The seasons come and go, but former Obama officials will likely never stop whitewashing the former president’s record.
This time, the subject is the Obama administration’s eight-year-long support for Saudi Arabia, coming under renewed scrutiny since the country’s crown prince carried out the brazen murder of dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Although Saudi Arabia has been engaged in what amounts to genocide in Yemen for the last three years, Khashoggi’s reportedly brutal murder has so shocked the world’s sensibilities that, somewhat bafflingly, it might end up being the thing that finally sparks a re-evaluation of the US-Saudi relationship in Washington, DC.
Over the last few days, however, former Obama officials have strenuously denied that Obama ever supported the country during its brutal endeavors. “Lets [sic] have no illusions,” said former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. “Obama did not appease the Saudi royal family.” McFaul went on to claim that Obama “did not play business as usual with the Saudis,” and that “bilateral tensions became very tense” as a result. Pressed on this by journalists Adam Johnson and Aaron Maté, McFaul challenged Johnson over which of them had been banned from travel by more dictators, and pointed to Obama’s supposed support for the Arab Spring and his stewardship of the Iran deal to as evidence of this adversarial approach.
McFaul was backed up by Obama’s former Israel ambassador, Dan Shapiro, who said Obama’s first-term weapons deal with the Saudis was simply “part of building int’l & regional pressure on Iran & supporting allies’ ability to defend themselves,” and likewise pointed out that the Saudis wanted a more aggressive stance toward Iran than Obama adopted. Ditto Obama’s former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, who called it “bizarre revisionism,” and charged that “anyone who covered foreign policy over the last decade … knows how chilly the Obama relationship became.”
If we’re being charitable, these arguments are the products of faded memories. We could even say they’re the product of a particular kind of myopia that can come from being in the weeds of diplomatic intrigue. But we certainly can’t say they’re accurate.
True, no one would accuse Obama of being as unrelentingly servile to the kingdom as Trump currently is. But Obama’s presidency had a distinct pattern: Obama would court the Saudis assiduously as part of his continued pursuit of the “war on terror”; they would blow up whenever he didn’t toe their preferred line precisely (say, by launching a war against Iran or blowing up Assad in Syria); and he would bend over backwards to win back their favor again.
If former Obama officials need a trip down memory lane to recall all of this, it’s fortunately all well-documented.
Obama worked fiercely to win the Saudis’ favor straight out of the gate. While even Bush — who was close family friends with a Saudi royal later connected to some of the 9/11 hijackers — took until the end of his presidency to visit the country and had a total of only four state visits with its leader, Obama had met with King Abdullah twice by a little more than halfway through his first year. This isn’t counting the string of high-ranking officials who traveled to the country seeking Saudi help, from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. A White House official told journalist Michael Crowley it was an “investment.”
A more literal investment was Obama’s record $60 billion arms deal the next year, part of the administration’s plan to isolate Iran. The deal wasn’t popular — a bipartisan list of 198 signatures raised concerns about it and a congressional report questioned if such sales advanced US foreign policy — so Obama simply snuck the sale through by introducing it just as members of Congress were heading home for the midterms. Officials trumpeted the Saudis’ counter-terrorism abilities as justification. Christian Science Monitor noted that, because of the sale, relations between the country had made a “180-degree turnaround.”
The relationship waned the following year. The kingdom wanted Obama to do more than just sanction Iran, and it criticized him for doing nothing about Israel’s illegal settlement-building on Palestinian land (if there’s one thing that trumps servility to Saudi interests in DC, it’s servility to Israeli interests).
The Saudis also resented Obama for “abandoning” Egyptian dictator and Saudi ally Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring, the same talking point former officials are now using to defend Obama. In reality, this was overstated: Mubarak’s leadership had become untenable, and the administration had actually publicly defended him until that fact became clear. Obama also asked the Saudis not to viciously crush the Arab Spring protests in Bahrain, a request they ignored. Apparently $60 billion worth of weapons will only get you so much.
Fortunately, Obama quickly moved to patch things up with the Saudi leadership. He made entreaties to the king via phone, while Vice President Joe Biden and Obama’s national security adviser made several trips to the country. After excoriating various countries’ human rights records at the UN, Obama made sure to keep his comments on Bahrain as anodyne as possible. Most importantly, he fed them more arms, this deal worth $30 billion.
“When you look at the size of this package, what does it tell you about U.S.-Saudi relations?” an anonymous “senior Saudi official” asked the New York Times. “It says it’s very strong and very solid. Any disagreements from time to time don’t affect the core relationship.” Of course, this was when bragging about a strong relationship with the Saudis wasn’t viewed as a political liability.
In any case, the US-Saudi relationship never got bad enough to stop the US from operating a secret drone base from the country, whose existence was only revealed two years in, in 2013. Although a number of newspapers knew it existed, the Obama administration had asked them to keep it quiet for fear of “potentially damag[ing] counterterrorism collaboration with Saudi Arabia” — in other words, embarrassing the kingdom, which had already faced blowback for letting US troops sit tight in the country during the first Gulf War.
