The Dark Ages were dark. The Roman Empire had collapsed. Civilization had collapsed. There were raiding hoards everywhere – Visigoths and Vikings and whatnot – and all the knowledge of Ancient Greece and Rome disappeared. Arab (Muslim) scholars saved the texts they could find and carried on – inventing algebra among other things – but everyone else was in the dark. No one knew anything – except what the Church said was so, and what the local king said was so – and neither could be questioned. They spoke for God – the local king was king by “divine right” after all – and heresy was punishable by death.
Don’t ask questions. And how was anyone going to learn anything anyway? Guttenberg and his printing press were a long way off. The Renaissance helped a bit – but that had more to do with the arts. The Reformation helped a bit – but that only slightly dislodged the authority of the Catholic Church, in favor of other Christians who would say that what they said was so and couldn’t be questioned. Blame Guttenberg for that. Too many Bibles had been printed in too many translations. That changed things. Zealots read those. Soon everyone was an authority, who spoke for God, and everyone else was a heretic. It was most unpleasant. The Thirty Years’ War was unpleasant. Things are still tense in Belfast.
Things didn’t change until The Enlightenment – the Age of Reason – roughly between 1715, the year that Louis XIV died, and 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution. The idea was new. Reason was the primary source of authority and legitimacy, not the church or any king. Thoughtful men (and a few women) could figure out what’s what. Citizens could figure out the best way to run their own nation. This pitted individual liberty and religious tolerance against any absolute monarchy and the fixed dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church, or any church. It was time for liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state – for a change. We put all that in our Constitution and the French put that in their Declaration of the Rights of Man of the Citizen – because the Dark Ages were finally over.
Cool – but the Dark Ages aren’t over everywhere. There are still absolute monarchies. There’s Saudi Arabia, run by one family, one king, where every minister of this or that is a son or brother or cousin or uncle of the king, except for a few absurdly wealthy businessmen, who keep the royal family absurdly wealthy. Saudi citizens don’t count. Women have no real rights – they can’t even drive – and criminals, and heretics, are stoned to death in the public square. Gay men are tossed to their deaths from rooftops. Don’t ask questions. The Dark Ages live on there. It’s as if the eighteenth century, and America, never happened.
Donald Trump may be out to prove that the eighteenth century, and America, never happened. Experts on authoritarianism are terrified by him – unless he’s too incompetent to pull it off – but everyone agrees he would be king if he could. That may be why his first state visit was to Saudi Arabia.
He felt comfortable, and they’re no dummies. They know the man. They treated him like a king:
Trump was received like visiting royalty from the moment Air Force One touched down in Riyadh Saturday morning, after an all-night flight from Washington, where he hoped to leave behind the growing Russia scandal threatening his presidency.
In a series of official arrival ceremonies – at the airport and the Royal Court palace – Trump, his wife, Melania, and an entourage including virtually his entire senior White House staff and some of his Cabinet, were serenaded by military bands, treated to a flyover of Saudi jets, feted in opulent palaces and given the undivided attention of King Salman, the ruler of this ultra-conservative Muslim nation.
As Trump arrived at Murabba Palace for a royal dinner, hundreds of Saudi men in long, white robes danced the Ardha, a traditional sword dance that is performed on Saudi National Day and in honor of special guests.
Trump, grinning broadly at the festivities, waded in and took a few obligatory dips in the dance. Several of Trump’s male aides, along with Salman, participated with more enthusiasm. Tillerson and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross raised swords and linked arms with Saudis, chanting to the beat of feathered drums, while Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and National Economic Council director Gary Cohn also laughed and swayed.
American country star Toby Keith performed at a men’s-only concert in Riyadh on Saturday night, coinciding with Trump’s visit. As Trump and Salman were driven in a golf cart around the palace after dinner, the president trained his eyes on a jumbo screen playing the live concert.
The ebullient welcome reflected a kingdom eager to rekindle its relationship with the United States, and to use the visit to declare and solidify its own leadership role in the Muslim world.
They humored him:
The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, rolled out the red carpet treatment in anticipation for President Trump and Melania Trump’s arrival early Saturday morning.
The luxury hotel projected portraits of Trump and King Salman onto the building, both images stretching five floors each. The Ritz’s decor features gold fixtures, a large lobby and other features similar to Las Vegas hotels.
They know the man. He’s one of them. In the Los Angeles Times, Molly Hennessy-Fiske explains that:
While Trump has taken heat from Muslims in the U.S. for his anti-terrorism travel ban and his overtures to Israel, here in the Gulf, the conservative Arab sheikdoms are welcoming the new administration as a return to transactional diplomacy in the Middle East.
The White House they see now is presided over by a strong leader – a model that Gulf monarchs recognize from their own governing styles – and if Trump surrounds himself with business-friendly family members high in his administration, well, so do they.
This is about business:
Key to this weekend’s meetings with Trump and his team, as Arab leaders see it, will be identifying opportunities to do business and cut diplomacy deals.
