Chris Hedges: Saudi Wahhabism a Tool of U.S. Foreign Policy
Chris Hedges and Paul Jay discuss the history of Saudi-promoted Jihadism and blowback as ISIS attacks their former allies
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
With terrorist attacks from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia to Baghdad, and of course many other places in the world, the news of the day is all about ISIS. This gets reported in a very isolated way, without much historical context at all. This Wahhabism, extreme, radical Islam, whatever terminology you want to use, the thing that doesn’t get said very often is to what extent this was all a tool of US foreign policy and for decades.
American relationship with the Saud family was concretized in a meeting in 1945 on Great Bitter Lake when President Roosevelt meets King Ibn Saud and they more or less concretize a deal there to American support for the Saudi regime in exchange for American hegemony over Middle Eastern oil. It begins the use of Wahhabism throughout the region and even becomes explicit under Eisenhower.
Now joining us to talk about this is Chris Hedges. Chris is a prize winning journalist. He’s a columnist at Truthdig. He was a former Middle East bureau chief for the New York Times. Thanks for joining us, Chris.
CHRIS HEDGES: Sure, Paul.
JAY: So, Eisenhower. There’s a quote, and I have not been able to find the exact quote today, but it more or less is that we, meaning the United States, and as part of the Eisenhower doctrine, which was a doctrine which, if I understand it correctly, explicitly got Congress to legislate the use of American force to assert US interest in the Middle East.
There’s a quote which is more or less from Eisenhower where he says we should use the Saudis’ control of Mecca and their prestige in the Islamic world to fight Nasserism, socialism and nationalism throughout the Arab world, and essentially use the Saudis to spread Wahhabism all over the pan-Arab world in order to fight, they called, international communism, but I think it’s more about fighting Arab nationalism.
Chris, what’s your take on how this, the significance of the roots of this?
HEDGES: Well, Wahhabism goes back as a sect, a fanatical sect, to the Ottoman Empire. And the common kind of wisdom in the Middle East is that the British secret service used Wahhabism as a way to create divisions and unrest within the Ottoman Empire. And one of the things that’s often not understood about–these Wahhabi religious leaders made an alliance with the House of Saud, basically just bandits at the time, giving them religious legitimacy which they needed in order to control Mecca and Medina.
And they made war against the Sufis. We still have a lot of Sufis in Turkey, but when I was covering Egypt for the New York Times they would go into Sufi mosques–Sufis are largely pacifists, mystics–and gun them all down or blow them up. So, the spread of Wahhabism which has been sanctioned by the United States for decades, as you correctly point out, and funded by oil revenues, has led to groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
And in the beginning these groups received tremendous sums of money. It’s funneled through the Islamic charities, but these Islamic charities are just massive, you know, incredibly wealthy organizations that are able to donate tens if not ultimately hundreds of millions of dollars. And so groups like Al Qaeda, groups like ISIS which preach a kind of Islam that appeals to certainly the harder-line elements within Wahhabism, receive not only money but weapons.
Then eventually, under US pressure, the Saudis are forced to back off, especially as ISIS grows and becomes a threat to the Saudi regime itself. And we’ve seen the same thing happen in Turkey. Under US pressure, Erdogan is now giving carte blanche to jihadists who travel through Turkey in order to get to Syria. All these jihadists have Turkish cell phones. A lot of them, you know, do their money transfers through Turkey. I mean, they use Turkey as a kind of a logistical base, and as Turkey has shut that down, of course we have seen the attacks that have taken place, the most recent one being, of course, in the airport in Istanbul.
So what we’re seeing, and we’ve seen essentially the same thing happen since 2014 in Saudi Arabia, is kind of blowback, because the quid pro quo that the Saudi regime has with these radical groups is that you won’t, you know, carry out this kind of activity, this kind of terrorist activity, on the soil of Saudi Arabia. So that’s what we’re watching at the moment.
JAY: The reason I raised the historical context is that if you want to talk about what to do about it, about ISIS, and anywhere from Trump’s we’re going to wipe them out–I’m not sure what that means, because wipe them out means either massive ground troop, American ground troops, or massive carpet bombing in parts of Iraq and Syria. So I know what
HEDGES: –That won’t work in an area the size of Texas. I mean, what our response, which is, of course, you know, saturation bombing of cities like Raqqa, is precisely what we’re seeing. That as–These people don’t have an air force. Suicide bombers are, in essence, their air force or their militarized drones. They have 20 thousand foreign fighters. Four to five thousand of them carry EU passports. You know, it was only a matter of time before they sent back to the heart of empire, back to the countries that have been making their life a living hell, to carry out these–This is, I would be highly surprised if this was not the beginning of a very frightening wave of attacks.
Now, why not the United States? Because where you have anywhere, you know, several thousand jihadists out of France alone, it’s impossible for the French secret service or internal security to follow that number of people. Same with Belgium. Same with Britain, ultimately. But it’s estimated that there’s only about 175 to 200 US citizens, and so those people are much easier because it’s a much smaller number. They’re much easier to monitor, but that they’ll eventually get through, I’m sad to say, is probably inevitable.
So, you know, I expect, I mean, certainly America is the target, and I expect they’re working overtime to do something here, aside from the kind of wannabe stuff that you see in Orlando or something. You know, but something much more centralized.
