Jamal Khashoggi
Hasan Jamali/AP/Shutterstock

Opinion

Why Trump Has Been Sympathetic to Saudi Arabia Thus Far

“I used to think something is wrong here. Now I know something is wrong here.” The shuttle bus driver was explicit, though not fluent, in English. “These pigs. We can’t kill them. We can’t change their mind. We have to learn to live with them.”

He was talking about the wild boars that routinely run through gardens eating everything in sight in the countryside near the Villa Grazioli, outside of Frascati, Italy. I thought he was talking about something else. Since he had been asked about President Donald Trump, I assumed we were talking about him.

But I was wrong. Still, it has been strange these last two years watching Trump contribute to, enhance and trumpet the growing divide in our country. When Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi turned up missing on October 2nd and was later reported dead at the hands of the Saudi-Arabian government in an “interrogation” that went horribly wrong, Trump first seemed to cover for the Saudis by saying that “rogue” assassins may have somehow entered the Saudi embassy in Turkey—where Khashoggi was last seen—and killed the journalist. Everyone else remained convinced (mostly because of secret recordings by Turkey’s government) that the Saudi Royal family killed Khashoggi. It took nearly two weeks for the president to accept that—first as a possibility, and even now as fact.

The problem with Saudi Arabia is well summed up by Matt Damon’s character in the movie Syriana, who said, “You know what the business community thinks of you? They think that a hundred years ago you were living in tents out here in the desert chopping each other's heads off and that's where you'll be in another hundred years.”

The problem is many look at world politics the way Trump does; that is, through the lens of a businessman the way Ned Beatty’s character did in Sidney Lumet’s movie Network: “We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business.”

And in this case we’re doing business with some fairly unsavory characters because it appears our country’s main business is arms sales to Saudi Arabia. We’re not sending them math tutors. As Trump said, “We make the best weapons.”
The Saudis have never loved the U.S., though they’ve certainly loved our lifestyle when they can exploit it and our weapons when they can get them.
To be fair, the Saudi problem is not of Trump’s making. Presidents Bush, Clinton and Bush again all had problems with Saudi Arabia, as did President Obama. The Saudis have never loved the U.S., though they’ve certainly loved our lifestyle when they can exploit it and our weapons when they can get them. During the Gulf War they were happy to have us there to fight Iraq, but the staging area for U.S. troops was in a landfill that had more sand fleas than Trump supporters at a Kentucky rally. The soldiers were welcomed to fight a war so Saudi citizens wouldn’t die and the soldiers were welcome to spend money in any Souk. But after taking the American money and crushing the Iraqi Army after Saddam Hussein promised we’d swim in rivers of our own blood, the Saudis didn’t want to see an American face any more.

As a reporter covering the Gulf War, I encountered a level of anger and threats I had never seen before in my life; that is, until I began to cover the Donald Trump administration. Saudi Arabians are prone to a level of hatred and misogyny that would make Trump envious. Forced female circumcisions are not unheard of. A rigid class system exists and the royal family receives entitlements not unlike the many Trump enjoys himself.

Saudi Arabia, it turns out, is nothing more than North Korea with oil money, and we love Saudi money as much as they love ours. They hate Iran. We hate Iran. We’ve made a deal with the Devil, but as the saying goes if you dance with the Devil, then you don’t change Old Scratch. The Devil changes you.

But to see this clearly, one needs to step back and look at it from a distance. Being inside the “bubble” in this case is to be inside the United States. A fresh perspective outside of the country is needed to fully appreciate how the wild boars are running wild.
Trump’s credibility here is far from settled. He does not like the Post.
Donald Trump’s first two years in office are marked by division, anger and fear. We all can see that much, though some of us excuse it and some of us “resist” it. But the press has been there reporting it day after day.

And while Trump’s antics are comparable to despots of old, today’s highly interactive world community will ultimately defeat the tribalism Trump represents. During the last week, after meeting people across Europe and from around the world, it can be reported there is one overwhelming tone with which those outside of the U.S. respond when asked about Donald Trump. Australians call him a "bloody wanker" while those from Hispanic countries call him a vato loco. Italians say he is either matto or pazzo.

But the first mention of Trump’s name always brings a laugh. His desire may be to make people respect him around the world, but there is little of that to see. He has literally made the office of the president a laughing stock, and those outside of the U.S. either pity us or laugh at us for having him as our president.

The biggest worry is he’ll push the button and end everything. Many Europeans see him as a buffoon or a clown without redeeming value and one who is easily manipulated. A rube, to say. Scientists working for the European Space Agency near Frascati, Italy say he is putting the earth in peril by his lack of understanding of global climate problems. Politicians in Italy who aren’t fascists believe he is helping fascism rise globally—and in Italy, they know about fascism. Getting the trains to run on time means little if disagreeing with the man in charge can lead to your death.

Trump is a man whose time came and went during the Napoleonic era. Tribalism back then could be harnessed and used with the proper public relations for conquering enemies real and imagined because there was no internet, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter or any other social media.
You could stir up and foment hatred for those guys south of the border who, you could claim, wanted to steal your way of life because the masses couldn’t instantly see the faces and hear the cries of children callously separated at the border.

Divisiveness ultimately brings about its own destruction. United We Stand. Divided We Fall. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Choose any cliché from our history that is true and apply it here. Today, there is no room for those like Trump, especially in a country addicted to instant information. It is hard enough to lead that country. It demands brotherhood and peaceful solutions to problems because at the end of the day, people have too much in common, are too connected and don’t want to waste energy on artificial hatred fomented by a despot desperate to hold on to fame and power.

Everyone, or most everyone it seems, wants to get along. At the end of the day they want to watch a football game without dragging politics into it. Most don’t care what color their neighbor is or what their sexual practices are. The American people, as it turns out—at least according to a lot of Europeans I spoke to in the last two weeks—are more progressive than their government. In Florence, where the Renaissance began and where much of the city would be recognizable to Leonardo DaVinci to this day, English is a common language among a multilingual culture. Science is not voodoo, multiculturalism exists to the point that pride flags fly across the street from a Catholic Church. Mass shootings are a rarity, multiracial couples smile and walk down the street without a care and the laughter greeting the name “Trump” is only surpassed by the ringing of the church bell in the town square.

Here you will also find Trump described as a pig and a “wild boar” who tramples through the countryside without a care. The Saudis, the North Koreans, the Russians and now Trump are viewed as the largest wild boars who cannot be enjoyed, trusted or handled. They eat the gardens, run in packs and are a nuisance to the rest of us.

Trump may still decide to take action against Saudi Arabia and indeed has said the rulers could suffer in some form or fashion because of what happened to a Washington Post reporter.
But Trump’s credibility here is far from settled. He does not like the Post. He does not like reporters who do not cave to his desires. He has called us the enemy of the people and “fake news.”

There is every reason to hope Trump will come down hard on one of the most repressive, disgusting and greedy regimes on the planet and every reason to believe he will not, based on his past actions and his personal business interests. So far, he has only praised the Saudi regime for a "good first step."

If he respects his office, there might finally be some small measure of justice exacted on the Saudi regime. If he does not, then it will be business as usual with Trump and the wild boars will be back in the garden.

Or as the shuttle bus driver said, “I know there’s something wrong here.”

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