language an unnamed senior White House official used to describe Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting all the attention, but The Atlantic Monthly story headlined “The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations is Officially Here” is full of far more disturbing revelations. Even a crisis in America’s relationship with its most important Middle East ally might not be the worst of it.
Not that the vulgarity isn’t worth noting. The unnamed senior White House official used a barnyard epithet commonly understood to mean coward, which is a most peculiar slander against a former special forces soldier who fought with distinction in two wars and a series of daring missions and as Prime Minister has led his country through existential wars, and odder yet coming from an official speaking on behalf of a former community organizer who will never be mistaken for Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and has long made clear that he considers Netanyahu all too inclined to fight. Senior White House officials astute enough to remain unnamed are not likely to have let such a phrase slip out accidentally, so one can only assume that the insult was carefully chosen.
What renders the insult completely absurd, however, is that the official was accusing Netanyahu of cowardice for failing to launch a war against Iran that the United States government has exerted great effort to prevent. The unnamed senior White House official even boasts that Israel’s failure to attack Iran’s nuclear weapons program “was a combination of our pressure and (Netanyahu’s) own unwillingness to do anything dramatic.” So the administration will deliberately insult a key ally as a coward for not doing something they had pressured him not to do, a mindset far more worrisome than the juvenile language used to express it. Netanyahu is also faulted for failing to “reach an accommodation with the Palestinians and Sunni Arab states,” as if a Palestinian government that lobs rockets at Israeli civilians and proudly proclaims its desire to destroy the Jewish state has any interest in making peace, and as if the Sunni Arab states aren’t currently more worried about the nuclear program in Shiite and Persian Iran that the United States has restrained Israel from destroying, so there’s no mistaking that America is pursuing a Middle Eastern policy based on false assumptions.
The historically crucial relationship between Israel and the United States can be repaired by a new administration in this country, and Netanyahu has proved himself brave enough to continue the defense of his country no matter what unnamed senior White House officials might think of it, but the article hints at possibilities that will be harder for future presidents to deal with. Written by a noted sycophant for the White House and clearly intended to convey its sneering contempt for a key ally, the article credits the administration’s cunning use of an Israeli for “what turned out to be an effective sanctions regime,” but it fails to mention that the sanctions have been weakened and the nuclear program continues and doesn’t seem to notice that unnamed senior White House official seems mostly relieved that it’s “Now too late” for a military strike that would end it. That pressure that the official boasts about was achieved largely with promises that America will never allow Iran to gain a nuclear weapon, but at this point even a sycophantic article in The Atlantic Monthly leaves an unmistakeable impression that was just another promise never intended to be kept. No one named or unnamed in the administration speaks as harshly of Iran’s brutal theocratic rulers as they do about the leader of the one humane and democratic nation in the region, the White House has kept its “open hand” policy intact despite the worries it causes those Sunni Arab nations that Israel is expected to accommodate, further overtures to the Iranians have been made in the futile hope they will help in our desultory efforts to fight the Islamic State terror gang that continues to gain territory in Iraq, and an Iranian bomb now seems a fait accompli.
Senior White House officials can be expected to deliver on-the-record speeches about containment and moral equivalence and deterrence and other reasons not to be worried about a nuclear bomb in the hands of a government that routinely shouts “Death to America,” but we will not be reassured. Cold War analogies are always suspect coming from a party that advised surrender in that conflict starting with the McGovern campaign and continues to decrease America’s nuclear defenses, and the mutually assured destruction that worked with an officially atheist communist government might not work out as well with an apocalyptic suicide cult hoping to bring about the arrival of the twelfth mahdi and the prophesied end times. Those Sunni Arab states that the administration wants the Israelis to appease will probably seek their accommodations with Pakistan-provided nuclear weapons of their own when their mortal enemy acquires one, especially when it has been made so clear that America’s protection cannot be counted on, and a nuclear arms race in a region so riven with ancient hatreds and fanaticism is unlikely to end well. At that point, even the most vulgar language will be required to describe the outcome.