And I think, you know, it’s kind of interesting looking at the last three attacks: the one in Turkey, the one in Bangladesh and the one in Orlando, because they are examples of the three kinds of attacks that are now carried out by self-identified members of ISIS. One, in the Orlando, ISIS didn’t know that this guy exists, I suspect. He, you know, was a kind of self-appropriation.
In the case of Bangladesh, now we know that Bangladeshis were going back and forth to Syria. I suspect that there was some kind of a connection, but it may be probably tangential. They hit a very soft target, a cafe. And then you have the far more serious attack, which was hitting the airport in Istanbul, place of very high security, very well-planned, very, you know, centralized control. Those are the three kinds of attacks that we can expect.
And I think that, you know, because of the large numbers of civilians who have inevitably been killed by this bombing there is a great deal of rage within territory controlled by ISIS and I am certain that they have sent people back out to carry out the same kind of deadly devastation against the perpetrators of these aerial bombardments.
JAY: The history of the use of, by US foreign policy, of alliance with essentially fascist–In fact it goes back, even including Hitler as an example, where many forces in corporate America and in the American political elite financed and encouraged and helped arm Hitler, hoping he would simply go and attack the Soviet Union. I don’t know that they expected him to go west, which is kind of the point. They create these monsters and then these monsters have their own agenda.
They make an alliance with the Saudis, another form of fascism, against this rising tide of nationalism and socialism. Nasser represented a form of nationalism but a secular form, on the whole. They did everything they could, and were quite successful in wiping out many of the socialists, the communists, the leftists throughout the Arab region and promoting this kind of, you know, extreme religious ideology. And it continues with the alliance with Saudis and Qataris and the Turks supporting the extremists in Syria and trying to overthrow Assad.
What I’m getting at here is, there’s no solution as long as you keep working with these kinds of forces thinking you can control them to your own ends–
JAY: –Because they all have their own agendas. They’re not your puppets.
HEDGES: Right. The only problem with the Hitler analogy is that while there were certainly business interests, you know, Henry Ford and others, that were very IBM sympathetic to fascism and quite willing to do business deals with the Nazis, I think the US has played a much more hands-on role in the Middle East–
HEDGES: –In terms of creating these groups. It was intentional, especially with Al Qaeda, you know, with our involvement in the war against the Soviets–
JAY: –In Afghanistan–
HEDGES: –In the same way that Israel, in the early years that I covered Gaza, Israel always left Hamas alone because they saw Hamas as a way to splinter Fatah’s hegemony and in many ways allowed–Israel was as responsible as anything else for letting it grow and ultimately having it seize power.
Yes. I mean, there was a series of errors, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan compounding the problem. But, we have long, for decades, as you correctly point out, empowered and supported these groups as a kind of counterweight in a very foolish way, without seeing that they would ultimately not only turn on us but turn on our supposed allies within the region, and that’s what we’re seeing now in Turkey and seeing in Saudi Arabia.
So, yeah, I mean, US foreign policy in the Middle East for a long time has been one bumbling disaster after another, whether it’s overthrowing Mossadegh or overthrowing Morsi in Egypt, yeah, we just don’t get it.
JAY: And I guess part of it is–I mean, not part of it, the underlying principle is simply, since the second world war, the principle that there should never be another superpower. There can only be one. And if that’s the beginning, middle and end of your foreign policy objectives, then you do whatever it takes to control various regions of the world, and of course with all the oil the Middle East becomes so critical to you. But the principle is, you have to be the dominant power.
HEDGES: right. Well, it’s far more frightening than that because, you know, we don’t have any diplomacy left, We essentially use techno-war as a way and it doesn’t work. We’ve lost the war in Afghanistan. Iraq is destroyed as a unified country. We’ve turned Libya into a failed state. We’ve turned, as I said before, an area the size of Texas controlled by the Islamic State into another failed state. It doesn’t work. It is the idiocy of allowing, or attempting to speak to the rest of the world exclusively in the language of force, and these are the kind of consequences that we bear because of that idiocy.
JAY: And the other part of it, of course, is the amount of money that gets made out of all this. There’s nothing like almost-war to make a lot of dough for people manufacturing arms.
JAY: The Saudi-Iranian rivalry is a dream come true.
HEDGES: Right. Right, well, I think really at this point our foreign policy, and I think this explains the expansion of NATO, because we had promised Gorbachev, or Reagan had promised Gorbachev after the fall of the Berlin Wall that NATO would not expand beyond Germany. Why did it expand? Not for security reasons, but because the arms manufacturers want new markets. I think the same is true in the Middle East.
There is no goal, there is not endpoint, there is no vision. But companies like Raytheon and Halliburton and Northrop Grumman are making, you know, huge amounts of money. And I think at this point they’ve kind of taken hostage this failed policy and they keep perpetuating it because it’s good for their bank accounts, but it’s certainly not good for anyone in the Middle East and it’s not good for us.
JAY: So, what do you make of the two candidates running for president on their Middle East policy?
HEDGES: Oh, I–You know, I don’t think that [laughs]–The military industrial complex plays the tune and politicians dance to it. I don’t think there’ll be any difference between Trump and Clinton, in terms of that.
JAY: All right, thanks very much for joining us.
HEDGES: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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