Nikki Haley and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

(With apologies to Judith Viorst.)

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

Last Thursday, Haley delivered a highly publicized speech in front of some missile debris and other captured weapons at an air force base outside of Washington, DC. The stunt was meant to showcase Iranian interference in the ongoing war in Yemen, but Haley’s promise to provide “concrete evidence” to back up her claims fell flat.

Ambassador Haley followed that up this week with a blustery performance at the United Nations in New York in which she tried to defend the Trump administration’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — along with the decision to relocate the American embassy there — in the face of widespread global criticism. The coup de grace came when Haley tried to claim victory in the wake of a 128-9 General Assembly vote condemning the American decree on Jerusalem. In her statement of thanks to the countries that did not “[fall] to the irresponsible ways of the UN,” Haley counted the countries that abstained as well as those who did not show up to vote among those who supported the US position. It was a laughable and transparently desperate attempt to save face for a boss whose sole obsession is “winning.”

It’s hard to see what Haley gets out of this job. As Reza Marashi wrote at Lobelog this week, she’s obviously not very good at it. To be fair, this critique applies to a lot, if not all, of the people serving in this administration. Still, Haley’s missteps seem especially comical.

Part of the problem for Haley is that her screwups aren’t confined to American soil. The UN exists on the world stage, and everything she does there gets scrutinized by the global community. While Trump and most of his cabinet officials can rely on Fox News and other American conservative media outlets to create a “Fair and Balanced” portrayal of an alternate reality at home, the international media are not nearly as accommodating. In the case of the recent UN vote, Israel was probably the only country with major media outlets echoing Haley’s claim of moral victory, but even that proved challenging. Israel Hayom, the free paper owned by right-wing billionaire and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, really had to strain to write an honest headline that sounded even somewhat victorious: “An achievement to Israel: 35 countries abstained at the UN.”

I didn’t bother to check the headlines in Micronesia.

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Haley, like many of her colleagues, is sacrificing her reputation on the altar of this presidency for dubious purposes. Her stunt speech in front of the missile debris recalled the infamous February 2003 presentation by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, when the former four-star general and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued the case for war with Iraq — replete with props — in front of the UN Security Council. How did that turn out again? Oh, right.

At least for Powell the stakes were clear. The Bush administration was asking him to deploy his sterling reputation to justify an invasion of Iraq on false pretenses. For Haley, it’s not readily apparent what she or the administration really wants in the Middle East. On Iran, their actions seem to be pointing toward increased confrontation of some kind, perhaps even war, but there’s no obvious strategic objective (which of course is part of the problem). The Jerusalem move, both in substance and timing, is even more of a headscratcher. Depending on the eventual outcome of these issues, the biggest difference between Haley’s and Powell’s speeches may end up being that Haley did not have much of a reputation to sacrifice when she decided to mortgage her credibility for her boss.

There may be a simpler explanation for all this: money. Haley has long been a darling of the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party. Even before the 2016 election, she was raking in donations as the Governor of South Carolina from big-name conservatives such as the aforementioned Adelson. Between May and June 2016, the Las Vegas billionaire contributed $250,000 to Haley’s A New Day fund. If Haley has any further political ambitions after this administration, she will no doubt be reliant on additional funding from this cohort. Coupled with the huge sums Adelson gave to Trump, it’s reasonable to interpret these policy pronouncements as a form of performative repayment for their donors’ generosity.

In spite of her lack of success, there have been rumblings in the past about how Trump was so pleased with Haley’s job performance that he was considering her as a replacement for his beleaguered Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, but that is apparently off the table. The most recent rumors out of the White House hint at CIA Director Mike Pompeo as the next in line for the State post, with Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton as his possible replacement at the Agency.

This is not to say that Haley has fallen out of favor with the President. Unlike many other Trump cabinet officials, Haley has not been made to suffer her boss’s ridicule as a result of her prominent failures. I suspect that Haley’s perceived aura of “toughness” is one of the reasons she persists in this job. Trump’s penchant for style over substance means that as long as Haley maintains her fierce and intimidating aesthetic on Twitter and Fox News, she’ll likely succeed in maintaining her current position for the foreseeable future.

