Jeffrey Goldberg's Blog
September 12, 2018
The National Constitution Center, in Philadelphia, is a monument to the benefits of pessimism. The center, which is situated across an open expanse from Independence Hall, is a superior educational institution, but, understood correctly, it is also a warning about the fragility of the American experiment. The 42 Founding Fathers who are celebrated there, life-size and in bronze—the 39 who signed the Constitution, and three who refused—did not believe that men were good. Quite the opposite. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” “Federalist No. 51” states.
The system of government delineated in the Constitution is a concession to the idea that humans are deficient in the science of rational self-governance. Today, during a moment in which truths that seemed self-evident are in doubt—including the idea that liberal democracy is the inevitable end state of human ideological development—a tour of the Constitution Center reminds us that the Founders did not necessarily believe they were bringing about the end of history.
I recently visited the center in the company of its president, Jeffrey Rosen, the legal scholar and an Atlantic contributing editor. Rosen has committed to memory great stretches of The Federalist Papers, and he recited passages as we toured the center’s collection. (Particularly moving, especially in light of our current president’s anti-press frenzy, is the full text of the Constitution as published, two days after it was signed, in The Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser.)
“The goal in America today,” Rosen said on our walk, “is to resurrect the primacy of reason over passion—what we are watching now is the struggle between logos and pathos. The central question in our democratic age is this: Is it possible to slow down the direct expression of popular passion? The answer to this question is not obvious.”
In some ways, the Constitution Center is the antipode of Facebook’s headquarters, some 3,000 miles away. The leaders of Facebook and its Silicon Valley cousins argue that instantaneous, universal communication is a boon to democracy and freedom. Constitutional scholars such as Rosen argue that the rapid diffusion of all manner of information—the false and the decontextualized, especially—can just as easily expedite the formation of mobs.
Last year, as Donald Trump (who is undeniably talented in the dark art of mob formation) launched his assault on the norms that undergird American democracy, Rosen and I fell into a discussion about James Madison, the fourth president. I asked Rosen to imagine what Madison, the main proponent among the Founders of indirect democracy, would have made of Trump, of Trumpism, and of our coarse and frenzied political age. Rosen’s eloquent answer is contained in his essay, “Madison vs. the Mob,” which is an anchor article in this special issue on democracy in peril.
“Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob. Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and faster than arguments based on reason,” Rosen writes. “We are living, in short, in a Madisonian nightmare.”
Madison, Rosen goes on to argue, would have found the populist reforms of the Progressive era, and gerrymandering, and political self-sorting all to be significant dangers as well. And then there is the matter of the out-of-control presidency. “Madison feared that Congress would be the most dangerous branch of the federal government, sucking power into its ‘impetuous vortex.’ But today he would shudder at the power of the executive branch,” Rosen writes. “The rise of what the presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called the ‘imperial presidency’ has unbalanced the equilibrium among the three branches.”
This special issue grew in part out of my conversations with Rosen, but it is also rooted in the traditions and mission of The Atlantic, whose founders wanted this magazine to “endeavor to be the exponent of what its conductors believe to be the American idea.” In a manifesto published in the first issue, in 1857, the founders did not define for the reader, or for subsequent generations of editors, what exactly the American idea is; either it was too obvious for them to bother outlining (they were all abolitionists, and they held the ideals of equality and the right to pursue happiness in highest regard), or they wanted each generation of Atlantic editors and writers to reason for themselves the nature of the idea.
The writers in this issue are unified in their understanding that democracy faces acute challenges today. Stephen Breyer, the Supreme Court justice, writes in his essay, “America’s Courts Can’t Ignore the World”:
We must convince ordinary citizens … that they sometimes must accept decisions that affect them adversely, and that may well be wrong. If they are willing to do so, the rule of law has a chance. And as soon as one considers the alternatives, the need to work within the rule of law is obvious. The rule of law is the opposite of the arbitrary, which, as the dictionary specifies, includes the unreasonable, the capricious, the authoritarian, the despotic, and the tyrannical.
Because the stories in this issue concern the fate of democracy, by necessity they also concern technology. We find ourselves in the middle of a vast, unregulated, and insufficiently examined experiment to determine whether liberal democracy will be able to survive social media, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence. The historian Yuval Noah Harari—who is not an optimist on this question—argues in his article, “Why Technology Favors Tyranny,” that “together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete.”
We have tried, with this issue, to give the reader a sense that the problems afflicting America are not America’s alone to bear. We asked Anne Applebaum, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Gulag: A History, to take us to Europe, where the arc of history is bending away from liberalism.
Tribalism is another of our concerns, and so we also asked the Yale Law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld to examine the threat to what could be called American creedal nationalism—the notion that we are bound not by blood, ethnicity, race, or religion, but by respect for a common set of beliefs as articulated in the founding documents. “Americans on both the left and the right now view their political opponents not as fellow Americans with differing views, but as enemies to be vanquished,” Chua and Rubenfeld write. “And they have come to view the Constitution not as an aspirational statement of shared principles and a bulwark against tribalism, but as a cudgel with which to attack those enemies.”
Rosen and many of the other contributors to this issue also explore ways to repair the damage that’s been done. Our ideas editor, Yoni Appelbaum, writes in his article, “Losing the Democratic Habit,” that American polarization is partly a by-product of social atomization, and suggests how the customs and language of democracy might be reintroduced into local culture. “The American system of government functions properly only when embedded in a culture deeply committed to democracy; that culture sustains the Constitution, not the other way around,” he says.
