Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon made a rare public appearance Monday at the Hudson Institute, a neoconservative Washington think tank. Bannon, who recently returned to his position as chair of the far-right website Breitbart, defended President Donald Trump’s Middle East policies, arguing the administration’s engagement with the Muslim world has been successful.
“What’s been accomplished in a very short period of time to me is amazing,” said Bannon.
Bannon was especially proud of Trump’s summit in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh last May, where the president joined Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi King Salman in placing their hands on a white glowing orb to commemorate the opening of a new counterterror center. Bannon said the meeting sparked “tectonic plate shifts” throughout the Middle East. “I don’t think he’s got the credit for the summit,” Bannon said of Trump. “It was important for the Muslim world. It was important for the Arab world. It was important to show that the United States is fully engaged.”
Bannon pointed out that in the weeks after the summit, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates escalated their feud with Qatar. The conference served as a staging ground for a major offensive in the public relations campaign against Qatar, part of a long-simmering feud between the tiny Gulf Sheikdom and other U.S. allies on the Arabian Peninsula. And Bannon, who has financial ties to the UAE, was wading in.
“The single most important thing that’s happening in the world is the situation in Qatar,” Bannon said. “Qatar finally had to be called to account for the continual funding for the Muslim Brotherhood, continual funding for Hamas.”
The former top White House adviser also pointed to the change in the Saudi monarchy’s line of succession to appoint Mohammed Bin Salman, the king’s hawkish son, as an heir. The change sparked a crackdown in Saudi Arabia, with the government rounding up and detaining prominent clerics, regime critics, activists, and a journalist, according to the New York Times. Bannon appeared to approve of the crackdown.
“If you look at Saudi Arabia, they’ve had a pretty big fundamental change since the summit,” he said. “The deputy crown prince is now the crown prince. I think it was two weeks ago or three weeks ago, there were 1,000 clerics rounded up or put under house arrest or whatever. I realize that the opposition party in the New York Times refer to most of them as ‘liberal scholars.’”
The fact Bannon was speaking at all was unusual. He joined a roster of other notable speakers, including former Obama administration Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former CIA Director David Petraeus, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a leading Iran hawk on Capitol Hill.
Panetta had argued in the past that Bannon’s policies actually fuel recruitment for Islamic extremists. He said that Trump’s travel ban, which Bannon was an architect of, “fed ISIS a major argument that I think will help them in recruiting and that increases the chances of a potential attack in this country.” He also said it was “wrong” for Bannon to have been appointed to the National Security Council. Panetta was booked through his speaking agency for an undisclosed fee and told McClatchy he wasn’t aware that Bannon would be there.
All the marquee speakers hit similar notes on Qatar. “Qatar, frankly, has a mixed record,” said Panetta. “We know they’ve provided support, financial support, for the Muslim Brotherhood, for Hamas, for elements of Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. And the problem is, they can’t have it both ways.”
In June, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain cut ties with Qatar and imposed a punishing blockade, accusing the country of supporting groups, like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. There is truth to the accusation, but Saudi Arabia also funds extremist groups, and experts have suggested that the move to punish Qatar may be more about the country’s decision to maintain ties with Iran, its funding for the Islamist populists of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the other Persian Gulf states’ dissatisfaction with Al Jazeera, the Qatari state-run news channel.
The Trump administration initially responded to the feud by sending mixed messages. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urged the Persian Gulf states to end the blockade, Trump praised it, tweeting, “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
Bannon made clear which side he took. Saudi Arabia and the UAE had a “well-thought-out plan,” he said, and the measures those countries took reflected their commitment at the Riyadh summit to cut off funding for terror groups. “I’m not a foreign policy expert by far, but I took a very hard line on that,” he said. “It’s well within the rights of people we agreed with at that summit — there was going to be an effort for a 100 percent cutoff of radical Islamic terrorism.”
The showdown has been a cash cow for American lobbying and PR firms that are lining up on both sides to sway American policymakers and the public, including Bannon. Just hours before the conference Monday, McClatchy reported that a PR firm with close ties to Bannon, SCL Social Limited, was paid over $300,000 by the UAE to post negative ads about Qatar on social media. That’s on top of millions paid to a constellation of PR firms and lobbyists that push the UAE and Saudi lines in D.C.
Qatar also has its own army of lobbyists, even paying former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s firm $2.5 million for just three months of work.
Asked by former Pakistani ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, the event’s moderator and a Hudson official, about his ties to SCL Social Limited, Bannon said he had “nothing to do” with the company. Upon entering the White House, however, Bannon had disclosed that he had between $1 million and $5 million stake in a company called Cambridge Analytica, which shares the same leadership and ownership as SCL Social Limited.
At the conference, Panetta and Petraeus both condemned Qatar for its behavior and offered only light condemnation of other Persian Gulf states for supporting extremism. If there was any confusion about the main target of the event, a copy of an ominously titled documentary, “Qatar: A Dangerous Alliance,” could be found at every seat. The documentary also featured a speaker from the Middle East Institute, which recently accepted a $20 million donation from the UAE.
Asked about the appropriateness of interviewing Bannon — whose Breitbart News strategized with some neo-Nazi figures — on the topic of extremism, Haqqani said, “Mine was not a fawning, supportive interview.” He added, “The man has an opinion, we should hear it.”
Despite the one-sided subject matter at the conference, Hudson Institute public affairs head David Tell denied the think tank takes any UAE or other Persian Gulf money. “Hudson has not ever accepted financial contributions from the UAE government or anyone connected thereto — and would not as a matter of formal institutional policy,” Stewart said.
The Hudson Institute did not clarify whether it coordinated with foreign governments in a non-financial manner. The UAE has been active in Washington’s think tank world, offering funding and coordinating with others that serve its agenda. McClatchy reported that some of the funding for the Monday event was provided by Elliott Broidy, a prominent Trump fundraiser.
The lone dissenter from the anti-Qatar consensus was Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., who appeared on a panel of congressional leaders. He criticized Saudi Arabia in front of his notably uncomfortable colleagues, Reps. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., and Michael McCaul, R-Texas. He called Wahhabism, the state-backed conservative Islamic movement in Saudi Arabia, “the greatest exporter” of extremist ideology, a message that seemed at odds with the conference’s top-line themes.
Correction: October 26, 2017
An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote to Hudson Institute press secretary Carolyn Stewart. The quote was from Hudson head of public affairs David Tell.