Streetwise Professor

May 23, 2017

A Bilious Harpy Gets Trump’s Riyadh Adventure Exactly Wrong

Filed under: Politics — The Professor @ 11:10 am

There are things to criticize about Trump’s recent extravaganza in Saudi Arabia. Most notably, the good vs. evil rhetoric regarding Iran was redolent of Bush’s Axis of Evil approach, and sits uneasily with the president’s claimed commitment to foreign policy realism. On that, in the end, I will judge more on the basis of actions than words, especially given the frequent disconnect between Trump’s words and deeds.

There’s criticism and skepticism, and then there is the drivel emanating from Anne Applebaum and her ilk. The bilious harpy could barely contain herself in attacking Trump’s trip in a WaPoop doped (pronounced “dope ed”). She shrieked out six criticisms.


It was a very strange choice for a first trip abroad. The past four American presidents, two Republicans and two Democrats, made their first trips to either Mexico and Canada, countries that are close trading partners, close allies, compatible democracies and of course neighbors. Trump chose, instead, to make his first presidential visit to an oligarchic kleptocracy which forces women to hide their faces and forbids them to travel without a male guardian’s permission.

Annie, babe: this is your best shot? This is what you led off with? Seriously. For one thing, previous presidents could be criticized for timidity, not to say political cowardice, by making a safe, conventional first trip. Trump, conversely, scorned the training wheels and dove right into the US’s most vexing foreign policy challenge.

As for the unsavory nature of the Saudi regime, well the oil ticks are indeed repulsive in many ways, but enlightened states are rather in short supply in the region–which is exactly why it is the US’s most vexing foreign policy challenge. We have to deal with the present realities, rather than stand aloof and let oligarchic kleptocrats have free rein. As for Saudi culture, (a) it is quite beyond the capability of the US to change in the slightest, (b) any attempt to do so will only stir up trouble (and terrorism), and (c) it is not our place to do so even if we could or there wouldn’t be blowback. But perhaps Anne is making an argument for restricting Muslim immigration into the US.


It was a very strange place to speak out against Islamist extremism. Although Saudi Arabia is afraid of some forms of Islamist extremism, it supports others. Saudi Arabia sponsors extremist Wahabi mosques and imams all over the world; Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen, as were 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.

Bravo, Anne. 180 degrees from reality! No: Saudis are exactly who need to hear stern talk about terrorism, and the US commitment to fight it. Trump actually uttered the words “Islamist extremism” in his speech as delivered, and his prepared remarks included “Islamic extremism”: supposedly exhaustion accounts for the slightly different (though potentially crucial) distinction. This is about as close as one can imagine a president calling out the sponsors of terrorism on their home turf, and is a welcome change from Obama’s reluctance to utter anything similar even from the comfort of US soil. This is also an important signal that the bonhomie–and billions in arms sales–of the Riyadh meetings do not reflect a denial of important truths. There is an implicit conditionality here, which is important.


The sword dance. Every American president has met with his Saudi counterparts, and of course the stability of Saudi Arabia, as well as its oil, is an important U.S. security concern. But until now American presidents made it clear that, while we have to deal with Saudi leaders, we don’t endorse their culture. Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others in the delegation did exactly that, by participating in this sinister all-male dance.

Ever heard the phrase “when in Rome,” Anne? Participating in a farcical (decidedly non-aquatic) ceremony involving strange men (no women!) distributing swords is hardly an endorsement of Saudi culture–or of the basis of their government. It’s a trivial indulgence which can grease the wheels in down-to-business bargaining. Note that Tillerson said this wasn’t his first sword dance: he knows that’s how it’s done. When Trump holds an all male cast sword dance in the Oval Office, wake me.

And by the way, doesn’t this cut against the narrative that Trump is an anti-Muslim hater?


Ivanka Trump’s “outreach” to women entrepreneuers. Saudi women must cover their heads and often their faces. They cannot drive cars, cannot (see above) travel without the permission of male guardians and are deprived of legal rights and education. In that context, Ivanka Trump’s promotion of female “entrepreneurs” looked like a cynical public relations gambit, which of course it was. The announcement that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will donate money to her fund was a “pay to play” far more blatant than anything Hillary Clinton ever dreamed of.