In a powerful essay, “The Bullet in My Arm,” the Atlantic staff writer Elaina Plott tells us what she learned about American politics after getting shot.
And, as ever, we examine the gap between American ideals and American reality. Ibram X. Kendi, a professor of history and international relations at American University and the author of the National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, argues that racism today is the equivalent of the slavery of yesteryear, which is to say, the issue that keeps America from becoming the more perfect union of our collective hope.
We have tried to make this issue more than just an inquiry into the Trump presidency. Trump is a cause of our democratic deterioration, but he is also a symptom. Nevertheless, we felt it necessary to call upon our staff writer David Frum to assess the recent activities of the 45th president. Last year, we published Frum’s cover story “How to Build an Autocracy,” and here he provides an update. Trump, he writes, “has scored a dismaying sequence of successes in his war on U.S. institutions. In this, Trump is not acting alone. He is enabled by his party in Congress and its many supporters throughout the country.”
This issue represents the latest in a series of attempts by The Atlantic to understand the trajectory of democracy and the American idea. Our hope is that you find this a useful guide to a perilous moment.
This article appears in the October 2018 print edition with the headline “The Crisis in Democracy.”
September 4, 2018
What does it mean for The Atlantic—a magazine that has always emphasized the importance of ideas—to launch a separate section actually called Ideas, as we are doing today?
It means that, you, our readers, will have a new destination on the web for incisive and intelligent analysis, essays, and commentary. When news breaks, and you want to understand what it means and why it matters, you’ll have a place to turn for context, analysis, and perspective. When you want to expand your own horizons by encountering new voices and new perspectives, you’ll know exactly where to seek them out.
You’ll find many of your favorite Atlantic writers here, but you’ll also encounter a broad array of voices from across the country, and around the globe. Their work will challenge your preconceptions and expectations. You won’t always agree with them—I hope, in fact, that you find yourselves disagreeing with them regularly. (And, by the way, I’m guessing that they will seldom agree with one another.) Our hope is that you will find their arguments to be rigorous, their spirit generous, and their commitment to fact-based discourse beyond any doubt. At a moment when so many people are engaging in political debate by talking past one another, Ideas will be a place where writers of varied persuasions engage one another in good faith.
This, of course, is what our magazine, at its best, has always done. When Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Co. founded this magazine in 1857, one New Hampshire newspaper greeted the first issue by noting that The Atlantic would be “entirely neutral in its position, and yet of decided opinions about the great topics of the day.” From Emerson on American civilization to Jane Addams on the subtle problems of charity; from W. E. B. Du Bois on “the strivings of the Negro people” to Nora Johnson on the captivity of marriage; and from Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s case for reparations, this magazine has a proud history of publishing work that challenges preconceptions and reshapes the public debate. Now we’re seizing the opportunity to bring you the same vivid writing and provocative thinking more swiftly, more often, and more urgently, taking the core strengths of The Atlantic and matching them to the demands of a real-time news cycle.
I’ve asked our Yoni Appelbaum, a historian and journalist (until this summer, he served as our politics editor), to take charge of this new effort. Yoni has the depth of experience, the intellectual reach, and the historical acuity to tackle this complicated task. Working with Yoni will be Juliet Lapidos, who is just joining us from the Los Angeles Times, where she served with great distinction as the paper’s op-ed editor. As this section grows, the team leading it will grow as well.
August 26, 2018
A decade ago, on one of his seemingly countless visits to Iraq, John McCain, who was generally immune to the charms of introspection—“Stop trying to get me on the couch, you shit” he once said, smiling, when I tried to encourage him toward self-analysis—talked about the dominion of human cowardice, and the story of Anne Frank, in a way that I found startling.
We had been discussing the American war in Iraq, which he supported steadfastly, even after everything went sideways. The cause, he said, was just. The execution, at least until the troop surge of 2007, was a disgrace, but this didn’t move him off his principles. “I hated Saddam,” he said. “He ruled through murder. Didn’t we learn from Hitler that we can’t let that happen?” His hatred of Saddam, like his hatred for all dictators, burned hot; his contempt for Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s first defense secretary, was ice-cold. It was Rumsfeld’s arrogance and incompetence, McCain believed, that helped discredit the American invasion. “He was the worst,” McCain said.
I offered a qualified dissent in response. I supported the invasion for more-or-less the same reason McCain did—I wanted to see the Kurdish people, the preeminent victims of Saddam’s genocidal fury, suffer no more. But unlike McCain, I had come to believe that the theory of the American case was no match for heartbreaking Middle East reality. I wasn’t sure that even the most perspicacious secretary of defense could successfully lead an effort to renovate a despotic Middle Eastern country. I suggested to McCain that this sort of grandiose undertaking was not necessarily a core competency of the United States. “But genocide!” he said. “Genocide!” His argument was not only concise, but morally superior. Not analytically superior, but morally, no doubt.
We spoke every so often about the Holocaust, and its supposed lessons (one lesson, he told me once, in a mainly, though not entirely, devilish way, was that Jews should be well-armed). He said that, in the post-Holocaust world, all civilized people, and the governments of all civilized nations, should be intolerant of leaders who commit verified acts of genocide. That, he suggested, is the most salient lesson of all.
