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Bernie Sanders’ Policy Backing Saudi Intervention Needs to Change Now

Posted on Aug 27, 2015

By Sam Husseini

    Saudi Arabia’s newly enthroned King Salman, center, receives pledges of loyalty following the death of King Abdullah in January. (SPA / AP)

This piece first appeared at Sam Husseini’s blog.

There’s an old joke about two elderly men at a Catskill resort. One complains: “The food here is horrible.” The other vigorously agrees: “Yeah, I know—and the portions are so damn small!”

Several writers have noted Bernie Sanders’ scant comments about foreign policy—small portions.

But another problem is the little that he has articulated in terms of foreign policy—the foreign policy issue that he’s been most passionate about really—is extremely regressive and incredibly dangerous. That issue is the role of Saudi Arabia. Sanders has actually pushed for the repressive regime to engage in more intervention in the Mideast.

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In discussing ISIS, Sanders invariably has talked about Saudi Arabia as the solution rather than a large part of the problem. It’s couched in language that seems somewhat critical, but the upshot is we need more Saudi influence and intervention in the region. In effect, more and bigger proxy wars, which have already taken the lives of hundreds of thousands in Syria and could even further rip apart Iraq, Libya and other countries.

He’s said this repeatedly—and prominently. In February with Wolf Blitzer on CNN: “This war is a battle for the soul of Islam and it’s going to have to be the Muslim countries who are stepping up. These are billionaire families all over that region. They’ve got to get their hands dirty. They’ve got to get their troops on the ground. They’ve got to win that war with our support. We cannot be leading the effort.”

What? Why should a U.S. progressive be calling for more intervention by the Saudi monarchy? Really, we want Saudi troops in Syria and Iraq and Libya and who knows where else? You’d think that perhaps someone like Sanders would say that we have to break our decades-long backing of the corrupt Saudi regime—but no, he wants to dramatically accelerate it.

Even worse, after the Saudis started bombing Yemen with U.S. government backing earlier this year, killing thousands and leading to what the UN is now calling a “humanitarian catastrophe,” and suffering that is “almost incomprehensible,” Sanders continued. In another interview, again with Wolf Blitzer in May, Sanders did correctly note that as a result of the Iraq invasion, “we’ve destabilized the region, we’ve given rise to Al-Qaeda, ISIS.” But then he actually called for more intervention: “What we need now, and this is not easy stuff, I think the President is trying, you need to bring together an international coalition, Wolf, led by the Muslim countries themselves! Saudi Arabia is the third largest military budget in the world, they’re going to have to get their hands dirty in this fight. We should be supporting, but at the end of the day this is [a] fight over what Islam is about, the soul of Islam, we should support those countries taking on ISIS.”

Progressives in the U.S. are supposed to look toward the Saudi monarchy to save the soul of Islam? The Saudis have pushed the teachings of the Wahhabi sect and have been deforming Islam for decades. This actually helped give rise to ISIS and Al Qaeda. It’s a little like Bernie Sanders saying that the Koch Brothers need to get more involved in U.S. politics, they need to “get their hands dirty.”

But if your point is to build up the next stage of the U.S. government’s horrific role in the Mideast, it kind of makes sense. The U.S. government helped ensure the Saudis would dominate the Arabian Peninsula from the formation of the nation state of Saudi Arabia—a nation named after a family. In return, the Saudis had the U.S. take the lead in extracting oil there and favored investing funds from their oil wealth largely in the West over building up the region, what the activist scholar Eqbal Ahmed called separating the material wealth of the Mideast from the mass of the people of the region. Saudi Arabia buys U.S. weapons to further solidify the “relationship” and to ensure its military dominance.

The Saudis and other Gulf monarchies deformed the Arab uprisings, which transformed oppressive but basically secular and minimally populist regimes into failed states, giving rise to groups like ISIS and allowing Saudi Arabia to largely call the shots in the region. What has happened in the Mideast since the ouster of Mubarak and the so-called Arab uprisings is that the Saudis have been strengthened. Both the Tunisian and Yemeni dictators fled to Saudi Arabia. Mubarak himself was urged not to resign by the Saudis, and the Saudis are now the main backers of the military regime in Cairo.


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