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Mohammed bin Salman and the Death of Foreign Policy Debate

The Saudi crown prince is getting a hero's welcome in America, where politicians have largely given up on the whole democracy thing.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Any rock star or Hollywood actor would envy the puff pieces Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman currently enjoys in the American press. Thomas Friedman got the ball rolling in The New York Times last November, praising bin Salam as the Middle East’s great hope, a tireless reformer leading an “Arab Spring, Saudi style” which would modernize the oil-rich autocracy and promote a more tolerant Islam. “After nearly four hours together, I surrendered at 1:15 a.m. to M.B.S.’s youth, pointing out that I was exactly twice his age,” Friedman wrote of their interview, in language recalling Penthouse Forum more than The New York Times Opinion page. “It’s been a long, long time, though, since any Arab leader wore me out with a fire hose of new ideas about transforming his country.”

The column received a devastating rebuke from a group of Middle Eastern scholars led by University of Richmond’s Sheila Carapico, who pointed out that bin Salman’s autocratic attempt to impose social change had nothing in common with the Arab Spring, a genuine mass movement for democratization. Bin Salman’s “growing power has been accompanied by a ramping up of censorship, arrests, imprisonments without (fair) trials and other forms of violent repression against dissent,” the scholars wrote, also noting that Saudi military intervention in Yemen had caused of one of the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent years. 

Yet as bin Salman proceeds through his three-week charm tour of American cities, such criticisms have been largely absent from current coverage. Instead, reports echo Friedman’s cheerleading, pointing to genuine reforms (women can now drive in Saudi Arabia and Black Panther will be the first movie to screen in the kingdom in 35-years) and downplaying bin Salman’s habit of jailing opponents. According to 60 Minutes, bin Salman’s “reforms inside Saudi Arabia have been revolutionary. He is emancipating women, introducing music and cinema and cracking down on corruption, in a land with 15,000 princes.” The Wrap reports that bin Salman has been “expounding on his vision of an economically diverse, culturally significant Saudi Arabia, a message he has been selling hard in a jam-packed trip to Hollywood and later in the week to Silicon Valley.” Time magazine acknowledged “contradictions” in the prince’s policies, but insisted that “few come away from an encounter with bin Salman unaware of the force of his personality, intellect and devotion to change.”

This positive press is part of a long and sordid tradition of the American press celebrating friendly dictators—the Pinochet regime in Chile and repressive South Korean President Syngman Rhee being two particularly well-documented examples. But it also reflects the broader bipartisan exhaustion with American foreign policy, especially in the area of democracy promotion: politicians aren’t giving the press dissenting quotes to report. The last two decades have witnessed two failed attempts to bring democracy to the Middle East: the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq under the George W. Bush administration, which overthrew genuine tyrannies but substituted barely functioning semi-states, and the popular revolutions of the Arab Spring, which produced a ferocious backlash in most countries where protests arose, not to mention civil war in Syria.

In the wake of these twin disappointments, the American foreign policy establishment has reverted to a pre-9/11 strategy of expedient ally support. No one better embodies this cynicism than President Donald Trump. “Who blew up the World Trade Center?” candidate Trump asked on Fox News in February 2016. “It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi—take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents.” As president, Trump has forgotten about 9/11 and has embraced Saudi Arabia as a key ally, to the point of offending traditional European partners with the deference shown to Riyadh.

Trump’s Saudi Arabia policy has gone unchecked by other political forces. Even before the current administration, Saudi Arabia had an impressive footprint in the Washington establishment, with many allies in think tanks and the media. As Vox noted in 2016,  “Washington’s foreign policy community” is “deeply, viscerally committed to defending and advocating for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a country whose authoritarian government, ultra-conservative values, and extremist-promoting foreign policy would seem like an unusual passion project for American foreign policy professionals.” Pro-Saudi sentiment among the elite is rooted in a realpolitik preference for the status quo and a belief that the kingdom is a reliable bulwark against Iran, seen by Americans as a hostile regional power.  

To be sure, there have been dissenting voices. Leftist television favorite The West Wing back in 2002 memorably mocked the brutal and repressive domestic policies of “Saudi Arabia, our partners in peace.” More recently, Bernie Sanders has championed legislation blocking further U.S. support for Saudi aggression in Yemen. Former Obama advisor Ben Rhodes has been consistently skeptical of American indulgence towards Saudi Arabia and the crown prince:

Yet these voices don’t represent anywhere near the mainstream of a party that once at least nominally cared about human rights. On Saudi Arabia, as on most foreign policy, the Democrats have abandoned the field. Criticism of Trump tends to focus on issues that might hurt him politically, most notably possible collusion with Vladimir Putin, but not necessarily other concerns. While few Democrats are as enthusiastic about bin Salman as Tom Friedman is, neither have they challenged the implausible portrait of the Saudi leader as a progressive humanitarian hero. And in the absence of Democratic critique, the Friedman view of Saudi Arabia wins a default victory in public discourse. Considering the full-bore media seduction schedule bin Salman’s team put together for this visit, one wonders whether even the crown prince thought the sell would be this easy.