I told him then that he would most definitely pass the Anne Frank Test. He was unfamiliar with the concept (mildly surprising, given that his best friend was Joe Lieberman). The Anne Frank test, something I learned from a Holocaust survivor almost 40 years ago, is actually a single question: Which non-Jewish friends would risk their lives to hide us should the Nazis ever return?
McCain laughed at the compliment. Then he became serious. “I like to think that in the toughest moments I’d do the right thing, but you never know until you’re tested.” I found this to be an absurd thing for him to say. Few men had been tested like John McCain; few men have passed these tests in the manner of John McCain. Of all the many stories of McCain’s heroism in Vietnamese captivity, the one I’ve always found most affecting is this one: When presented with the opportunity to be freed—he was the son of an important admiral, and his release would constitute a propaganda victory for the North Vietnamese—McCain demurred; it was not his turn (prisoners were generally released based on their time in captivity), and he would not skip to the head of the line. When he rejected the Vietnamese offer, he knew that intense torture would be his reward. And he did it anyway. His sense of honor would allow him to do nothing else.
I pressed him on this point. “I’ve failed enough in my life to know that it’s always an option,” he said. “I like to think I would do what it takes, but fear will make you do terrible things.”
I couldn’t stand it anymore. “I’m pretty sure you’d kill Nazis to defend Anne Frank,” I said.
He smiled. “It would be an honor and a privilege.”
John McCain possessed many sterling qualities; two of the most admirable were on display in this conversation. The first was his visceral antipathy for powerful men who abuse powerless people. A few years ago, I asked him about a fight he was then having with President Obama. McCain wanted Obama to supply Ukraine with weapons it could deploy against Russian invaders. Obama, quite logically, believed that these weapons would be ineffective against the Russian juggernaut, and might actually provoke Vladimir Putin into even more aggressive action. McCain understood the possible ramifications of a decision to arm the Ukrainians. But his sense of honor—and his Hemingway-influenced romantic fatalism—led him to a different conclusion.
“When people want to fight for their freedom, we have to be there with them.” As one of his aides later explained, “He believes it’s better to die fighting than just die.”
I asked McCain, Is this the American way? “It should be,” he said. “It always should be.” (McCain’s amanuensis, his former chief of staff, Mark Salter, told me recently, when I asked him if McCain is more frustrated by Putin’s existence or by the fact that some Americans—I had in mind one American in particular—don’t seem to understand Putin’s nature, “There’s always a Putin somewhere in the world, and you’re meant to oppose them with all the skills God gave you.”)
The second quality on display in our conversation was self-doubt—or, at the very least, self-knowledge. It is almost impossible, in our era, for politicians to keep from becoming hollowed-out (assuming they weren’t hollow to begin with). There is no reward in American politics for public displays of self-awareness or self-criticism. And yet, John McCain understood human nature, and his own nature, enough to state the plausible: That in moments of great testing, it is possible for any human, including the bravest human, to fail.
McCain, of course, failed in various ways, large and small. I think that many of his failures will be forgotten by history, except for the fact that he tended to catalogue them himself, and then recite them publicly.
Once, on a lightning-fast trip to Hungary (all of his trips seemed lightning-fast; as The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin recalls, McCain’s aides would refer to his overseas adventures as Bataan Death Marches), I raised the subject of imperfection—not his, but America’s. McCain was visiting Budapest to buttress the democratic opposition there, and to fire a warning shot at the country’s autocratically minded president. I asked him if it ever felt hypocritical to argue for a set of values that we live in America only aspirationally. “We get things wrong all the time,” he said. “It’s true. But the ideals are great, they’re perfect. They’re something to aim for.”
John McCain was far from perfect. But as his former campaign adviser, Steve Schmidt, said Saturday night, shortly after McCain died, “he perfectly loved this country.”
A man apparently devoid of any redeeming qualities currently occupies the Oval Office. It is important to remember that America is also capable of producing leaders like John McCain.
August 23, 2018
Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, the former underboss of the Gambino organized-crime family, is a mass murderer (19 bodies, maybe more, across his distinguished career), and also the most consequential turncoat in the history of organized crime. Gravano, whom I came to know while covering the Mob in the 1990s, had many thoughts about respect and loyalty, which he shared with me in a number of conversations. Like most mobsters—including, and especially, those who became known for their “ratting”—he was preoccupied with matters of honor.
At the time of those conversations, Gravano, whose testimony led directly to the downfall of his former boss, John Gotti, was participating in the federal witness-security program, and we met at a number of locations in the Southwest. I did not know it at the time, but while under federal protection Gravano was leading Arizona’s largest Ecstasy-distribution ring. He was also in the pool-building business.
I have not seen Gravano in a very long time—he has spent most of the past two decades in prison, after having failed to hide his drug-distribution business from his federal monitors—but my thoughts turned to him yesterday, when I read President Donald Trump’s tweet on the subject of loyalty and respect. The president, who is obviously perturbed by the felony conviction of his former campaign chair Paul Manafort and the plea deal taken by his former attorney Michael Cohen, wrote the following: “I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. ‘Justice’”—a cutting reference to the Justice Department, which he oversees as the leader of the executive branch—“took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ - make up stories in order to get a ‘deal.’ Such respect for a brave man!”
What we see in this astonishing tweet is an implicit endorsement by the president of the United States of omertà, the Mafia code of silence, which has been honored, especially over the past 30 years or so, more in theory than in practice.
Trump expanded upon his views this morning, in an interview on Fox & Friends, in which he seemed to refer, obliquely, though elegiacally, to the dismantling of the Mafia in New York City (an effort led for a time by his current attorney Rudy Giuliani).