Traveling with the Trump team will be dozens of U.S. business leaders, including the heads of JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Dow Chemical and General Electric.
Nearly 40 heads of state from across the Islamic world, joined by Arab business leaders, are also expected to gather to see what Trump has to offer.
Saudi Aramco, the national oil giant that is preparing to open itself to outside investment for the first time next year, will be talking deals with U.S. oil services companies.
If so, screw the citizens:
Saudis, at least at the official level, appear eager to move past the Obama administration’s focus on human rights, including its frequent talk of promoting the standing of women in a kingdom where their ability to vote, run for office, own property, travel and even drive is less than that of men…
The president successfully hosted several Arab leaders earlier this year, including Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi, a former general criticized for jailing dissidents and other rights violations.
“Trump is a welcome change from Barack Obama because he does not remind them, does not pressure them, about American values and ideas about human rights and democracy. This president is a hardcore realist: He just doesn’t care. This goes well with many leaders in this part of the world,” Fawaz A. Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics said.
Trump has already impressed Gulf Arab leaders by escalating the war against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria and supporting the Saudi fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Kevin Drum puts that this way:
As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, Trump’s anti-Muslim rabble-rousing is just red meat for the American rubes. They don’t take anything Trump says seriously, only what he does. And what’s clear is that (a) Trump’s personal brand of corruption is reassuringly Middle Eastern, (b) he hates Iran, (c) he’s not going to harass the Saudis over trivia like human rights, and (d) he doesn’t care how brutal they get in their war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
That’s it. That’s all they care about. Trump isn’t bringing in more business and he’s not selling them more arms. Nor is his actual policy toward Iran and Yemen more than a few degrees different from Obama’s. He’s just carrying it out with no strings attached. They like that.
They liked his big speech too, and Peter Beinart explains how odd that was:
Donald Trump appears to have envisioned his speech on Sunday in Riyadh as an answer to Barack Obama’s 2009 address in Cairo. And reading the two side by side is illuminating. The speeches differ in many ways, but none more striking than this: Trump’s speech was far more politically correct.
It seems that Obama was the blunt-truths guy after all:
“Political correctness,” as it is used in common parlance, means avoiding hard truths so as not to offend the people around you. And Trump made his hostility to political correctness a centerpiece of his campaign. Nowhere was this more evident than in his discussion of “radical Islam.” Again and again, Trump blamed America’s vulnerability to jihadist terrorism on President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s refusal honestly to speak about the pathologies of Muslims and Islam. At a Wisconsin town hall in March of last year, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked, “Do you trust Muslims in America?” Trump responded, “We have a problem, and we can try and be very politically correct and pretend we don’t have a problem, but, Anderson, we have a major, major problem.” In June, in defending his proposed ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, Trump declared that, “The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk and to think and act clearly” to keep America safe from terrorism.
But for all the pillorying Obama received for supposedly whitewashing the problems of the Islamic world his Cairo speech actually addressed them quite bluntly. Speaking at Egypt’s prestigious Cairo University, Obama condemned Holocaust denial in Muslim countries, calling it “baseless, ignorant, and hateful.” He denounced people who “threaten Israel with destruction” and “repeat vile stereotypes about Jews.” He highlighted the oppression of women in Muslim lands, declaring that “a woman who is denied an education is denied equality. And it is no coincidence that countries where women are well-educated are far more likely to be prosperous.” He referenced the Middle East’s economic failures, arguing that “no development strategy can be based only upon what comes out of the ground, nor can it be sustained while young people are out of work.” And in a clear challenge to his host, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, he insisted that “all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.”
In short, the eighteenth century and America and the Enlightenment actually happened, but don’t tell Donald Trump:
Trump criticized terrorist groups like ISIS for their “persecution of Jews,” and he condemned Iran for pledging “the destruction of Israel.” But since ISIS and Iran are Riyadh’s most bitter foes, those condemnations won’t have bothered the Saudi monarchs at all. Unlike Obama, Trump avoided the broader problem of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in Islamic countries, a problem in which his Saudi hosts are deeply complicit. Nor did he even hint at the fact that Saudi Arabia still does not recognize Israel.
Trump didn’t even mention the words “democracy,” “liberty,” or “freedom.” To the contrary, in a sentence that will bring grins to autocrats across the region, he declared that, “We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be.”
Then what are we here for? Perhaps for this:
Trump did condemn “extremism.” But speaking in the country he has accused of complicity in 9/11, he did not once pointedly suggest that any Middle East regime except Iran’s might bear any responsibility for that extremism. Rather than suggesting, as both Obama and George W. Bush did, that the authoritarianism and corruption of Arab governments might have helped spawn groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, Trump reversed the causality. The Middle East’s “untapped potential” he declared, “is held at bay by bloodshed and terror.” And in so doing, he endorsed the agenda that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab dictatorships have been urging for years: Help us confront Iran and kill “terrorists” (which includes anyone who opposes our hold on power) and all will be well.