— Bud Norman

Christians, Yazidis, and Islamism

We have nothing against Yazidis, never having even heard of the people until we heard the alarming news that they were being slaughtered in Iraq by the terrorist army calling itself the Islamic State in Levant, but it does strike us a strange that they seem to enjoy such a favored status in the west. Many different kinds of people are being slaughtered by ISIL, after all, but it seems to have taken the Yazidis’ extreme misfortune to draw the rest of the world’s attention to the situation.
Those being slaughtered, and often by such brutal methods as beheading and crucifixion, are anyone in ISIL’s path who won’t willingly embrace its ancient and insane version of Islam. This includes any Shiite Muslim or even those Sunni Muslims who prefer a more peaceable approach to Islam, but also the adherents of a variety of other little-known religions as well as a significant number of Christians. ISIL was dismissed months ago by the President of the United States as a “jayvee team” of terrorists, and his officials continued to scoff even as it spilled over from its successful campaigns in Syria deep into Iraq, and it wasn’t until they had forced the last of Iraq’s Yazidis into the tenuous refuge of Mount Sinjar that he took the politically risky step of ordering air strikes and a limited American military presence in a country from which he had once proudly pulled all American troops. The speech explaining the decision was long on heartbreaking details about the Yazidis’ suffering, but strangely short on any mention of the threat that ISIL posed to the rest of a country that America had fought long and hard to liberate from such brutality.
The chilling thought that a religious minority in any country might be so brutally extinguished is ample justification for American action, and we welcome any reason for intervening in Iraq’s tragedy, even on such a limited and likely ineffectual basis, but it’s disappointing that the non-Yazidi victims of ISIL’s rampage didn’t warrant the same attention. We take a rooting interest in Christianity, and thus were particularly disappointed that our co-religionists who are being forced by ISIL to abandon their faith, be subjected to a harsh dhimmitude, or die didn’t rate more prominent mention as a causus belli. Nothing against Yazidis, as we mentioned earlier, but we’d like to think that America still regards a Christian’s life as having equal value.
There’s a plausible argument that the eradication of Iraq’s Yazidi population would represent a religious genocide, whereas the faiths of ISIL’s other victims would survive elsewhere, but we are unconvinced. What we can find of this Yazidi on the internet is inconclusive, with some sources saying it traces back to pre-Islamic faiths such as Zoroastrianism and other describing it as one of the many idiosyncratic variations of Islam, but almost all agree that it has a few adherents who had the good sense to vacate Iraq and head to more tolerant countries, and in any case all of ISIL’s infidel targets are danger of being eradicated from whatever land it manages to occupy. There’s also an understandable reluctance to take sides in the longstanding blood feud between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, on which we are also quite neutral, but we would expect American policy to favor the non-beheading and non-crucifying sorts of Muslims over the likes of ISIL. The apparent lack of concern for the rapidly diminishing population of Christians in a country where Christianity has been faithfully practiced since the Apostle Thomas first evangelized there in the first century will likely go unexplained.
One explanation might be that the administration does not wish to inflame more moderate Muslim sensibilities with any implication that the west’s resistance to Islamism Islamism is a Christian crusade, a point that even such a confessed Christian and stalwart anti-Islamist as George W. Bush went to great pains to make, but when you reel off all the sympathetic victims of ISIL it wouldn’t do any real harm to add Christians in passing. Perhaps it’s just the paranoia that is begin to infect the American Christian community, but we suspect it has more to with the modern left’s antipathy to our faith. The same administration that has made no mention of ISIL’s genocidal efforts against Christians has been in court arguing that evangelical businessmen and Catholic nuns should be obliged to pay for their less sexually repressed employees’ contraception, and is as insistent that “America is not a Christian country” as it is that “The future should belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.” Islamists might be beheading homosexuals and adulterers elsewhere, but here in the United States some Christians are still opposing gay marriage or declining to pony up for Sandra Fluke’s contraceptives, and the left has made clear its preference for the exotic “other.”
The ISIL leader who was freed from American captivity during our occupation of Iraq told his former captors that “I’ll see you in New York,” but until then the left will figure that he’s somebody else’s problem and only wish that he’d leave alone such a little-known and therefore sympathetic group as the Yazidis. They won’t notice that the only portion of the world that subscribes to anything like their values of tolerance and secular government and women’s right and gay rights and the rest of the leftist agenda is what used to be known as Christendom, or that a world rid of those stuffy Christians won’t be at all agreeable. The Caliphate that is being established in what used to be Syria and Iraq has no intention of stopping there, and must be resisted by everyone that doesn’t share its sadistic and insane beliefs. That includes the secular left, and it might as well reconcile itself to the fact that it also includes Christians.

— Bud Norman