“It’s called ‘flipping’ and it almost ought to be illegal,” Trump said. “I know all about flipping. For 30, 40 years, I have been watching flippers. Everything is wonderful and then they get 10 years in jail and they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go.”
In these statements, Trump displays contempt for the rule of law, and honors criminals who refuse to cooperate with law enforcement. He’s doing nothing less than elevating gangster ideology to the status of high principle. He’s also evincing a gauzy and archaic understanding of the nature of gangsterism. I heard, in his statements, echoes of many conversations I had while trying to understand the culture of organized crime.
A former Gambino Family soldier named Dominick Montiglio told me once, in explaining his decision to turn against the Mob, that “those guys who can stand up to the government, I respect them a lot. Nobody does this anymore. It’s too hard.” (Montiglio was Scorcese-level insightful in explaining the attractions of the organized-crime lifestyle: “When I was in the life, it was great. I mean, we got respect. I got in once at Studio 54 ahead of Burt Reynolds. That’s what we were attracted to, the glitz. It doesn’t exist anymore … The new generation ruined it.”)
On Wednesday night, I went spelunking through old stories and notebooks in search of Gravano statements concerning respect and honor, and the moral implications of turning coat. I was not surprised to find quotations on the subject that framed these issues in a Trumpian way. Here is one representative comment, made over dinner at a Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Phoenix in 1999: “I got a lot of respect for the guys who don’t break under the pressure, the FBI pressure, or whatever,” Gravano said. “This is the government we're talking about. They can do a lot to you in terms of pressure, but I didn’t do this for the deal, believe me. Okay? I did this because John was a double-crosser. He double-crossed me. So I double-double-crossed him. I'm the master double-crosser. He got his. He thought he was playing chess. No fucking way he was playing chess.”
We had spent much of this conversation talking about Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather, who had recently died. “There's no scruples anymore,” Gravano said. “No respect for rules and regulations. The Godfather has respect in it, but that doesn’t exist anymore … You think there’s respect? Some guys have balls—the real gangsters—they respect the rules we have, they’ll do the time. But most of these guys? No respect.”
I understand the milieu in which Donald Trump was raised. Real estate and construction in New York City are not gentle businesses. It is entirely possible to live in this universe without adopting a gangster worldview. But it was not easy, especially in a time when men like Gravano and Gotti still had sway. As Gravano told me, by way of illustrating his influence, “I literally controlled Manhattan, literally. You want concrete poured in Manhattan? That was me. Tishman, Donald Trump, all these guys—they couldn't build a building without me.”
June 11, 2018
Many of Donald Trump’s critics find it difficult to ascribe to a president they consider to be both subliterate and historically insensate a foreign-policy doctrine that approaches coherence. A Trump Doctrine would require evidence of Trump Thought, and proof of such thinking, the argument goes, is scant. This view is informed in part by feelings of condescension, but it is not meritless. Barack Obama, whose foreign-policy doctrine I studied in depth, was cerebral to a fault; the man who succeeded him is perhaps the most glandular president in American history. Unlike Obama, Trump possesses no ability to explain anything resembling a foreign-policy philosophy. But this does not mean that he is without ideas.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve asked a number of people close to the president to provide me with short descriptions of what might constitute the Trump Doctrine. I’ve been trying, as part of a larger project, to understand the revolutionary nature of Trump’s approach to world affairs. This task became even more interesting over the weekend, when Trump made his most ambitious move yet to dismantle the U.S.-led Western alliance; it becomes more interesting still as Trump launches, without preparation or baseline knowledge, a complicated nuclear negotiation with a fanatical and bizarre regime that quite possibly has his number.
Trumpian chaos is, in fact, undergirded by a comprehensible worldview, a number of experts have insisted. The Brookings Institution scholar (and frequent Atlantic contributor) Thomas Wright argued in a January 2016 essay that Trump’s views are both discernible and explicable. Wright, who published his analysis at a time when most everyone in the foreign-policy establishment considered Trump’s candidacy to be a farce, wrote that Trump loathes the liberal international order and would work against it as president; he wrote that Trump also dislikes America’s military alliances, and would work against them; he argued that Trump believes in his bones that the global economy is unfair to the U.S.; and, finally, he wrote that Trump has an innate sympathy for “authoritarian strongmen.”
Wright was prophetic. Trump’s actions these past weeks, and my conversations with administration officials and friends and associates of Trump, suggest that the president will be acting on his beliefs in a more urgent, and focused, way than he did in the first year of his presidency, and that the pace of potentially cataclysmic disruption will quicken in the coming days. And so, understanding Trump’s foreign-policy doctrine is more urgent than ever.
The third-best encapsulation of the Trump Doctrine, as outlined by a senior administration official over lunch a few weeks ago, is this: “No Friends, No Enemies.” This official explained that he was not describing a variant of the realpolitik notion that the U.S. has only shifting alliances, not permanent friends. Trump, this official said, doesn’t believe that the U.S. should be part of any alliance at all. “We have to explain to him that countries that have worked with us together in the past expect a level of loyalty from us, but he doesn’t believe that this should factor into the equation,” the official said.
The second-best self-description of the Trump Doctrine I heard was this, from a senior national-security official: “Permanent destabilization creates American advantage.” The official who described this to me said Trump believes that keeping allies and adversaries alike perpetually off-balance necessarily benefits the United States, which is still the most powerful country on Earth. When I noted that America’s adversaries seem far less destabilized by Trump than do America’s allies, this official argued for strategic patience. “They’ll see over time that it doesn’t pay to argue with us.”
