Andrew Bacevich: The U.S.-Saudi Relationship Is a Principal Source of Instability in the Middle East

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We look at a number of recent developments in U.S.-Saudi relations, a day after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing for retired four-star general John Abizaid to become U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. On Monday, the Trump administration gave a private briefing to senators on the investigation into the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October. Senators slammed the briefing for providing no new information. Meanwhile, The New York Times has revealed new details about the jailing and torture of a doctor with U.S. citizenship in Saudi Arabia. Walid Fitaihi is a Harvard-trained doctor who has been jailed without charge since 2017. We speak with Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and Vietnam War veteran, author and professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University, and William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin with a number of recent developments in U.S.-Saudi relations. On Monday, the Trump administration gave a private briefing to senators on the investigation into the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October. Senators slammed the briefing for providing no new information. Lawmakers have accused the Trump administration of covering up the role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in ordering the killing. A number of Republican senators criticized the briefing. Lindsey Graham called the briefing “worthless.” Marco Rubio called it, quote, “not the right approach.” John Barrasso said, quote, “I’m not happy.”

The briefing came just days after President Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner made a secretive trip to Saudi Arabia to meet with King Salman and the Saudi crown prince. The Daily Beast reports officials and staffers in the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh were not told the details of Kushner’s trip, and no one from the embassy took part in the meetings.

Meanwhile, The New York Times has revealed new details about the jailing and torture of a doctor with U.S. citizenship in Saudi Arabia. Walid Fitaihi is a Harvard-trained doctor who has been jailed without charge since 2017. He was first detained alongside hundreds of other prominent Saudis at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, where he was reportedly electroshocked and whipped.

AMY GOODMAN: This all comes as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a confirmation hearing for retired four-star general John Abizaid to become U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. The U.S. hasn’t had an ambassador there for two years. Abizaid, who is of Lebanese descent, served as the head of U.S. Central Command from 2003 to 2007, overseeing much of the first four years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Abizaid’s first combat experience took place in 1983 during the U.S. invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. During Wednesday’s hearing, Abizaid defended the U.S. relationship with the Saudi kingdom.

JOHN ABIZAID: It is difficult to imagine a successful U.S. effort to undercut Sunni extremism or keep Iran in check without engaging and partnering with the kingdom. This is not to say that I am unaware of the challenges facing the U.S.-Saudi partnership today. War in Yemen, the senseless killing of Jamal Khashoggi, rifts in the Gulf alliance, alleged abuses of innocent people to include an American citizen and female activists, all present immediate challenges. Yet, in the long run, we need a strong and mature partnership with Saudi Arabia.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: During the Senate hearing, Republican Senator Marco Rubio directly attacked Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: How do we balance all of this with this important regional and strategic partnership? Because this guy is making it harder. He’s gone full gangster. And it’s difficult to work with a guy like that, no matter how important the relationship is.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Marco Rubio. To talk more about the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia and the nomination of General John Abizaid, we’re joined by two guests. In Washington, D.C., retired colonel, Vietnam War vet, Andrew Bacevich. He recently wrote a piece for Le Monde Diplomatique headlined “Abizaid of Arabia.” He’s the author of several books, including Twilight of the American Century, professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University. And here in New York, William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Andrew Bacevich, let’s begin with you. This hearing yesterday and, again, for the first time in two years, the possibility of having a U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, your assessment of John Abizaid?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, first of all, the fact that we haven’t had an ambassador for two years, I think, suggests how important it is to have ambassadors. They don’t make policy. General Abizaid won’t make policy. U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia is made in Washington. More specifically, it’s made in the White House. More specifically still, it appears to be made by the president’s son-in-law.

So, Abizaid had a very successful career as a U.S. Army officer, finishing up four-star general, commanded Central Command. I think the highlight of his tenure as commander of Central Command occurred soon after he was appointed to the position. This is summer of 2003, after the fall of Baghdad, just as resistance to U.S. occupation is beginning to form. And the line offered by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld at that time was that the resistance was of no consequence, it was a few dead-enders, and that things were on track. And Abizaid, to his credit, had the courage to say, “No, we are facing the beginnings of an insurgency,” which was a correct assessment. The problem is that over the remaining course of his tenure as commander of Central Command, little of what he did resulted in an effective response to that insurgency. Things just kept getting worse. So, kudos to him for a moment of honesty, but if we judge him against the great captains of history, he doesn’t rate very highly.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Bill Hartung, your assessment of Abizaid, his record, and Trump’s decision to nominate him as the next ambassador to Saudi Arabia?

