Who’s In Charge Here? The President Waits for Instructions from Saudi Arabia

Michael Brendan Dougherty

The president of the United States can’t say who attacked the oil fields in Saudi Arabia last week or why. But the president can announce across his Twitter feed that Prime Mohammed bin Salman will tell our military what to do about it:


The president’s effusive support for the Saudi regime reads like a caricature of what critics of our Middle Eastern foreign policy would say of it. For years we’ve been working to advance the argument that the United States is too solicitous of the interests of the House of Saud, and then the president just tweets it out.

Confused yet? We’ve been here before, and recently. Back in May, U.S. naval assets were moved into the Gulf region. This was announced by former national-security adviser John Bolton in a tweet and a memo, without a press conference. Military news portal Defense One asked for clarification: “If there was a threat, what is it? And why would the White House claim it is ‘deploying’ a ship already underway in the region? Is this just political bluster?”

But why be confused? When the world’s superpower is waiting to hear Saudi Arabia’s commands, you can bet the answer will be something like John McCain’s reprise of that pop classic: Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb bomb Iran.

On Fox News yesterday, host Bret Baier had on anti-war Democrat and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard to discuss the latest doings in the Middle East. The segment is worth watching. Gabbard had criticized President Trump, accusing him of trying to “pimp out” the U.S. military to Mohammed bin Salman. Baier tries to press her into a corner, making her choose between Saudi Arabia and Iran, even saying she sounded like a “fan of Iran.” Gabbard gamely refuses the choice, saying she is “on the side of the United States” and noting that Saudi Arabia’s government and its elite funds, appeases, and occasionally controls al-Qaeda. She’s right.

She’s more than right. Saudi Arabia sponsors demotic Sunni radicalism throughout the Middle East, which has extended human conflict and contributed to the waves of refugees heading into Europe. Once in Europe, these refugees turn to mosques, funded by the Saudis, that preach a far more radical version of Islamism than what they had back in their home country. If in the past few years you ever stumbled on one of those confusing videos of various actors in the Syrian civil war using materiel provided by the U.S. Department of Defense to fire on others in the Syrian civil war who were using materiel provided by the CIA, well, you can thank Saudi Arabia for that too.

One of the reasons that Donald Trump says that he’ll wait for instructions from Saudi Arabia is that he and the political class wouldn’t dare consult with the American people. When our relationship to the Saudis is explained, there are halting gestures at history, and a vague threat that somehow the Saudi royal family is better than any alternative regime. Saudi Arabia’s bone-saw, cholera-epidemic foreign policy doesn’t exactly inspire Americans to cry out to their government to support our gallant allies in the Peninsula. Americans like to be told they are fighting for nations with similar values — friends of freedom. American reporters who, until recently, attended “ideas conferences” in Riyadh used to burble credulously about how the country was modernizing under its new leadership. And yet Saudi Arabia will happily torture and behead a kid who was accepted to one of our universities because he attended a pro-democracy protest.

Shia Islam is not going away anytime soon. And so the United States has no conceivable interest in taking such a strong side in the ongoing religious cold war roiling the dar al-Islam. We need to stop Saudi Arabia from outsourcing all the costs of its foreign policy to the United States and our allies in Europe. The president needs to be swiftly reminded that the people through the representatives are those who declare that the United States is at war with other sovereign nations, not Prince Bone Saw.

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