The best distillation of the Trump Doctrine I heard, though, came from a senior White House official with direct access to the president and his thinking. I was talking to this person several weeks ago, and I said, by way of introduction, that I thought it might perhaps be too early to discern a definitive Trump Doctrine.
“No,” the official said. “There’s definitely a Trump Doctrine.”
“What is it?” I asked. Here is the answer I received:
“The Trump Doctrine is ‘We’re America, Bitch.’ That’s the Trump Doctrine.”
It struck me almost immediately that this was the most acute, and attitudinally honest, description of the manner in which members of Trump’s team, and Trump himself, understand their role in the world.
I asked this official to explain the idea. “Obama apologized to everyone for everything. He felt bad about everything.” President Trump, this official said, “doesn’t feel like he has to apologize for anything America does.” I later asked another senior official, one who rendered the doctrine not as “We’re America, Bitch” but as “We’re America, Bitches,” whether he was aware of the 2004 movie Team America: World Police, whose theme song was “America, Fuck Yeah!”
“Of course,” he said, laughing. “The president believes that we’re America, and people can take it or leave it.”
“We’re America, Bitch” is not only a characterologically accurate collective self-appraisal—the gangster fronting, the casual misogyny, the insupportable confidence—but it is also perfectly Rorschachian. To Trump’s followers, “We’re America, Bitch” could be understood as a middle finger directed at a cold and unfair world, one that no longer respects American power and privilege. To much of the world, however, and certainly to most practitioners of foreign and national-security policy, “We’re America, Bitch” would be understood as self-isolating, and self-sabotaging.
I’m not arguing that the attitude underlying “We’re America, Bitch” is without any utility. There are occasions—the 1979 Iran hostage crisis comes to mind—in which a blunt posture would have been useful, or at least ephemerally satisfying. President Obama himself expressed displeasure—in a rhetorically controlled way—at the failure of American allies to pay what he viewed as their fair share of common defense costs. And I don’t want to suggest that there is no place for self-confidence in foreign policymaking. The Iran nuclear deal was imperfect in part because the Obama administration seemed, at times, to let Iran drive the process. One day the Trump administration may have a lasting foreign-policy victory of some sort. It is likely that the North Korea summit will end, if not disastrously, then inconclusively. But there is a slight chance that it could mark the start of a useful round of negotiations. And I’m not one to mock Jared Kushner for his role in the Middle East peace process. There is virtually no chance of the process succeeding, but the great experts have all tried and failed, so why shouldn’t the president’s son-in-law give it a shot?
But what is mainly interesting about “We’re America, Bitch” is its delusional quality. Donald Trump is pursuing policies that undermine the Western alliance, empower Russia and China, and demoralize freedom-seeking people around the world. The United States could be made weaker—perhaps permanently—by the implementation of the Trump Doctrine.
The administration officials, and friends of Trump, I’ve spoken with in recent days believe the opposite: that Trump is rebuilding American power after an eight-year period of willful dissipation. “People criticize [Trump] for being opposed to everything Obama did, but we’re justified in canceling out his policies,” one friend of Trump’s told me. This friend described the Trump Doctrine in the simplest way possible. “There’s the Obama Doctrine, and the ‘Fuck Obama’ Doctrine,” he said. “We’re the ‘Fuck Obama’ Doctrine.”
May 22, 2018
Let me stipulate at the outset that I am like many journalists in my fondness for Senator John McCain; let me also stipulate that this fondness derives in part from happy memories trailing McCain through Hungary and Germany and Ohio and the Middle East; and I will further note that this fondness also derives from a belief that McCain represents, at his best, something larger than partisanship and mercantilism and cynicism and the advancement of narrow self-interest. (Suggested reading: Dana Milbank and Anne Applebaum on McCain’s meaning and legacy.)
I am also aware that McCain is a flawed man, a flawed thinker, and a flawed politician, though I am not so interested in enumerating these flaws, in part because they are, generally speaking, either minor, or borne of good intentions, or both, and in part, of course, because he is slipping away from us, and now is the time to focus on the useful things he has done, and the things that he won’t get to do. This latter category is the troublesome category, because McCain’s cancer comes at a particularly inopportune moment in the life of this country.
All of this is to say that the following conversation with McCain’s amanuensis, his longtime Senate aide Mark Salter, is not an interview conducted by an unbiased observer. Today is the official publication day of what stands to be McCain’s final book, The Restless Wave, co-written, as all of his previous books have been, with Salter. McCain is not granting interviews; he is home in Arizona, fighting. Salter is speaking on his behalf, except, as you will see, where he is not.
The Restless Wave was not supposed to be McCain’s last book; it was meant, Salter told me, to focus mainly on foreign policy; more specifically, it was meant to be a corrective to the quasi-isolationist, nativist policies of the man who reached the office McCain failed to win. But when McCain was diagnosed with cancer, the emphasis shifted a bit, and so parts of The Restless Wave are elegiac and gentle, a thoughtful last testament of a man not known for introspection and stillness. (Only God, “The Navy Hymn” suggests, can calm the restless wave.)
In the conversation below, Salter and I discuss foreign policy, and the many ways in which McCain differs from Donald Trump. Salter, who, like McCain, is not gifted at self-censorship, says that Trump is notable for “his cruelty, his inhumanity,” and his “utter absence of empathy.”