Before the General Assembly vote on Jerusalem, Haley warned UN members that the Trump administration would be “taking names” of how countries voted on the resolution. We all assumed it was because the Trump administration would seek to penalize those who dared to voice opposition. Trump himself even suggested the possibility that the U.S. would cut off foreign aid to anyone who voted in favor of the resolution. Now, it seems, there may have been a different reason. On Friday afternoon, Ambassador Haley sent out party invites to all those who voted against the resolution, abstained, or simply failed to show up.

Really puts a different spin on “let them eat cake.”

Dueling Fan Fiction

Fan fiction, in which ordinary fans pen stories featuring their favorite characters, is nothing new, but what was once a labor of love, undertaken mainly for the enjoyment of the creator, has become an entirely new genre of art thanks to the wonder of the Internet. Authors of fan fiction can now instantaneously share their work with thousands of other like-minded fans online, even occasionally garnering their own share of critical or financial success. Given the right combination of factors, what begins as a work of personal fantasy can, on occasion, morph into a reality.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen with the latest edition of Middle East fan fiction. This video showing a Saudi Arabian invasion of Iran has been dominating my Twitter timeline for the last few days, and…well…it’s something:

The video begins with a quote from Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, which states that the goal of the Iranian regime is to attack the holy city of Mecca. “We will not wait until the fight is in Saudi Arabia,” MBS promises, “We will bring the fight to Iran.”

Cut to a “Saudi aid ship on a humanitarian mission” somewhere in the “Arabian Gulf.”  Suddenly, a trio of armed Iranian speedboats come zooming toward the defenseless tanker. Luckily, a Saudi frigate is nearby. Before the Iranians even fire a shot — I guess we’re simply supposed to infer the Iranians’ nefarious intent — the Saudi boat unleashes a barrage of missiles and bullets that shred the Iranian sailors. The tanker, unharmed, is now free to carry out its humanitarian mission in peace. Where is it going? No idea, but it probably isn’t Yemen.

There’s no time to worry about such trivialities right now, though, because the Iranians have initiated the second stage of their attack. In a futuristic command center, a Saudi soldier informs his commander, in English, that ballistic missiles are incoming. Once again, however, the Saudi defense forces are ready. With the help of American-made Patriot missile batteries, they blast the Iranian missiles from the sky.

By now, the Saudis are sick of this unprovoked Iranian aggression. It’s time to take the fight to Iran. What follows is a series of exponential escalations of force, beginning with long-range missile attacks and ending with an air, land, and sea invasion of the Iranian homeland. Saudi troops cut through Iranian defenses without much opposition. At one point, we watch as Saudi soldiers capture an Iranian military base, lowering the Iranian flag as (also American-made) tanks surround the compound. While explosions outside shake the walls, Saudi troops bust through a door to reveal a trembling Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, who sinks to his knees in surrender. The video ends with scenes of jubilation in Tehran’s Azadi Square, where the Iranian people have flooded the streets to wave the Saudi flag and hold aloft posters (did they just have these ready at home?) of their liberator, Mohammed bin Salman.

I should note here that I don’t really know the provenance of this video. A user with the handle “Saudi Deterrent Force” (in Arabic) posted it on YouTube about three days ago. The account has only posted six identical copies of the same video above with subtitles in different languages (including Persian and Hebrew), along with two short teaser clips posted about a week ago. Some reports are describing it as “Saudi produced,” although what that means isn’t entirely clear. It has a kind of bad video game quality to it, like an off-brand mid-2000s edition of the multiplayer shooter Counter-Strike. One would expect that the Saudi government, with all the money at its disposal, could afford something with slightly better production value. The use of English as the primary language, along with the multi-lingual subtitles, suggests that this was meant primarily for international consumption.

