Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. Bill Clinton has passed judgement on the Republic field of candidates, offering praise for Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman and even Michele Bachmann. On Romney, Clinton said:

Romney's a much better candidate than he was last time, because he's not apologizing for signing the health care bill. He's got another creative way of saying we oughta repeal Obamacare, but that's prob'ly the price of gettin' the nomination.

On Huntsman, the former president said:

"Huntsman hasn't said what he's for yet, but I just kinda like him. [laughter] He looks authentic -- he looks like a real guy. [laughter] I mean, a real human being. I like his family, I like his kind of iconoclastic way. And he was a pretty good governor. And he wasn't a right-wing ideologue.

Clinton also offered surprising praise for Bachmann, and argued that her main strengths are her backstory and the support she gets from the right of the party:

Bachmann's been a better candidate than I thought she'd be, and I don't agree with her on nearly anything. But she's got a very compelling personal story, and she gotta lot of juice, and she turns [on] a lot of those anti-government crowd.

2. A Twitter feed belonging to Fox News announced the assassination of Barack Obama after being hacked by members of the hacking collective Anonymous. The hackers sent out tweets that said: "BREAKING NEWS: President @BarackObama assassinated, 2 gunshot wounds have proved too much. It's a sad 4th for #america. #obamadead RIP". (Just to be clear, he's not dead.)

3. Happy 4th of July! The US is 235 today. To celebrate its birthday, the US is teetering on the edge of default, but there is some good news. The US debt impasse moved forward an inch, when a number of prominent Republicans agreed to the principle of some "revenue raisers" (or tax increases, as they used to be called). John Cornyn, a Senator for Texas, and John McCain, a Senator for Arizona, both revealed that they would happy to see some tax perks removed in order to increase government revenues. Congress has until 2 August to decide whether or not it will increase the US's debt ceiling. If the ceiling is not increase, the US will default. This is bad news if you or your company are reliant on any of the 80m bills the US government pays every month.

4. The Obama administration has made a push for greater fuel efficiency, arguing that US cars made in 2025 should be able to do 56.2 miles to the gallon. The auto industry, however, is less keen on these stringent targets. Obama had previously pushed through targets of 35.5 miles to the gallon as a condition of an industry-wide bailout. As car makers have recovered, their willingness to listen to government diktat has reduced.

5. Herman Cain has joined Newt Gingrich and become the latest Republican candidate to face a spate of resignations from his campaign team in the crucial first caucus state of Iowa. Cain's team is putting an optimistic spin on the walk outs, claiming that it is not a "Newt Gingrich situation" (charming). Cain spokeswoman Ellen Carmichael said: "We look forward to staffing up, and not just there. We're in a great financial position to continue to expand." Y'see, staff walkouts aren't a blow, they're an opportunity. I suppose you have to be an optimist by nature on Cain's campaign.

 

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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