At one point, I asked Salter about whether McCain inadvertently opened Pandora’s box by placing Sarah Palin on the 2008 presidential ticket. He issued an adamant no. “The pathologies, the social trends, the media trends, the way Americans communicate with each other and interact with each other,” he said. “All this was coming and Sarah Palin had zero to do with any of this.”
I also asked Salter about reports that McCain has asked former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to eulogize him. Salter, who was offended that such information leaked to the press, said that McCain thinks deliberately about ways to buttress democratic habits and a common civic culture. “One of things McCain says in this book, and something he would like the country to appreciate better, is that we have so much more in common than we have that divides us,” he said. “George Bush and Barack Obama defeated him. He knows this. But he knows that they are fellow Americans with the same values and interests that he shares. He may disagree with how they served those values and interests, but he knows that we are all Americans.”
Here is our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity:
Jeffrey Goldberg: How’s he doing?
Mark Salter: The fight has not gone out of him at all. Or the humor.
Goldberg: He’s still cracking jokes?
Salter: He’s still cracking jokes. He was cracking jokes with his nurses. And this has been going on a while, so nurses come and go and new ones come who don’t appreciate that his humor is almost entirely based on sarcasm. You have to tell them that he’s kidding sometimes.
Goldberg: So, we’re in a situation right now in which much of what John McCain stands for is under assault: American greatness in the form of a very assertive foreign policy. Democracy promotion. Promotion of human rights. The shining city on a hill. All of this is kind of like ash right now.
Salter: The longer we can hear his voice, the better off we’ll be. He’s an American patriot. He served his country in uniform and in office. And he’s a man of the West. When he’s defending American interests and American values in the world, he’s defending the Western liberal international order that this country has superintended for 75 years. But he believes that all this will survive this moment.
Goldberg: He does?
Salter: Yeah, I think he does. I mean, it’s under challenge. It’s not just here. You see this sort of rollback going on in Hungary and in Poland. But, yes, I think he thinks it will. I think he’s optimistic about it because this model has delivered more prosperity and freedom for more people than any other, at any other time, in history.
Goldberg: But his whole legacy is under threat because of a president of a type he just doesn’t get.
Salter: It’s under threat from a host of things. And the current administration—there are people in this administration that McCain will closely identify with as defenders of the Western international order. Obviously, Secretary Mattis, Secretary Pompeo. He thinks they get it. What McCain has done, as others did for him, was that he took a lot of people who were their first term in the Senate or in the House, and he took them overseas, to show them to the world. When McCain goes overseas, he’s treated on par with a head of government, and he gets to see prime ministers and presidents.
Goldberg: I’ve been to Munich with him; he’s like the mayor of the security conference.
Salter: Exactly. So he put together these coalitions, almost always bipartisan, and very often he would pick out new members of the body and introduce them to all the people he knew overseas. This is what Scoop Jackson did for him and John Tower did for him. Mo Udall would do this.
Goldberg: Where are the Mo Udalls and Scoop Jacksons today? A lot of people who have tracked McCain closely over the years are struck by the fact that we’re in a Last of the Mohicans situation now.
Salter: Well, you know, they’re there.
Goldberg: They’re not there.
Salter: They are. You can certainly see them in the Senate. I think they’re there in the House. It’s just that the guys that get all the attention in the House are the Freedom Caucus guys. I assume there are statesmen in the House. I know they’re in the Senate. You can see it in the way they talk or the way the Senate Intelligence Committee compares to the House Intelligence Committee. The Senate is operating sort of normally. Devin Nunes and company have literally destroyed the reputation of the House Intelligence Committee, but hopefully it’ll come back some day when Nunes moves on to something more suited to his talents. But the Senate side is still like that.
Goldberg: Stay on the president here. McCain disagreed with Obama on many things but he recognizes him as a responsible, thoughtful person.
Goldberg: But McCain talks about Donald Trump as if he’s from another planet.
Salter: There are things Trump has done that McCain sees as improvements on the Obama record. Trump sent arms to Ukraine, he responded to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. But on the other hand, I know that McCain was viscerally—distraught is not the word—angered when Trump had that throwaway line, that classic Trump throwaway line, about how the U.S. thinks it’s so innocent. That terrible moral-equivalence argument.
Goldberg: It upset him more than the “I like people who don’t get captured” line?
Salter: Yes. I remember calling him right after that because of course I was spitting mad about it. And he understood it would make Trump look bad, not him. It’s an idiotic thing to say, obviously.
Goldberg: On the spectrum of American idealism, Trump is actually farther away from McCain than Obama, and certainly Hillary Clinton.
Salter: Hillary, certainly. His disagreements were very numerous with Obama—he thought Obama was suspicious of America’s role in world leadership, and he thought he was way too reluctant to criticize the Iranian regime during the Green Revolution. McCain obviously thought Obama’s policy in Syria was a moral failure. But Trump? I don’t know. He reacts ignorantly when he makes comments like the ones he makes about the world and America’s role in it. My opinion of where McCain and Trump differ is that John McCain believes in American exceptionalism and Donald Trump does not.
Goldberg: Define American exceptionalism.
Salter: We are a collection of ideals and we are meant to live by these ideals, and to conduct ourselves according to these ideals. Which is why McCain opposed waterboarding and Donald Trump says he wants to do worse than waterboarding.