As of this writing, the main video has over 700,000 views (and climbing) on YouTube, with the other subtitle variants each adding a few thousand more. Several mainstream news outlets, including Al Jazeera Arabic, have picked up the video and produced their own pieces on it.

Strangely, this video is not the first of its kind in the Iran-Saudi rivalry. It may have been produced as a response to another video, posted back in January 2016, that depicted a fictitious missile attack against Saudi Arabia:

With similarly cheap graphics alongside a soaring musical score, we watch as Saudi oil fields, military bases, and cities are destroyed in a hail of missiles. The text in the video — written in Persian — explains that the missiles belong to “the forces of the people of Yemen,” presumably exacting revenge against the Saudis for their military intervention in Yemen’s ongoing civil war. The only other item I’d note is at 2:26 there’s a shot of a signpost at Saudi Aramco’s Ghawar Field that depicts the sword from the Saudi flag with a small Star of David attached to the hilt, an obvious reference to the Saudi-Israeli alliance.

This video was far less successful than the Saudi version, only garnering about 30,000 views as of this writing (I’ve noticed this number going up over the last few days, possibly the result of a small bump from those, like me, who discovered it after the Saudi video went viral). Interestingly, while the video is in Persian, the YouTube page description is in Arabic.

Absent any additional context, there’s no way to tell for sure whether these videos are the work of enthusiastic individuals or part of coordinated government propaganda efforts. If I learned anything in 2017, it’s that perception is often more important than reality when it comes to political decision making. If enough people are convinced by the sincerity of these videos to push Iran and Saudi Arabia closer to an actual war, it may not matter who made them in the first place.

What’s the Point of the Israel-Saudi Alliance?


It’s been a busy few weeks for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Between purging his political rivals, trying to force the Lebanese Prime Minister to resign, and orchestrating a devastating war/humanitarian disaster in Yemen, it’s impressive he found the time to sit down for a four-hour interview with the New York Times’ Tom Friedman.

The resulting column, which reads more like a Saudi press release than an objective report from a featured columnist of one of the world’s leading news organizations, has received almost universally negative reviews from the Middle East expert and academic community. It isn’t necessary to rehash all of their critiques here, but I do want to draw attention to one comment in Friedman’s column that caught my eye. Late in the column, the ever-credulous Friedman quotes the young prince calling Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, “the new Hitler of the Middle East.” Bin Salman goes on, “But we learned from Europe that appeasement doesn’t work. We don’t want the new Hitler in Iran to repeat what happened in Europe in the Middle East.”

Friedman let this analogy go unchallenged, but the same could not be said for the rest of the world. The comment sparked widespread outrage, particularly among the Iranian public and press. Many critics pointed out the hypocrisy of an autocrat in the midst of prosecuting a war of aggression against a neighbor comparing another country’s leader to the Fuhrer of the Third Reich. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi responded by calling the crown prince an “adventurist,” and advised him “to think and ponder upon the fate of the famous dictators of the region in the past few years now that he is thinking of considering their policies and behaviour as a role model.”

Few seemed aware that this was not the first time in recent memory that a Middle Eastern leader had compared Iran to the Third Reich. That honor belongs to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has never been shy about framing the conflict with Iran in terms of the Holocaust even, and perhaps especially, in the most prominent of public settings. In just one such example at the 2009 United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu called the Iranian “marriage between religious fanaticism and weapons of mass destruction” the biggest threat facing the world since Nazi Germany.

At least one person noticed the similarity between the Saudi prince’s rhetoric and that of the Israeli Prime Minister: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In his response to the comment, Rouhani did not mention bin Salman by name, but did note that it was “strange” that the “inexperienced officials of certain regional countries utter some words which are exactly like the words of the Zionist regime.”

