Trump has officially joined the U.S. bipartisan tradition of transforming the House of Saud into a modern military power, but there is a difference, for the Saudis have decided, as well-armed regimes are wont to do, to go on the offensive. One might have thought that the semi-official Salafi jihad that fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and brought us 9/11 would have taught Washington to let the petro-sheikhs focus on managing Oil, Inc. Their financial manipulations were, after all, quite effective, as the rapid collapse of the Arab Spring–and specifically the return of the Egyptian military dictatorship–suggests. But no, Washington now likes Saudis as the shock troops for outright military confrontation, and the new generation of Saudi leaders seems delighted.
Trump–uneasy with Iran’s complicated political stance of stern independence, partial democracy, and willingness to make a landmark nuclear settlement with Obama—evidently feels more comfortable with the authoritarian and starkly male-oriented, and increasingly aggressive Saudi religious plutocracy. Put more simply, Washington and Riyadh both want an alliance against Tehran. But Tehran is not only in the midst of a tacit military cooperation with Washington against the Islamic State but also now enjoys the military protection of Putin, anchored by his new Syrian bases. In any case, that anti-Tehran alliance is the apparent dream in the eye of both Trump and Salman.
So, the Saudis now have the West under control: Trump has, as the titular head of what is no longer called the “last remaining superpower,” conferred upon the petro-sheikhs full authority to consolidate control over the peninsula and, indeed, as much of the Mideast as they can…including semi-democratic Iran. Trump will, following the hallowed footsteps of his much esteemed predecessor Obama and others before him, provide the bombs, and it shall be called the “elimination of extremism.”
A problem does, of course, exist, but it is very theoretical—i.e., beneath the notice of all who want to make someone or something “great again.” More important, it is very long-range, i.e., unlikely to reach fruition within the horizons of someone focused on the mirror. So, it does not matter. But for those self-hating intellectuals who want to inflict pain upon their own brains, here it is: all who understand history know full well the difficulties that exist when two caliphs simultaneously claim authority over all Islam. No religious prejudice is implied: having two contesting chiefs of Christendom has also been known to cause difficulties, as has two contesting chiefs claiming to rule the whole world of communism or the whole world of fascism (this latter, by the way, a not utterly irrelevant comparison, these days). Competing claims for absolute authority do not predictably generate positive-sum conflict resolution in a predatory species.
In the event, the two competing claims for the position of Caliph that have now implicitly been made are pitting the very, very rich and now very, very well armed Salman against the very skillful political operator Erdogan. One can only observe in awe how in a mere afternoon the latter took down the leader of…well, not only is “the last superpower” a bit dated, but so is “the free world”….In any case, Erdogan pinned his opponent not only quickly and in his opponent’s home territory but with cameras running. Just look at the expression of satisfaction on Erdogan’s face.
Compare Erdogan’s march to total power (setting the 21st century model for how to destroy a democracy) and his scornful defiance of Washington (not just violating U.S. constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly but also asserting the right to kill U.S. troops) with Salman’s desperate struggle to gain the upper hand after two years of total air control over poor, starving Yemen. Endless bombs or not, Salman is still trying to figure out the distinction between defeating the opponent and destroying everything…not just the enemy, but one’s allies, one’s own economy, perhaps even the stability of one’s own…well, we are getting ahead of ourselves. The point is that Salman will have his work cut out for him, no matter how hard Trump tries to make the Saudis great again.