Goldberg: What frustrates McCain more: Putin’s existence, or the fact that some Americans don’t understand Putin’s nature?
Salter: The latter. There’s always a Putin somewhere in the world, and you’re meant to oppose them with all the skills God gave you. You should try to be a righteous person about these things.
Goldberg: What happened inside the Republican Party? Was choosing Sarah opening Pandora’s box? Does McCain blame himself at all for putting Palin forward?
Salter: He’s never had an unkind word to say about Sarah Palin privately or publicly. He put her on the ticket, he asked her to do it, he doesn’t regret picking her. Donald Trump would have happened if Sarah Palin had never been anything other than the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. This was coming. The pathologies, the social trends, the media trends, the way Americans communicate with each other and interact with each other. All this was coming, and Sarah Palin had zero to do with any of this. None of the viciousness, or the cruelty of Donald Trump—my words—his cruelty, his inhumanity, the utter absence of empathy—this has nothing to do with Sarah Palin. She drew big crowds, but her rallies, her speeches, were nothing like his.
Goldberg: Why doesn’t a part of the right in this country like John McCain?
Salter: This started generally over campaign-finance reform. The really crazy shit started all the way back in the early ’90s, when he helped normalize relations with Vietnam. McCain was offended because he realized early on that there were people who were either a little crazy or more likely running low-rent cons convincing family members who had lost guys over there who were still MIA that they might still be alive. And that offended McCain. And he went after them. You know, the guy I got into a fistfight with had three booths down at the Vietnam War Memorial, where he sold T-shirts. The people who worked there worked there for free. He had no license to have those T-shirt booths there and they were for profit.
Goldberg: You got into a fistfight with him?
Salter: He came into the office and wouldn’t leave and I tried to kick him out and he was a Green Beret. I mean, it was not my favorite experience. Anyway, there were a ton of grifters and McCain was just appalled by it because, as he put it, “The Vietnamese are perfectly capable of being cruel but they’re not just arbitrary. Why would they keep our guys?” This was the one thing that would have restarted the war. This was all pre-Pizzagate, pre-crazy-ass-Benghazi. McCain is a man of common sense. All this stuff was just nonsense. And then that’s when the Manchurian candidate stuff started, you’ll see it to this day, and the POW songbird stuff.
Goldberg: Are people on the right more susceptible to this than people on the left?
Salter: Well, I think we’re like 10 or 15 years ahead of the fever swamps on the left. But they’re out there. I mean, you’ve got Glenn Greenwald saying that McCain is a huge murderer, that he’s got enormous amounts of blood on his hands, I mean that’s crazy shit. And that guy is a respected journalist in some quarters, he’s got a million followers on Twitter. But that’s crazy fever-swamp shit. And they’ll come up with all sorts of nonsense to justify that.
Goldberg: Would there have been anything he could have done earlier in his career to stop this from happening on the right?
Salter: He never got panicky about the Rush Limbaughs of the world, because he knew it was all kind of a con. That if a guy with 15 million listeners tells his followers to call McCain’s office and tell him what an asshole he is, they’ll tie up the phones. But it won’t really have any effect on his future. He would not have done things that mattered to him if he worried. A lot of reform issues, campaign-finance reform.
Goldberg: Did McCain ever wake up one morning in recent days and say, “What happened to the Republican Party?”
Salter: I can’t answer for him. I don’t know. For me, yes, but I’m further along that spectrum than he is. I haven’t served as a Republican office holder for 36 years. I don’t necessarily feel any residual loyalty to the party. I think McCain does, and rightly so—he was the party’s nominee, and the party matters to him.
I think he’s worried about the kind of isolationism, the nativism that you see. He’s just different on this.
Goldberg: Very out-of-step with the times.
Salter: People have this view that McCain always wants to commit troops. Not the case. Arm them, if they need defensive assistance, and in the case of Syria, use American air power to carve out a safe haven. But the real thing with McCain is: Always speak up. Always speak up. Something he learned from Natan Sharansky—calling the Soviet Union the evil empire, as Reagan did, the political dissidents heard this. They heard it in jail. Sharansky always said that it mattered to them. So this is why McCain calls Putin evil.
Goldberg: This is the romantic notion, the For Whom the Bell Tolls quality of McCain’s life, that he’s Robert Jordan, the ill-starred romantic, standing up for the cause no matter what.
Salter: McCain’s personality and his history distinguish him from people. They always have. Someone once paid me a compliment about his first book, and I said, “You’d have to be an idiot to have screwed that story up.” The story tells itself. All I had to do was get the chronology right. It’s a larger-than-life story. And he is this guy—I described him as this romantic cynic, and it’s because he has seen the world at its true worst and its true best, in the same experience. When they thought he was going to die, they threw him in a cell with two guys, Bud Day and Norris Overly, and he remembers that he couldn’t get on the bucket so they had to wipe his ass for him. These rough-hewn tough guys were angels of mercy. This is a deep look into human nature that most people don’t get unless you’re in extreme circumstances like he was. That’s going make a lasting impression.
Goldberg: Do you think the Republican Party finds itself again?
Salter: Most of the American people are going to realize there’s never been a swamp like Donald Trump’s Washington. I mean, ever. Or at least not from the mid-20th century to the present. At some point, the fever’s going to break. I don’t mean that the pathologies that gave rise to him are over or cured. Those are trends that don’t have much to do with Trump. We’ve been heading in this direction for a while. Having said that, I think the consensus view in the Republican Party—and it will be assailed from the left and the right—but the consensus view will return to the views that McCain has always held. People with an ounce of common sense realize that, on a strictly utilitarian scale, the Western democratic order has delivered the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people than any order in the history of mankind, and it’s made the United States incomparably wealthy and powerful.