All the while, Obama continued to dutifully ignore the country’s copious human rights abuses. Amnesty International reported a “new wave of repression” in the country since 2011, including 160 people arrested for protesting that very repression. When an activist was sentenced to four years in jail and 300 lashes over calling for a constitutional monarchy, Obama held his tongue. The Saudi government had beheaded eight people the same month he teamed up with the Saudis to take on ISIS, including four members of a single family for “receiving drugs.” Fifty-two members of Congress and a more than a dozen NGOs signed a letter demanding Obama confront the Saudis over such abuses on his next trip, which he of course did not do.
Indeed, the relationship only got closer. Obama personally met with the interior chief who had orchestrated the wave of repression, because he was also “a key ally in counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda,” according to the Washington Post. The NSA expanded its work with his ministry, providing support for their “internal security.” In 2014, Obama made another emergency flight to Riyadh after they grumbled at his insufficient hawkishness (Ben Rhodes himself had said on that occasion: “I think our relationship with the Saudis is in a stronger place today than it was in the fall”). Two weeks after failing to send a top official to a post-terrorist attack peace rally in Paris, Obama cut short his trip to India to travel to Saudi Arabia and pay tribute to the just-deceased King Abdullah, who was lavished with glowing eulogies from him and other high-ranking officials.
“We are much closer now,” an anonymous official told the New York Times about the Saudi-US relationship. Obama’s press secretary expressed the hope that the “strong relationship” between them “will endure under the leadership of the new king.”
The administration occasionally expressed concern over or even criticized an instance of Saudi abuse in press releases. But it never went much further. Obama didn’t bring up the former case when he and a long procession of current and former US officials visited the country in January 2015 (“we need to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns we have in terms of counterterrorism”), nor did he do much about other egregious cases. When the country was absurdly placed on the UN Human Rights Council, the head of his state department told the press they “welcome it.”
And in fact, Obama kept up his material support for the kingdom. He continued to ply them with military aid and weapons, including the sale of $1 billion worth of smart bombs, and trying to block the overwhelmingly popular 9/11 victims bill that allowed victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia over its role in the attacks.
The atrocious Saudi-led war in Yemen was in many ways the apex of this approach. Obama provided steadfast material support for the war from its start until the end of his presidency, even in the face of constant, mounting evidence of war crimes, and congressional and worldwide criticism. Without this support the Saudis likely would have had to pack up their bags and go home. The Obama administration did this expressly knowing that it would probably be implicated in war crimes in the country.
To be sure, the Saudi-US relationship continued to be strained at times. Obama would be snubbed or face a “chilly reception” from the Saudi leadership on one of his many trips to the country, and we’d hear about how they didn’t like each other.
But these interpersonal tensions are less important than the administration’s continued material support for the Saudi kingdom, just as Obama’s personal clash with Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t prevent him from generally backing the Israeli government’s terrible behavior. Michael McFaul may not believe the record laid out here counts as appeasement, but if this doesn’t count, what does?
The Saudi example is part of a pattern of behavior by prominent liberals and Democrats in the Trump era. It’s inconvenient that Trump, a man so widely regarded as odious and unfit for the eminence of the Oval Office, shares so many policy positions not just with the mainstream Washington establishment, but specifically with the Democrats’ favorite modern president.
So when Trump cozies up to a blood-soaked Egyptian dictator, these individuals need to pretend as if this is something new, and not the continuation of an Obama-era policy. When his administration starts locking up children in cages and separating them from their parents, they need to assure the world this is a uniquely Trumpian approach to immigration, and not just a more viscerally cruel twist on an Obama-era practice. And when Trump slavishly does the bidding of the House of Saud, it must be because he’s singularly evil, and not because it’s a longstanding US government policy that predates even Obama.
Why does all this matter? It’s not, as some would have you think, that the Left has some sort of irrational, abiding hatred of Obama. And it’s certainly not because the Left has any affection for Trump.
The Democrats and their boosters would love nothing more than for Trump to be defeated and for the voting public to dust off their hands and declare mission accomplished. They’d love nothing more than for the majority of liberals, progressives, and others in the Democratic constituency to switch off and stop paying attention, secure in the knowledge that the US is back in the hands of virtuous, capable managers and that a momentary, perilous crisis has been averted. It’s this kind of thinking that has allowed the Democrats to get away with a slew of decidedly decidedly Trump-like policies in the past.
But resisting Trump has to mean more than just resisting the individual. If you’re appalled by Trump’s presidency, then you’re appalled by him because of the policies he carries out, policies that will live on well past his presidency, and that are advanced by some of his fiercest self-proclaimed opponents. To truly resist, you have to see the rot in Washington is much bigger than Trump.