Strange Bedfellows

Photo by U.S. Embassy Jerusalem | CC BY 2.0

Misery is not the only thing that “acquaints a man with strange bedfellows,” as Shakespeare put it; geopolitical machinations and international animosities do as well.

Even so, the not-so-secret marriage of convenience – or is it only an affair? — between Israel, on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, on the other, is mind-boggling.

Hovering over that strange liaison is, of course, Donald Trump’s America.

To be sure, neither he nor anyone else in his administration got those strange bedfellows together.

In fact, there was no need for a matchmaker, a shadchan, at all.  The unholy alliance has been in the works for a long time, instigated and sustained by malefactors on both sides.

All Trump and his minions have done is back the process a thousand percent.  Obama and his predecessors backed it too, but only a hundred percent.

If anyone deserves credit – or blame – it would be Benjamin Netanyahu.  That awful man “meddles” and “colludes” in countless ways.

He has been hard at work for years playing “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” card, easing the way for the Middle East’s two neighborhood bullies to join forces.  He has been instrumental too in securing the empire’s blessing.

The sad fact, though, is that with the Israeli settler movement calling the shots in both Tel Aviv and Washington, there hasn’t been much lately for him or anyone else to do.

The Israel lobby owns Congress; since Trump’s election, it has owned the White House too – lock, stock, and barrel.  And with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and other hardcore ethnocrats tied to the Trump Organization running the show, the Israeli government hardly needs to flex its muscles.

Who needs the Mossad or seasoned propagandists when homegrown rightwing Zionists can be counted on to do the wrong thing without being prodded!

The rulers of Saudi Arabia have been getting their way with Washington too on matters of immediate concern to them.  Israel has its lobby – Jewish and Evangelical.  The Saudis have their friends in “the energy sector.”

In the Saudi case, the broader American public has never exactly been on board, but it doesn’t matter.  Big Oil has been a major player in American politics seemingly from time immemorial; to most Americans, this is just the way things go.

The recent public relations blitz being put on for Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi version of Jarvanka’s better half, aims to change that.  If the effort succeeds, and if there were a World Cup in public relations prowess, the well-compensated American firms doing the heavy lifting would win handily – talk about lipstick on a pig!

Oil rich Arab potentates have never been popular with the American public, but the stewards of the empire and their bosses in the oil industry have always gotten along with them well enough.

They do it to secure access to “Arab oil,” and to keep its price up or down according to the empire’s needs.  They do it to control the distribution of oil around the world.  American hegemony depends on getting that right.

The Saudi regime is theocratic and retrograde, and the situation is not much better in the other kingdoms and emirates of the Arabian Peninsula.  But this has never mattered to American policy-makers or their counterparts in other developed countries. What matters is the oil; period, end of story.

This is as true now, with MBS, as it was back when the press treated the region’s princes, kings, and emirs with the contempt they deserve.

For sheer heinousness, the crimes the Saudis are now committing in Yemen rival or even surpass those committed by the Israelis in Gaza.  Corporate media do all they can to keep news of Saudi and Israeli atrocities out of view, but word does get out.  In both cases, they are better at keeping the facts from registering in public opinion in ways that might actually do some good than at hiding them altogether.

They are also good at suppressing awareness of another relevant fact: that the Saudis have been the main providers of material aid and spiritual guidance to every Sunni-based terrorist group in the historically Muslim world.

That doesn’t matter to the empire’s elites – first, because being oil rich means never having to say you’re sorry, and, more importantly, because the Saudis and their allies have it in for Iran.

The story corporate pundits tell, in the rare instances that they pay the matter any attention at all, is that Saudi hostility towards Iran is sectarian – Sunni versus Shi’a, the theocracy in Riyadh at odds with the theocracy in Tehran.

To be sure, sectarian conflicts do sometimes occur in the Muslim world, though, on that count, from the time of the Roman Empire through the wars of religion that followed the Protestant Reformation to nearly the present day, Christendom wins the prize. Even so, it does seem that we are now living through one of those moments when intra-Muslim conflicts flare up and take a lethal turn.

Nevertheless, it is plain to all knowledgeable observers that what is going on now in the Greater Middle East has more to do with the economic and geopolitical interests of the states that are involved than with their leaders’ and peoples’ religious traditions and theological commitments.

The Saudis and the Iranians each want to be top dog.  Turkey too wants a place for itself at the top of the hierarchy.

The governments of all those countries are nominally committed to securing justice for Palestinian victims of Israeli ethnic cleansing.  In truth, though, they don’t much care.

They pretend that they do because the people they rule care, and keeping them in line is their first concern.  Supporting co-religionists who live far away doesn’t do much to distract dissidents and insurgents; it doesn’t nullify their grievances with their respective governments. However, a failure to voice support would likely be enough of an irritant to cause problems.

In the days when commentators in the West felt freer to express themselves in patronizing ways, this was called playing to “the Arab street.”

What the Saudis and the other forces now arrayed against Iran really want, beyond holding onto power, is to dominate the Greater Middle East.  No doubt, they also wish the Palestinians well, but this is hardly a priority.

