President Donald Trump’s nine-day-long “tolerance tour” will continue this Friday with a visit to Saudi Arabia. The junket offers Trump a brief respite from the suffocating atmosphere in Washington, where he faces a mounting campaign fueled by anonymous leaks from intelligence officials that is aimed at nothing less than his impeachment and replacement by a more supplicant Republican.
Trump’s ties to Saudi Arabia run deep. During the campaign, even as Trump blamed the Saudi royal family for the 9/11 attacks, he registered eight companies connected to hotel interests in the kingdom. Once Trump was inaugurated, the Saudis returned the favor, paying for rooms at his Washington, D.C., hotel through Qorvis MSLGroup, a Beltway lobbying firm. The rooms were reserved for a group of veterans flown into town by Qorvis to lobby against the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA) congressional legislation that would allow the bereaved family members of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government for its alleged role in the attacks.
Many of the veterans had no idea they were acting on behalf of Saudi Arabia, and some, like Tim Cord, staged an open revolt when they realized they had been deceived. “We’re sitting in a room full of retired generals, colonels, men who gave 25 years of their life to this country and they’re being lied to by a bunch of young punks who are using the vet angle to make themselves sympathetic. Why do you think a 60-year-old general would want anything to do with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia?” Cord, a veteran of the Iraq war, complained to the website 28pages.org, “I mean, that’s a pretty heavy thing to assume we’re all going to be cool with.”
Throughout his chaotic tenure, Saudi Arabia has proven to be Trump’s most durable foreign ally, even providing him with political cover after the fallout from his Muslim travel ban. Following a White House meeting this March with Trump and his national security team, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman hailed the president as “a true friend of Muslims who will serve the Muslim World in an unimaginable manner, opposite to the negative portrait of his Excellency that some have tried to promote.”
Ahead of the White House meeting, the Saudis hired a D.C.-based consulting group, Booz Allen Hamilton, to compose a special presentation for the president. Prince Mohammed walked Trump through the Powerpoint slideshow the firm prepared, outlining a plan to invest at least $200 billion in American infrastructure and open up new business opportunities for U.S. companies inside the kingdom. In exchange, Trump was asked to ink the largest weapons deal in history, forking over the advanced missile defense systems and heavy weapons the Obama had administration had refused to sell. The weapons would then be used to pulverize Yemen.
Trump reportedly accepted Salman’s pitch, but only on the condition that Saudis plow their infrastructure investments into the Rust Belt swing states—Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin—that held the key to his 2020 presidential victory. So far, Trump’s foes in the Democratic Party and the organized liberal “resistance” have shrugged at the reports of his collusion with a foreign theocracy to secure re-election, obsessing instead over nebulous claims of his illicit ties to Russia.
When Trump arrives in Riyadh this week, he plans to deliver a speech that will “demonstrate America’s commitment to our Muslim partners,” according to his National Security Council Director, Gen. H.R. McMaster. The address will likely have less to do with tolerance than with interests that converge around hostility to Iran, the drive to destroy a government in Yemen that is seen as its proxy, and selling the tens of billions in weapons the meat grinder operation requires. The spectacle will nevertheless give the president the chance to bask in the admiring glow of a Muslim ally, countering his image back home as a glowering bigot.
The 31-year-old aide who composed Trump’s speech is Stephen Miller, an ultra-conservative operative who entered the administration under the watch of Steven Bannon, the former Breitbart News editor-in-chief. A key author of Trump’s legally nullified Muslim ban, Miller was at the vanguard of a generation of right-wing activists that cohered around the post-9/11 politics of Islamophobia. Orchestrated with the full cooperation of the Saudi royal family, the spectacle of Trump’s speech will represent Miller’s crowning moment, helping him paper over his anti-Muslim past and consolidating his role as one of the president’s most trusted spin artists.
The Islamophobia Industry’s Alex P. Keaton
During his days at Santa Monica High School, a bastion of coastal liberalism, Miller distinguished himself as a hyper-active conservative troll in the mold of Alex P. Keaton. The adolescent activist frequently phoned in to the right-wing Larry Elder Show to complain about multiculturalism and the persistent presence of undocumented immigrants, leading to his discovery by David Horowitz, the radical leftist-turned-extreme right provocateur.
In 2007, while Miller was a sophomore at Duke University, Horowitz was busy spreading his “Islamofascism Awareness Week” to campuses across the country. Speaking before College Republican chapters, and often flanked by a cavalcade of grim private security guards, Horowitz railed against Islamic extremism and Islam in general, helping to popularize the narrative of creeping Sharia that paints Muslim immigrants to the West as a radical fifth column.
Horowitz’s national campaign provided a new generation of right-wing activists like Miller with a flood of outside resources and the sense that they were leading a transcendent civilizational mission. At Duke, Horowitz recruited Miller to establish a “Terrorism Awareness Project” that aimed to correct what he saw as academia’s insufficient interest in “Islamofascism.”
“American kids attend school in an educational system corrupted by the hard left. In this upside-down world, America is the villain and Jihadists the victims of our foreign policy, Miller wrote at the time. “Instead of opening eyes, we are fastening blindfolds.”
As an advisor to the Duke Conservative Union, Miller worked closely with a rising right-wing activist named Richard Spencer. The duo organized screenings of anti-Muslim propaganda films and brought the white nationalist pundit Peter Brimelow to campus for a “debate” on immigration. After graduation, Spencer emerged as the poster boy of American white nationalism, promoting discredited theories of race science in glossy mainstream magazine spreads. Miller went a more mainstream route, taking a job in the office of Sen. Jeff Sessions, where he helped his boss stifle a plan to put millions of qualified undocumented immigrants on the path to citizenship.