Rouhani may be on to something here. One possible way to interpret bin Salman’s “Hitler” remarks is to view it as a deliberate — and potentially coordinated — adoption of Israeli messaging on Iran. There’s some evidence to support this theory. In early November, Israel’s Channel 10 News disclosed the contents of a cable sent by the Israeli Foreign Ministry instructing its diplomats to lobby foreign officials in support of Saudi Arabia and its policies toward Lebanon. Bin Salman’s remarks about Hitler, therefore, can be seen as a reciprocal effort by Saudi Arabia to increase public demonization of Iran (though, to be fair, it’s not like Saudi Arabia was having much trouble demonizing Iran without engaging in a little Reductio ad Hitlerum). Due to the secrecy surrounding the details of the relationship, it is impossible to know this with any certainty, but the timing and content of bin Salman’s remarks together with the Israeli cable make it seem less than coincidental.

For the Saudis, the potential benefits of this alliance are obvious. Less than two weeks after the Foreign Ministry cable, Israeli Defense Forces Cheif of Staff Gadi Eiseknot gave an interview to London-based Saudi owned newspaper Elaph in which he said that Israel is “ready to exchange experiences with moderate Arab countries and to exchange intelligence to confront Iran.” Thus, the Saudis get access to Israeli intelligence capabilities and military expertise, both of which are far superior to their own.

For Israel, the gains are less clear. Some Israeli commentators have portrayed the growing ties with Saudi Arabia as a moral victory for Israel and the region, a sign that Arab-Israeli relations may finally be changing for the better. The hope is that by working together, Israel and Saudi Arabia may finally be able to stop Iran’s quest for regional hegemony and in the process succeed in remaking the Middle East into a stable, peaceful, and prosperous region.

This is, of course, incredibly naive. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that either country is pursuing ties with the other in search of some better understanding about the region, nor is there any indication that their cooperation reflects a broader societal shift in Israeli-Arab relations.

Yet even from a practical standpoint, this alliance doesn’t make much sense. The idea that the fabled Mossad would either need or want Saudi intelligence’s help is prima facie ridiculous. Likewise, both nations already enjoy direct and near-unlimited access to American weaponry. Neither needs the other’s help to improve its relationship or expand its line of credit with the Trump administration.

The only possible place where Saudi help to Israel is even remotely plausible is in Palestine. This past week at the Saban Forum at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC, presidential advisor/Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner elaborated on this possibility while discussing the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. “The Saudis care a lot about the Palestinian people,” Kushner said, “They believe the Palestinian people need to have hope and opportunity, and this has been a big priority for the king and the crown prince — finding a solution to this problem.”

What that “solution” might look like was revealed in a December 3 New York Times article that reported that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is being pressured by Saudi Arabia to accept what is being called the most Israel-friendly peace plan ever put forward. Under this arrangement, Palestinians would get a state in name but little else. The plan would give the Palestinians a non-contiguous territory in the West Bank, do nothing to reduce the majority of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, grant no access to East Jerusalem as a potential capital, and offer nothing on the right of return. In short, it is an Israeli dream proposal.

Less than two weeks after Kushner visited Riyadh, Abbas was summoned to the Saudi capital and was allegedly told he would either need to accept the proposal or face resignation. That none of the participants in selling this idea to Abbas seem aware of the inherent stupidity and impossibility of such a one-sided proposal tells you everything you need to know about the level of knowledge at play here. Abbas would literally be signing his own death warrant were he ever to accept such a proposal.

Realistically, the Israeli-Saudi alliance is built entirely on the premise of confrontation with Iran, but neither the Israelis nor the Saudis find themselves in a strategically favorable position at the moment to take action against the Iranians. Saudi Arabia is already engaged in several costly proxy wars with Iran in Yemen and Syria and the Saudis appear to be losing the upper hand in both. But while the Saudis need all the help they can get, the Israelis seem reluctant to risk their soldiers’ lives by getting more deeply involved in the conflict just to protect Saudi interests. Gen. Eisenkot said as much in his interview with the Saudi paper when he explicitly ruled out the possibility of Israel going to war again with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Still, this is a military alliance, not a diplomatic one, and military alliances are built on military officials discussing military solutions to military problems. With both Israeli and Saudi hands firmly gripping the hammer, how long will they be able to resist trying to strike the Iranian nail?