In early August 2017, a young Arab prince bursting with confidence strode onto the Washington diplomatic stage. Khalid bin Salman, younger brother of the all-powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had just been appointed his country’s ambassador to the United States.
In his first official engagement, he visited Saudi pilots training at Nellis Air Base in Las Vegas. Photos show him matching a US Air Force major general stride for stride, with a posse of military men following respectfully behind. Then Prince Khalid went off to Silicon Valley to have a conversation with Saudi engineers before meeting Martin Lockheed executives in Texas.
As the New York Times
noted, the elegantly dressed prince travelled in the sort of style Saudi royalty is accustomed to: “a luxury jet staffed by women who offered chocolates, coffee or hot towels every few minutes".
Like an earlier envoy, the legendary Bandar bin Sultan, Khalid is a former fighter pilot. But there the comparison stops.
Bandar bin Sultan was Saudi Arabia’s Washington man from 1983 to 2005. He had come to the post after five years diligently working the DC scene as the then King Fahd’s special envoy. Among his accomplishments was to successfully lobby Congress and win approval for the sale of F-15 fighter jets to the kingdom.
As the Americans say, he earned his spurs and then he went on to deal with four presidents and seven secretaries of state during his lengthy ambassadorial tenure.
Khalid bin Salman has no diplomatic experience whatsoever. In a different time, his appointment would have more than just raised eyebrows, it would have raised hackles.
The most important diplomatic post for the Saudis and, given the current tensions in the Gulf and the wider Middle East, a very important posting for America too, has gone to a 28-year-old ingénue. It is a snub to diplomatic niceties, to experience and expertise.
But this is Donald Trump’s Washington. Trump and Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state, have presided over the gutting of American diplomacy. Bluster and a steady stream of Twitter threats from the president have replaced the art of quiet conversation and subtle negotiations.
He has not even got around to nominating an ambassador to Riyadh, so little value does the president of the United States place on foreign and Middle East affairs. That point is thoroughly and ominously underlined when you realise he has also not appointed an ambassador to South Korea.
And the rot doesn’t stop there.
As of 21 September, key undersecretary positions for arms control, international security affairs and near eastern affairs (which oversees Middle East policy) remain unfilled. Tillerson has placed on hold new hirings until he has completed a review of the department which may take up to a year to complete.
As Christopher Woody writes in an article for Business Insider
: “The incoming class of foreign service officers has been cancelled
, senior officials have been pushed out, retired officers who fill jobs on short-term assignments have been dismissed, and office managers have been told three people must leave before one hire can be made.”
The result has been nothing short of catastrophic as senior advisors head for the door and talented newcomers hold back on applying for jobs that pre-Trump were hotly sought after plum appointments.
The sole aim of the review is to enable the secretary to fulfil Trump’s demand that State’s budget be cut by nearly 40 percent. The former Exxon CEO is systematically stripping his own department’s cupboards bare at a time when the world urgently needs American diplomatic leadership.
And the reason that leadership is needed now more than ever is because of Donald Trump’s erratic, unpredictable, aggressive, contradictory and hazy grasp of foreign affairs and America’s role and responsibilities in the world.
When asked at the UN by a reporter if he had urged Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates not to take military action against their fellow GCC member Qatar he answered “No”. He ought to have said “Yes”. Because the idea, now hotly denied by the Saudis and the Emiratis, of a military intervention is utterly mad.
Nevertheless in a meeting with Qatar’s emir Tamim al-Thani, the president went on to double down on the claim that the Qataris are the one Gulf state primarily responsible for funding terrorism.
Common sense would dictate otherwise, it would say that both the UAE and Saudi Arabia also carry significant baggage when it comes to the financing of terror.
But common sense, like the art of diplomacy, is a quality in short supply at Donald Trump’s court of chaos.
All bow to the king
In the past, Britain has often played a useful if secondary role advising America on the Gulf and the wider Middle East, not always, it must be noted, to good effect: viz. Iraq. Nonetheless, there were nuanced discussions and thoughtful exchanges. There was influence.
However in Boris Johnson, we have a foreign secretary of near gargantuan ineffectiveness. No doubt Theresa May prefers him inside the tent peeing out, but this is a politician more preoccupied with Brexit and his over-reaching desire to become prime minister than anything to do with world affairs. And so it proved in the tumultuous wake of Trump’s speech to the UN General Assembly on 19 September.
The UN has seen its fair share of nonsense and threats over the years: Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez "The devil came here yesterday, and it smells of sulphur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of," in reference
to George W Bush and Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the podium for a start.
But never has a leader threatened to “totally destroy” another member country as Trump did in his speech
. And what was our foreign secretary’s response to this incendiary threat?
In a Guardian interview
, Boris Johnson remarked that, "No one in their right minds wants to see the US driven to use its military options. I do not see any good military options.” But he then went on to say: "We have a duty in the UK government to have strong, dynamic, vibrant relations with our number one ally and the most powerful nation on Earth."
No rebuke there for Trump’s intemperate language, but rather a tugging of that dishevelled blond forelock, a gratuitous bow to King Donald.
And lord knows rebukes are urgently needed. But the buffoonish bully that is Boris has an image highly polished and reflected in the 45th
president of the United States, little buffoon to big buffoon. Trouble is the big buffoon has his finger on the nuclear button.
Diplomacy? Hell, diplomacy be damned. Military hardware and high threats are the order of the day. No wonder then that a young Saudi ex-fighter pilot with no experience as a diplomat can glide so smoothly into the dangerously unstable world of Donald Trump’s Washington and cause scarcely a ripple of concern.
- Bill Law is a Middle East analyst and a specialist. He tweets @billlaw49.