WILLIAM HARTUNG: Well, I think the fact that he was head of Central Command during the height of the Iraq intervention alone should disqualify him from being ambassador. As Andrew Bacevich said, it’s not a powerful post—it doesn’t make policy—but I think it’s the wrong signal. It puts a military face on a U.S. foreign policy that’s already overmilitarized. And I think his testimony, where he called things like the Yemen war and the murder of Khashoggi “challenges,” those aren’t challenges, those are crimes. And I think the fact that he’s already soft-pedaling that doesn’t bode well for how he would serve as ambassador.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to go back to 2003, when then-President Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant “Mission Accomplished” banner and declared the end of the war in Iraq.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: My fellow Americans, major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s Bush’s so-called “mission accomplished” speech in May of 2003, just weeks after the U.S. invaded Iraq. Andrew Bacevich, in your recent piece for Le Monde Diplomatique headlined “Abizaid of Arabia,” you point out that the following year, in 2004, John Abizaid coined the term “the Long War,” suggesting that the mission in Iraq was far from accomplished. Abizaid also said early on that the real threat to the U.S. in the region comes not from Iran or Iraq, but from Salafist jihadists whose ideology both originates in and finds support from none other than, of course, Saudi Arabia. You go on to say, quote, “[T]here is more than a little poetic justice—or is it irony?—in General Abizaid’s proposed posting to Riyadh. The one senior military officer who early on demonstrated an inkling of understanding of the Long War’s true nature now prepares to take up an assignment in what is, in essence, the very center of the enemy’s camp,” you wrote. So, given what you’ve said, given Trump’s extremely close alliance with Saudi Arabia, why do you think he’s chosen to nominate possibly the one senior military figure who has identified Saudi Arabia itself as the source of so much conflict in the region itself and opposition to the interests of the U.S.?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think that, based on General Abizaid’s testimony at his confirmation hearings, he has abandoned the analysis that he had made back in 2003, 2004. Just the clip you played showed him basically reciting what has been the standard line with regard to the U.S.-Saudi relationship going back decades. That is to say that this partnership, as he called it, is of great strategic importance to the United States. And then, of course, he when on to recite, you know, in a notably passionless way, the complaints that we have about Saudi policies and promising to give them due attention.

So, what is so striking, I think, you know, here we are in 2019, so many years after the debacle that George W. Bush launched in 2003, and the conversation, the debate, such as it is, still remains superficial and, I think, avoids confronting some of the basic contradictions. And at the center of the contradictions, really, is the conviction that, somehow or another, the United States has a vital interest in maintaining a partnership with Saudi Arabia. Virtually nobody within the foreign policy establishment is willing to examine that notion, and it’s past time that we did examine it critically.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2008, General Abizaid made headlines for comments he made about the Middle East at a conference at Stanford. General Abizaid admitted the Iraq War was over oil. He said, quote, “Of course it’s about oil. We can’t really deny that.” He [sic] went on to say, quote, “We’ve treated the Arab world as a collection of big gas stations. Our message to them is: Guys, keep your pumps open, prices low, be nice to the Israelis, and you can do whatever you want out back. Osama and 9/11 is the distilled essence that represents everything going on out back,” [Thomas Friedman] said. [Editor’s Note: Friedman’s quote was originally attributed to Abizaid during the broadcast. The Stanford Daily, which originally reported on the roundtable, incorrectly attributed some of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s comments to Abizaid.] Your response, Andrew Bacevich?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, apparently he’s forgotten that commentary, because he’s now basically reciting the line, again, with regard to Saudi Arabia, that this is a strategically important country. What he said in 2008 is clear in the implication—and this is simply factually correct—that the American way of life, that we once thought was dependent upon having access to Persian Gulf oil, is not. No, we don’t need Persian Gulf oil. And yet, that fact has not yet sunk in with the foreign policy establishment and provided a basis for a fundamental re-evaluation not only of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, but a re-evaluation of the larger assumption that the Persian Gulf really, really matters to the well-being of the United States. It doesn’t. And were we to accept that fact, then the possibility of rethinking U.S. policy in the region would become evident—not simply re-evaluating the relationship with Saudi Arabia, but re-evaluating the assumption that Iran is somehow the great enemy that now threatens stability in the region. The real threat to stability in the region has been misguided U.S. policy over the past two decades.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But do you see the focus at all shifting, Andrew Bacevich, if his nomination, Abizaid’s nomination, is confirmed, given what his positions were in the past?