That’s how absolute monarchs talk to each other, but Beinart adds a twist to that:
Trump is a coward. He says wildly offensive things when the objects of his derision aren’t around, but crumples when he actually meets them. In his presidential announcement speech, Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists.” But when he sat down with his Hispanic Advisory Council, he proved “humble” and “conciliatory” and called mass deportations “neither possible nor humane.” During the campaign, he endlessly trashed Mexico’s government. But when he actually arrived in Mexico City last August, he declared the trip a “great, great, honor” and when President Enrique Peña Nieto asked him about his famous pledge, to make Mexico pay for a wall between the two countries, Trump refused to discuss the subject. During the campaign, Trump accused Black Lives Matter of being responsible for the murder of police, and described African American living conditions as hellish. But when he actually showed up at a black church in Detroit last September, he spent most of his time flattering his hosts. Trump’s speech, noted The Washington Post, constituted a “jarring shift in tone and message.” During the campaign, Trump repeatedly claimed that China was manipulating its currency. But after meeting with China’s president, he acknowledged that was not true.
That means the Saudis should worry:
The Saudis appear thrilled that Trump was so conciliatory on his visit. They should enjoy themselves while they can. Americans have learned this about Trump: What he says to your face often bears no relationship to what he says behind your back.
Blake Hounshell at Politico says that misses the point:
The president who once accused Saudi Arabia of complicity in the 9/11 attacks praised its “magnificent” and “sacred land.” He looked comfortable trading pleasantries and sipping coffee with King Salman, the aging scion of the country’s founding ruler, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. He soaked up the gaudy chandeliers, the gilded wall trimmings. Trump even bobbed up and down during the Ardha, the traditional sword dance that desert tribes once performed before they went into battle.
The images on TV and on Twitter looked like a Michael Moore fever dream – and Democrats couldn’t stop harping on the “curtsy” Trump made as he accepted an award from the Saudi king, just as Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush did before him.
The pageantry was not subtle, but the real import of Trump’s visit, and especially his carefully crafted speech, was to announce a new alliance between America and the Sunni autocrats of the Arab world, aimed at Shiite Iran.
America has chosen sides here:
As for the Sunni monarchies and military dictatorships like that run by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, Trump promised to stop pestering them about human rights and political freedoms. “Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption,” he said. “And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention.”
All that is exactly the kind of rhetoric the Sunni strongmen of the region yearned for during the Obama years, when the United States dialed back its usual criticism of Iran as it pursued the much-maligned nuclear deal, while pressuring Arab leaders to respond to the demands of their people.
That’s all changed now, but not in a good way:
Parts of the speech could have been given by either of Trump’s predecessors – respectful language about religion, the observation that Muslims have suffered the most from terrorism, the patronizing evocation of past civilizational glories, like the pyramids. What was missing, though, was any sense of why Trump thinks terrorism is on the rise, and how he plans to combat it.
It was as if, as former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams put it, the terrorists were aliens from outer space, rather than the twisted product of broken societies that have yet to divine how to stop churning them out. “He offered no explanation of what was producing this phenomenon,” Abrams noted in an email to my colleague Annie Karni. “Trump had no theory, and therefore could not suggest what might be done to prevent more extremists from rising.”
Bush, and advisers like Abrams, had a theory – that a lack of freedom and human development had created a malignancy in the Arab world, which in turn was spawning religious radicalism and terrorists. Obama seemed to buy into the idea, too – just ask Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak – though he sanded off the sharper edges of Bush’s rhetoric and lacked his messianic fervor…
Very little of any of it, as Trump suggested on Sunday, has seemed to work, and he promised to “apply new approaches informed by experience and judgment.” But he also warned several times that the United States wouldn’t be bearing any burden or paying any price to vanquish the terrorists that he had once boasted would be quickly and easily defeated. “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them,” Trump said. “The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children.”
Trump is offering, in short, a war on terror without the pretense of idealism.
That may be why Anne Applebaum says that President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia was bizarre, unseemly, unethical and un-American:
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 or 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.
And there’s this:
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 Wahhabi mosques and imams all over the world; Osama bin Laden was a Saudi citizen, as were 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers.
And there was that 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.
And there was Ivanka Trump’s “outreach” to women entrepreneurs:
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.
And then there was Rex 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?
Don’t ask questions. Don’t expect enlightenment – this isn’t the age of reason after all. America has a king now – or at least a guy who would be king. He’s comfortable with that, and seems to be proud that the Saudis finally treated him right, as he should be treated. Expect him to comment on that. Donald Trump really may be out to prove that the eighteenth century, and America, never happened. Now he has everyone wondering if they did happen – or maybe he’s not a royal at all. Perhaps he’s just a royal pain in the ass, and America knows how to deal with those.