Who remembers “The Bow”?
In April 2009, three months into his first term in office, Barack Obama found himself in the midst of a bizarre controversy. At a meeting of the G-20, the new U.S president appeared to bow his head to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Conservatives lost their minds. Fox News ran chyrons suggesting that Obama was “pandering” to Muslims; host Sean Hannity played the clip in slow motion and on a loop. Senate Republicans even ran an online ad attacking the president for bowing to the Saudi king, while the right-wing Washington Examiner published an editorial calling it “a shocking display of fealty to a foreign potentate.”
Fast forward a decade: If a president bowing to the Saudis made conservatives mad in 2009, what do they make of a president effectively putting the Saudis in charge of the U.S. military in 2019?
This was Donald Trump’s response to the recent airstrikes on two state-owned oil facilities in Saudi Arabia:
Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 15, 2019
Two points are worth considering here. First, Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the “power to declare war.” Previous presidents, including Obama, have ignored this War Powers Clause and transferred authority for war-making to the executive branch; none of them, however, publicly handed over that authority to a foreign government — an absolute monarchy, no less. Reread those words again from the president: “Waiting to hear from the Kingdom … and under what terms we would proceed.”
This is “America First”? This doesn’t constitute “a shocking display of fealty to a foreign potentate”? It is difficult, as the New York Times reports, “to imagine him allowing NATO, or a European ally, such latitude to determine how the United States should respond.” So what is behind this jaw-dropping tweet from the president? Is this Trump’s longstanding and hawkish obsession with the Iranians on show again, which also led him to unilaterally withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018? Is this yet another example of his love affair with foreign tyrants, whether Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Kim Jong Un of North Korea, or Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, who he has called his “favorite dictator”? (Can you imagine, incidentally, how jealous the crown prince must have been when he heard the news about Trump and Sisi?)
Or is this further evidence of how this commander-in-chief is financially compromised by his business connections to the Saudis? As I explained in a video essay last year, the Saudis have been bailing out Trump since the 1990s — and have continued to do so since he entered the White House. “Saudi Arabia … they buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million,” Trump once declaimed. “Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”
Harsh questions need to be asked of the president’s relationship with the Saudi royals — especially if he is planning on putting U.S. forces in harm’s way on their behalf, and at their direction, without congressional approval.
Second, Trump is a belligerent hawk and has always been a belligerent hawk. The “Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk” nonsense from Maureen Dowd & Co. during the election campaign wasn’t true then and isn’t true now. Who else but a belligerent hawk deploys the action-movie rhetoric of “locked and loaded”? On Monday, the day after his tweet, Trump was asked by a reporter in the Oval Office if he had evidence that Iran was behind the attacks on Saudi Arabia. “We’re having some very strong studies done, but it’s certainly looking that way at this moment,” he replied, before bragging about having “the strongest military in the world.”
Will the media pose any tough questions about the nature of these “strong studies”? It doesn’t look good so far. Consider this uncritical headline from MSNBC, based on three anonymous sources: “U.S. intelligence shows Saudi oil attack was launched from Iran.”
Thankfully, however, there has been some pushback from a range of unexpected sources. Pentagon officials — still under the leadership of an acting defense secretary since the departure of James Mattis — have “recommended a restrained response to the recent attacks on Saudi oil facilities, arguing against a potentially costly conflict with Iran” and told reporters that “the administration would need to find a valid legal basis to take action.” Former Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee until the start of this year, called the timing of these attacks “really strange,” adding: “We need to make sure we know who is responsible. Who benefits most from these actions?”
Then there is Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself. In an odd twist, “Saudi officials said the U.S. didn’t provide enough proof to conclude that the attack was launched from Iran,” reported the Wall Street Journal on Monday, “indicating the U.S. information wasn’t definitive.” The kingdom has “asked United Nations experts to help determine who was responsible for the airstrikes.” The Saudis, it seems, want war with Iran — they just don’t want to be blamed for helping start it.
So what happens next? How can anyone possibly know anything, except that the odds of another catastrophic conflict in the Middle East have rapidly increased? This is the bizarro world we now inhabit, in which the Saudis spend years pushing to fight Iran “to the last American,” the president of the United States then publicly says he’ll fight that war on their behalf and on their command, but they then seem to turn him down; in which a Democratic senator goes on Fox News to (wrongly) suggest that military action against Iran is justified while a Fox News personality takes to Twitter to (rightly) urge the president not to “put our military men & women in harm’s way defending multi-billionaire oil sheiks”; in which superhawk John Bolton left the Trump administration because he believed that the president was going soft on Iran and yet the very next week Trump says he is “locked and loaded” and ready to bomb Tehran; in which The Onion now seems more accurate and prescient than the New York Times or the Washington Post.
My head hurts.