“Making Arabia great again” is a priority, however.  This is not just a Trump-style political ploy; it is a strategic objective.

They want to become the undisputed regional hegemon – not so much for God’s sake, but because they think that they can, and because they think that it will make them even richer and more powerful than they already are.

But Iran stands in their way.  Iranian mullahs and the capitalists with whom they cohabit want for themselves, what their Saudi counterparts want.

Two top dog wannabes fighting over the same bone.

When the American empire was younger and more robust, it was better able to quash rivalries of this kind; it could force Shahs and Princes to get along.

The Iranian Revolution put an end to that. With Iranians berating the Great Satan, and taking American diplomats hostage to boot, a spectacular humiliation unfolded that led to the effective disengagement of the Islamic Republic from the American empire.

However, in the ways that matter in political economy, the consequences of the rupture were not all that far-reaching.  The stewards of the empire don’t take insults lightly.  They therefore had, and still have, a hard time dealing with blatant displays of lèse majestéemanating out of Iran. Also, the United States and other Western countries did suffer material harm.  But, as it turned out, the capitalists who benefited most from the Shah’s rule didn’t suffer too much for too long.

In the end, the biggest problem, from their standpoint, was that the empire’s credibility had taken a hit. That they could not abide.  Nearly four decades later, their successors still haven’t gotten over it.

Early on, though, the United States learned to make do without Iran – even going so far as to encourage Saddam Hussein to launch a war against the Islamic Republic.  Saddam was an American ally at the time.

But when the Iran-Iraq War seemed to be going too well for Iraq, and when the Reagan administration determined that Iranian connections could help their efforts to quash progressive insurgencies in Central America, Reagan and the people around him flip-flopped – not quite by coming to Iran’s aid, but by turning against Iraq.

There have been many twists and turns ever since, but nothing has fundamentally altered the American view of the Islamic Republic.  Therefore now, with the Saudis and Iranians at each other’s throats, the United States gravitates, as if by nature, to the Saudi side.

Gore Vidal’s quip about the United States of Amnesia was spot on, but it is also the case that American governments hold grudges.  What Talleyrand said of the Bourbons applies to them: they never learn, and they never forget.

Over the years, Washington’s ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have become stronger. Meanwhile, its anti-Iranian animosities have remained generally on a downward trajectory.

America can make do, and even thrive, without Iranian oil and without access to the Iranian market. It is therefore susceptible to doing monumentally stupid things involving Iran.  It could even be induced to start a war that would make the horrors of the Bush-Cheney Iraq War seem almost anodyne.

Pulling out of the nuclear accord that the Obama administration, along with China, France, Russia, the UK, Germany and the EU, painstakingly negotiated was monumentally stupid in its own right, at least for a president who claims to want to “make America great again.”

It was also very likely a step towards graver stupidities ahead.

Why did Trump do it? He says, and maybe even believes, that he did it because it is a bad deal.  Trump presents himself as a consummate dealmaker.  In fact, he is a conman.  All that keeps him in office is the fact that there is one born every minute.

Those who say that Trump wanted out because Obama helped negotiate the accord have a more plausible case; and those who say that he has contempt for democratic countries and their leaders have a more plausible case still.

So do those who say that he is determined to upend the world order that the United States fashioned, mainly for its own benefit, in the aftermath of World War II.  That thought hardly accords with his blather about “making America great again,” but then neither consistency nor rationality are his strong suits.

All of the above are surely part of the explanation, but if push comes to war, the most important reason why Trump opted out will be Israel.

Israel has squandered nearly all the moral capital it acquired from the Holocaust, though the news seems not yet to have registered in the minds of the American political class.

Neither have they ever acknowledged the oddity of the idea that all that moral capital was Israel’s to squander.   The state of Israel did not even exist at the time the Holocaust was in process, and the Zionist movement did all it could to assure that survivors of the Nazi Judeocide would be settled in Palestine rather than the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, countries where most of them would have preferred to go and where they could easily have been absorbed.

In any case, a Jewish state in the Arab world, essentially a European colony inhabited by people without ethnic or religious connections to the peoples around them, is never going to win over hearts and minds on “the Arab street.”

Unlike the Saudis and the Iranians, it therefore cannot aspire to be a regional hegemon in the usual sense; it has a well-resourced and well-trained army, and plenty of “intelligence” operatives, but no “soft power” to deploy.

Of course, it has what Saudi Arabia and Iran currently do not: the bomb.  But what good does that do them?  The geography is such that they cannot use their nukes without destroying themselves.  And were Israel ever really to face an “existential threat,” it could count on American protection, even more surely than, say, Japan and South Korea can.

It is therefore hard to see why Israel would care all that much about maintaining a nuclear monopoly in its immediate neighborhood.

Why then the intensity of its opposition to the nuclear accord with Iran?  For that matter, why the animosity towards Iran in the first place?