ANDREW BACEVICH: No. I mean, I suppose he could become ambassador. Again, I really don’t think ambassadors have all that much influence. I suppose he could become ambassador and then forget what he said yesterday in his confirmation hearings. But my expectation is that whoever he spoke to in the administration in order to get this appointment, that he assured the administration that he was going to play the game. Now, is there a possibility of change? I think so.

Yesterday—if I can change the topic just slightly—I participated in an event sponsored by congressional progressives to talk about the possibility of creating a progressive framework for U.S. foreign policy. This would be a rather large project. Maybe it will never occur. But the participants—I was struck by the extent to which the participants in that event are completely open to asking fundamental questions about some of these deeply embedded assumptions that guide U.S. policy. And one of those has to do with the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. So there are people on Capitol Hill, in Washington, who are willing to ask those questions. Whether or not they can forge a sufficient group to make a difference, I think, remains to be seen.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s very interesting to have a U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, given that many people might confuse Jared Kushner for that, or perhaps secretary of state or perhaps national security adviser, because, you know, at the height of the split-screen news events of a few weeks ago, where Michael Cohen was testifying in the public hearing in Congress, the North Korea summit was happening in Vietnam, Jared Kushner slipped into Saudi Arabia, as we just said at the beginning of this segment, without consulting the U.S. Embassy there, etc., and has this private meeting with the Saudi king and the crown prince, who he has been WhatsApping with and who apparently he is very close to. The significance of this New York developer, who, like his father-in-law, a developer here in New York, who becomes the senior adviser—apparently it was President Trump himself who, defying intelligence recommendations, gave him a top security clearance—and he goes and has whatever conversation he has with the crown prince, that first face-to-face meeting since the murder of Khashoggi. And I wanted to ask if you think anything will change. You write in your piece about this relationship the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia. You write, quote, “Next to oil, violent jihadism is Saudi Arabia’s principal export. Indeed, the former funds the latter.” Explain what you mean.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, this is well known, I think, that the Saudi royal family, in order to tamp down resistance, internal resistance, to its rule, has played to ultraconservative Muslim clerics by investing enormous sums in exporting ultraconservative Islam in other parts of the world and, in effect, underwriting organizations that end up conducting terrorist attacks, not only against the United States, but against other countries and other regimes. Now, there is some evidence that in recent years they have backed off from this tendency, but, nonetheless, if we try to understand the origins of a radical Islamism in some parts of the Muslim world, we have to recognize the important role that Saudi Arabia has played in creating this problem. And further, we have to recognize that the U.S. efforts to respond to that problem, by invading countries and bombing countries and overthrowing regimes, has not dampened the problem down but has actually worsened it. So, in that sense, the U.S.-Saudi relationship is at the very nexus of the—is one of the principal sources of the instability that plagues the region at the present moment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Andrew Bacevich, as you say, of course, these Salafist groups that Saudi Arabia has supported, of course, many of those groups have come to attack the U.S. and Europe, but, of course, the principal victims of those groups are Muslims in the Muslim world and the Arab world. Could you elaborate on what some of the effects of these groups and this violence has been on the region itself, the ongoing wars in Iraq, in Afghanistan, what’s been folding in Yemen? If you could say little bit about the role of these groups?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Oh, I mean, I wish I had come armed with statistics, because they are depressing. But if we would take 2003 as the start date—2001, perhaps better, when we invaded Afghanistan, as the start date for this destabilizing military project that we have been involved in ever since, you know, we’ve killed hundreds of thousands of people. We have displaced millions, creating huge refugee problems. If Americans care about it, we’ve spent trillions of dollars of American taxpayer money. We have, of course, lost thousands of our own soldiers, and there are tens of thousands of veterans who have had their lives shattered, irreparably shattered, as a result of their military service in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

I have to say, one of the things that I find so disturbing about the present political moment, as we obsess about Donald Trump—and there’s plenty of reason to obsess about Donald Trump—is that all the rest of this, this sequence of events, somehow gets lost, doesn’t find any purchase in the American collective consciousness. And I think that that failure, that moral failure on our part, to take measure of the evil that we have perpetrated over the past couple of years is a judgment on the part of the American people. We don’t care, to put it bluntly—the collective “we.” We don’t care about the havoc that we have caused in a large part of the world. And we are too easy to forget and to move on, or to turn our attention to other issues, like, you know, Donald Trump.

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Bacevich: Questioning U.S.-Israel Ties Has Long Been Impermissible in Congress, But That’s Changing

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