As he hits the electoral circuit to campaign for his Republican party, a month before Congressional elections, President Donald Trump seems to have made extorting Saudi Arabia part of his stump speech. On two occasions, so far, the US president has addressed King Salman of Saudi Arabia, urging him to pay Washington more for the security that the US provides Gulf states.
Trump’s condescending tone toward Saudi Arabia and the Gulf seems to be addressed to extreme rightwing Republicans. During his electoral campaign in 2016, Trump ran on banning Muslim aliens from entering the US, a promise that he partially kept by denying entry to nationals of five predominantly Muslim nations. Now that the travel ban has played its course, Trump has come up with a new anti-Muslim rhetoric with which he hopes to boost the shrinking popularity of his party and to maintain Republican majority in the House of Representatives.
But Trump’s threats to Saudi Arabia are not only electoral play. Judging by other moves, Trump’s policy seems to be based on lowering the defense expenses of the US by transferring them to its allies. When, in his speech, Trump warned that “King Salman would not last two weeks in power without American protection”, Trump gave away his thinking that the US does not really care who rules what country, or under what conditions.
Instead, the US president seems to see America as a defense corporation that sells military and security services to the highest bidder. Such expedient defense policy was on display last week, when Washington announced the withdrawal of four Patriot missile defense systems from the Middle East:
Two from Kuwait, one from Jordan, and one from Bahrain. Withdrawal from Jordan is justifiable, now that late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his arsenal of Scud missiles are long gone. But withdrawal from Kuwait and Bahrain, both neighbors of Iran, is perplexing, given that Washington keeps warning of Iran’s dangerous missile capabilities. America withdrew its Patriot missiles from other regions in the world. Even though US officials have painted China as an eminent threat to the security and interests of Washington and its allies, the US still withdrew its Patriot missiles from South Korea.
In countries where the US withdrew its Patriot systems from, it replaced them with local capabilities. In South Korea, Poland and Kuwait, national armies are now operating their own Patriot missile defense systems, under American supervision.
It seems that Washington has simply “privatized” defense matters by handing over management, and expenses, to host nations. Under Trump, America is no more an empire with military assets deployed worldwide, but a defense contractor helping states defend themselves, while billing these states for such defense. Privatization of the military has been so high on President Trump’s agenda that, during the early weeks of his presidency, he explored a proposal by Erik Prince, the brother of US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and one of the biggest donors to Trump’s election campaign. Prince suggested that, instead of the US military fighting in Afghanistan, Washington deploy an army of private contractors and mercenaries, an army like Prince once commanded in Iraq during his days as the chief of the Black Water security agency.
Treating defense as a private enterprise, rather than a national issue, is a trend that started under former US President Ronald Reagan, who used proceeds from arms sales to Islamic Iran, in the 1980s, to fund anti-government Contra militias in Nicaragua. Rachel Maddow, an icon TV host on MSNBC and the holder of a PhD from Oxford University, argued in her book, Drift, that since Reagan, America’s military-industrial complex has succeeded in privatizing defense and transforming the US army from being citizen-based to an army of voluntary contractors.
This has made it easier for Washington to go to war with minimum engagement from its citizenry. Such change was coupled with taking away the power of Congress to legislate — and therefore oversee — war. But Trump has taken Reagan’s policy of defense privatization to new heights. With Reagan, the US perceived itself as a “shining city on a hill,” and a power whose mission was to spread the principles of the Age of Enlightenment and defend democracy and capitalism around the world.
With Trump, the US does not stand for any principles or defend anything. Its allies have become clients, and its joint defense pacts have become simple business transactions. Since his election, Trump has repeatedly expressed his understanding of America as an arms factory, rather than the leader of the free world. Trump often called America’s arms “brighter and shinier” than arms manufactured by other countries. When he received Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in the White House, Trump carried a poster showing the value of multi-billion US arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Trump even looked at the young Crown Prince and said: You have so much money, we should sell you more arms.
Until recently, Trump’s arms clients seemed to be happy with the arrangement: As long as they bought American arms, Washington looked the other way and ignored any possible human rights violations. But Trump suddenly seems to be always coming back for more. Such a relationship between nations cannot be described as one of friendship and alliance, but only one of opportunism and expediency.