Jewish settlers from Europe established the state of Israel on land taken from Palestinian Arabs.  This is why, from even before Day One, Israel’s founders sought alliances with nearby non-Arab, but predominantly Muslim, countries – in eastern Africa, Turkey and Iran.

Israeli relations with African countries have always been problematic thanks mainly to the continuing prevalence in the region of anti-colonial attitudes and feelings of solidarity among Third World peoples.

However, Israel’s relations with Turkey had been generally good – until the Israeli attack eight years ago on the Mavi Marmara flotilla.

That turning point, in conjunction with the vicissitudes of Turkish politics in the face of the on-going wars in Syria and Iraq, has moved Turkey onto Israel’s enemies list – sort of. With Turkey in NATO and possessing a large and powerful military force in its own right, there are limits to how far hostilities between Israel and Turkey can go.

With Iran, there are no limits.

However, Iran is hardly a “natural” enemy.  Even in the immediate aftermath of its revolution, when the Iranian clerics calling the shots found it convenient to ratchet up anti-Israel rhetoric to ridiculous heights, relations between the two countries remained secure beneath the surface.

Israel even played a role in the machinations surrounding Reagan’s Iran-Contra escapade.

It isn’t just that ties between Israel and Iran go back all the way to the founding of the Jewish state. Of equal or greater importance is the fact that, since ancient times, Jews have held the Persian Empire in the highest esteem.

Relations between Judaism and Zionism are complicated.  The standard line nowadays is that the two are inextricably intertwined.  Israel’s apologists seldom bother to argue the point; their aim is to assure that it is taken for granted.

It would be more on point, however, to say that Zionism has, for all intents and purposes, hijacked the Jewish religion – effectively replacing it, for many Jews in search of ways to maintain a Jewish identity, with what the Hebrew Prophets would call an “idol” – and what Netanyahu has called “the nation state of the Jewish people.”

To maintain that fantasy, willfully ignorant Zionists have to forget a great deal.  They also have to discount or reject the most extreme versions of Orthodox Judaism – not the Jarvanka kind, but the kind that is faithful to traditional Jewish understandings of “the Promised Land.”

Zionists also had trouble with liberal currents within Judaism, and of course with secular Jews.

Decades ago, Reform Judaism made peace with the Zionist project, as did many secular Jews insofar as they cared about Israel at all.  Lately, though, as it has become increasingly difficult to remain in denial about the retrograde character of Jewish nationalism, the old tensions are bounding back.

What then can Netanyahu and like-minded Zionists do?

Getting Israel and the United States on the same side in a war would work, or so it would seem, at least for a while.

Even if Trump is too dense to see how foolish it would be to commit American forces to Lebanon, say, to fight Hezbollah, his “mad dog” generals could probably convince him not to do it. Israel has tried repeatedly to crush challenges to its vaunted military supremacy in Lebanon, without ever quite succeeding.  It is not clear what the United States could do to change the odds, were they to try again.

Iran, however, is another story, not because the situation is more favorable from a military point of view – it emphatically is not – but because, with all the historical baggage involved, the prospects for making it happen are much improved.

If nothing else, the prospects for getting Trump involved are excellent.  It isn’t just that his cronies and his daughter’s in-laws are egging him on, or that he is always on the ready to do a favor for fellow New York real estate moguls and Sheldon Adelson – it is also his sociopathy.

It has long been clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the man is, as his former Secretary of State aptly put it, “a fucking moron.”  It has become even clearer over the past week or two, as he has had his minions tear babies and toddlers away from their mothers, housing them in cages, in warehouses and under tents, that he is also utterly and completely evil.

Public pressure seems to have forced Trump to change the optics somewhat; but, at this point, it is far from clear how, when, and even whether the thousands of children whose lives Trump has already damaged will be reunited with the parents from whom Trump had them taken away.

After all, he did not back down to the extent that he did out of the goodness of his heart.  He has no empathy, no moral sense.  However, as a conman, he understands that the appearance of virtue can sometimes be useful.

He doesn’t care about harming others.  If he cares about anything other than himself and perhaps also the family members he regards as extensions of himself, it is looking tough to the racists and nativists in his base, and enriching the movers and shakers of the prison-industrial complex.

Children are imprisoned, maimed, and murdered in Netanyahu’s Israel too.  Palestinians are Netanyahu’s Hondurans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans.

The Netanyahu government hasn’t yet torn babies away from their mothers, and the Trumpians have yet to mow down unarmed peaceful protesters.  In each case, though, they are capable of it; their level of moral degradation is that extreme.

Netanyahu and Trump are alike in another way too: they and the governments they lead are utterly corrupt.

Thus they are brothers under the skin.  How then could Trump resist the Bibster’s demands?

With the law closing in on both of them, both seem to think that a “splendid little war” would be just the thing.  This too attests to their moral and intellectual level.

But the immorality pales before the recklessness and stupidity of the idea.

The world was a mean and dangerous enough place back when the Saudis and the Israelis pursued their nefarious objectives apart.  But those were salad days compared to now, with those two and the other Gulf States in bed together.

Worry?  You bet!

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).