During his days at Duke, Miller got in touch with what he saw as his Jewish roots thanks to Rabbi Ben Packer, an open supporter of the Jewish fascist warlord Meir Kahane and the self-proclaimed “rabbi on campus.” Packer invited Miller on a trip Israel through the Birthright Israel program, which provides all-expenses-paid tours to young Jewish adults across the West. As soon as Miller arrived, Packer took him straight to the religious nationalist settler communities that surrounded the occupied West Bank city of Hebron.
“Stephen [Miller] thanked me for my efforts to show them around and remarked that ‘putting on the Tefilin [Jewish holy phylacteries] at Machpelah was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life,’” Packer recalled. [Packer, Arutz Sheva] [Michael Brown, EI]
Next, Packer tapped his contacts in Jerusalem to link Miller with a filmmaker who was building on the close bond between the pro-Israel lobby and the new generation of right-wing activists in the West. He was Raphael Shore, a Canadian-Israeli activist who worked at Aish HaTorah. Housed in a giant complex in Jerusalem’s occupied Old City, Aish was a cipher for millions in donations from wealthy supporters of Israel. The center coordinated directly with Israel’s Foreign Ministry to amplify Israel’s public relations across the West. At Aish, Shore oversaw the creation of a film company, the Clarion Project, that became one of the central nodes of Islamophobic propaganda.
During the 2008 American presidential election campaign, Shore’s Clarion Fund distributed 28 million DVDs of a film called “Obsession,” slipping it into newspapers as inserts that reached residents of swing states around the country. Obsession introduced viewers to the self-styled experts of the Islamophobia industry, from Steven Emerson to Robert Spencer, and to the narrative of creeping Sharia. The mass mailing also capitalized on an ongoing right-wing disinformation effort to portray the Democratic Party’s nominee, Senator Barack Obama, as a secret Muslim born outside the United States — a Trojan Horse for a foreign Islamic agenda.
By introducing Middle America to the politics of Islamophobia, Shore had accomplished what Steven Bannon had tried and failed to do when he shopped a script for a documentary about a Muslim takeover of America called the “Islamic States of America.”
Partners in extremism
Given Miller’s role as a pioneer of Islamophobic politicking, it might seem ironic that he has been tapped to compose a speech promoting friendship between Washington and the “Muslim world.” From the Saudi standpoint, however, geopolitical imperatives have always superseded any concern for the wellbeing of Muslims or Arabs outside its immediate ambit. Since the high colonial days, the House of Saud has functioned as a handmaiden of Western imperial powers, assisting their longstanding goal of undermining Arab nationalism, protecting Israel and stifling the spread of communism.
During the covert war the U.S. waged against Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed government, Saudi Arabia matched each dollar the CIA spent on the arming and training of the Afghan mujahedin. As Saudi Arabia pumped tens of billions of dollars into propagating its ultra-sectarian strain of Wahhabi Islam across the Middle East, it directed its most zealous citizens into Afghanistan through the Services Bureau funded by private Gulf donors like Osama bin Laden. The covert war contributed directly to the fall of the Soviet Union and simultaneously turned loose the scourge of international jihadism.
The architect of the “Afghan trap strategy,” former National Security Director Zbigniew Brzezinski, freely acknowledged that the demands of empire outweighed any consideration he might have had for national security. “Compared to the Soviet Union, and to its collapse,” he commented to the filmmaker Samira Goetschel in 2006, “the Taliban were unimportant.”
During the Arab Spring, the Saudi military directly intervened to crush a citizen uprising in Bahrain. Thanks to the kingdom’s critical assistance, the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet was able to hold on to the base that represented the most important American military asset in the Persian Gulf. Next, the Saudis shelled out millions to prop up Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s military junta in Egypt, crushing the country’s first democratically elected government and putting the January 25 revolution to bed once and for all. Across the region, meanwhile, the Gulf monarchy cranked up its private media megaphone and activated Wahhabi religious proxies to drown out the cosmopolitan, reformist politics of the Arab Spring’s youth activists with regressive, sectarian messaging.
In Syria, Saudi Arabia has reverted to the role it played in Afghanistan, partnering with Washington to propel a proxy war aimed at weakening a Russian ally. Thanks to the flow of arms from Western and Gulf powers, Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, has taken control of large swaths of territory and appeared on the battlefield with sophisticated American weaponry. The Syrian rebel group that has received the bulk of Saudi support, Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam), currently controls the city of East Ghouta, where it has paraded captive Alawite soldiers and their wives in cages, using them as human shields. In a video message to his supporters, the group’s late leader, Zahran Alloush—the son of a Saudi cleric—pledged to ethnically cleanse Syria of religious minorities: “Oh, you enemies of Islam… we will step on your heads,” he rumbled into a camera.
In Yemen, the special relationship between Washington and Riyadh has helped generate perhaps the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Thanks to the extensive assistance provided to the Saudi military by both the Obama and Trump administrations, Yemen now faces a rapidly spreading cholera epidemic while child malnutrition is at an “all time high,” according to the UN. By reducing the country to a failed state, the U.S. and its Gulf allies have provided a critical shot in the arm to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In a report published this February, the International Crisis Group concluded, “The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda (AQ) is stronger than it has ever been. As the country’s civil war has escalated and become regionalized,” the international conflict resolution group found, “its local franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is thriving in an environment of state collapse, growing sectarianism, shifting alliances, security vacuums and a burgeoning war economy.”
As in the past, American foreign policy in the Middle East has sacrificed national security and human rights for the dubious pursuit of empire. The leading edge of its cynical project is Saudi Arabia, the Arab Spring’s destroyer, one of the world’s leading exporters of extremism and the top importer of American arms.
Trump and the Islamophobes he has empowered might be seen as the enemy of Muslims back home, but in Riyadh, they are received as natural partners in a geopolitical death dance that grooves to the drums of war.