Note that this isn’t “her fund”: this is a World Bank initiative. Further, and more importantly, would it be better that we completely ignore the issue of women in KSA? Yes, it is a small step, especially in light of the retrograde treatment of women not just in Saudi Arabia but the Muslim world generally. But it is something, and in particular it is something that contradicts Annie’s claims about endorsing Saudi culture. Again, we ain’t gonna change it, and it ain’t our place to change it.


Tillerson talking about human rights in Iran. Yes, Americans are often hypocritical about where and when they promote human rights. But to denounce human rights in Iran while standing in Saudi Arabia, a place where there is no political freedom and no religious freedom, brought hypocrisy to a whole new level. Better not to have said anything at all.

It’s called realpolitik. There are books about it. Read one, Anne. And yet again, it is futile, and indeed counterproductive, to make major strategic decisions on the basis of human rights in the ME. Because there ain’t any, anywhere. This should be about advancing American interests, and hold the iPhone, but hypocrisy is the essence of diplomacy, especially in the Middle East.

It’s also interesting that Anne and her ilk don’t point out how this flatly contradicts the Trump-is-Putin’s-bitch narrative. Russia and the Saudis are adversaries in the Middle East. Russia and Iran are allied in the Middle East. Trump taking a hard line against Iran and siding with the Saudis is diametrically opposed to Russian policy in the Middle East.

Sixth, my favorite:

Tillerson holding a news conference for foreign press only.The U.S. press corps was not invited. Presumably this was because the White House doesn’t want Americans to find out what the president was doing in Saudi Arabia?

Good! This is a welcome, and well-deserved “fuck you!” It never ceases to amaze me that the media engages in unrelentingly hostile coverage of the administration–coverage that ranges from the tendentious to the libelous–and yet expects to be indulged and pampered. Yes, Trump (and Tillerson) are breaking the Washington rules–great! The rules are stacked in favor of the sleep deprived, dehydrated, over-caffeinated, boozy, junk-food eating, low-brain function narcissists who call themselves “journalists,” and bore us with their conceit that they are the guardians of the republic. They deserve a good smacking, and their wails and laments are music to my ears. I hope they get another. And another.

And as for finding out what happened, um, if we were kept in the dark then how did Anne know about items 1-5 of her screed? Believe me, we lost nothing–and probably gained–by the inability of aforementioned sleep-deprived, dehydrated, etc., journalists to ask some snarky questions. They can fuck off presently, and kudos to Tillerson for telling them to do so in not so many words.

Anne Applebaum is the poster child for the elite whose serial failures and utter cluelessness made Trump president. What happened in November was first and foremost a reaction to that elite. And Anne shows daily that like the Bourbons, she has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. There are substantive grounds to criticize Trump on most things, including his Middle East policy but all Anne Applebaum has done is rant dishonestly about the least objectionable, and often praiseworthy, things that Trump did in Riyadh.


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  1. If the journalists were worth anything they would anyway avoid press conferences and sally forth to investigate. Though they would be wise not to try that in Saudi unless they wished to be abbreviated.

    Comment by dearieme — May 23, 2017 @ 2:45 pm

  2. WaPo might better be termed ResistPo. Bezos seems to be throwing up the progressive bat signal to the NYT to get them to layoff the exposes vis a vis HR at Amazon.

    1. The trip was not particularly momentous — but given the general expectations were for abject failure, it was successful. The Manchester bombing drives home the point, sadly, around terrorism.

    2. Establishment Democrats are reaching sub-Breitbart-dealing-with-Obama levels of nitpicky/erroneous/deranged/irrational about Trump — not a high bar. Barring egregious disclosures on Russia, it’s hard not to see Trump’s approval ratings trending up to the mid 40’s over the next several months as the public increasingly tunes out shrill reporting. Trump can exceed the low expectations many will have of him and it will be hard to get traction for stories after 6+ months of screaming wolf.

    Comment by FTR — May 23, 2017 @ 8:05 pm

  3. And yet this is the same woman who wrote a history of the Soviet gulag system. The lack of self-awareness in modern Progressives is startling to behold.

    Comment by Christopher — June 2, 2017 @ 7:13 pm

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