Goldberg: It’s been widely reported that both President Obama and President Bush will eulogize John McCain. One thing these two men share is that they defeated John McCain in his quest to be president. Is there a lesson in that?
Salter: First, whoever’s been talking about John McCain’s funeral is doing no one any favors. There’s no need for that right now, and the McCain family will announce any details about the funeral. But the general principle here is this: One of things McCain says in this book, and something he would like the country to appreciate better, is that we have so much more in common than we have that divides us. George Bush and Barack Obama defeated him. He knows this. But he knows that they are fellow Americans with the same values and interests that he shares. He may disagree with how they served those values and interests, but he knows that we are all Americans.
April 2, 2018
This much, at least, can be said for Mohammed bin Salman, the putatively reformist crown prince of Saudi Arabia: He has made all the right enemies. Among those who would celebrate his end are the leaders of ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas, as well as Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and the entire clerical and military leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As a bonus, there are members of his own family, the sprawling, sclerotic, self-dealing House of Saud, who would like to see him gone—or at the very least, warehoused at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, where the 32-year-old prince recently imprisoned many of his enemies and cousins during an anti-corruption sweep of the kingdom.
The well-protected Prince Mohammed does not seem particularly worried about mortal threats, however. He was jovial to the point of ebullience when I met him at his brother’s compound outside Washington (his brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, is the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.). Prince Mohammed (who is known widely by his initials, MbS) seemed eager to download his heterodoxical, contentious views on a number of subjects—on women’s rights (he appears doubtful about the laws that force Saudi women to travel with male relatives); on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who is, in the prince’s mind, worse than Hitler; and on Israel. He told me he recognizes the right of the Jewish people to have a nation-state of their own next to a Palestinian state; no Arab leader has ever acknowledged such a right.
Prince Mohammed, who is on a seemingly endless pilgrimage to the nodes of American power (he is in Hollywood this week) is an unfamiliar type for Middle East reporters accustomed to a certain style of Saudi leadership, which is to say, the functionally comatose model of authoritarian monarchism. Prince Mohammed’s father, the 82-year-old King Salman, is not overly infirm, but it is clear that his son is already in charge. And if the prince, his many handlers, and his partisans on Wall Street and in the White House (especially his fellow prince, Jared Kushner) are to be believed, he is in a genuine hurry to overturn the traditional Saudi order.
Prince Mohammed’s visit to the U.S. is mainly a hunting trip for investment, and an opportunity for him to sell his so-called Vision 2030, an elaborate, still mainly unexecuted plan to modernize the Kingdom and end its dependence on oil. But in our conversation, I tried to focus Prince Mohammed on some of the more challenging problems of the moment, including his country’s cold war with Iran; its often-brutal military intervention in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Houthi; the status of women in a country that has practiced a form of gender apartheid for decades; Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Israel and the Palestinians; and his country’s own past support for Muslim extremists of the type he now condemns. I did not ask him about corruption, in part because it is a difficult-to-define concept in a country named for its ruling family, the expropriation of national wealth being a defining feature of absolute monarchies. But it is worth noting that Prince Mohammed recently purchased a yacht allegedly worth half-a-billion dollars. When Norah O’Donnell, of CBS, asked the prince about this, and other purchases, he said, “My personal life is something I’d like to keep to myself and I don’t try to draw attention to it. … As far as my private expenses, I’m a rich person and not a poor person. I’m not Gandhi or Mandela.”
Prince Mohammed dodges questions he doesn’t like, but he is still unusually direct for a Saudi leader. He reminded me in our meeting of Jordan’s King Abdullah II—a new-generation royal frustrated by do-nothing relatives, retrograde tribal politics, and fearful of both Shiite and Sunni extremism. (One difference, of course, is that Saudi Arabia is the linchpin of the Middle East; Jordan is not. If Prince Mohammed actually achieves what he says he wants to achieve, the Middle East will be a changed place.)
The prince, in my conversation with him, divided the Middle East into two warring camps: what he called the “triangle of evil,” consisting of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sunni terror groups; and an alliance of self-described moderate states that includes Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman. About his bête noir, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Prince Mohammed said, “I believe the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good. Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. … The supreme leader is trying to conquer the world.”
Another key—though sub rosa—member of Prince Mohammed’s alliance is Israel, a country about which Prince Mohammed did not have a bad word to say. In fact, when I asked him whether he believed the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland, he said: “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” According to the former U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross, moderate Arab leaders have spoken of the reality of Israel’s existence, but acknowledgement of any sort of “right” to Jewish ancestral land has been a red line no leader has crossed until now. (My meeting with Prince Mohammed took place before the recent fatal violence on the Gaza-Israel border, but I do not believe that the crown prince would have moderated his views in light of these events. The Saudis, like many Arab leaders, have tired of the Palestinians.)
Our conversation took place in Prince Khalid’s living room, beneath a painting depicting the 1945 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia (and grandfather of Mohammed and Khalid). Prince Khalid joined us, as did a wide array of aides and advisers, who sat on two couches and frowned with concern when it seemed as if the prince was veering toward bluntness. They seemed worried when the conversation turned to the matter of Saudi Arabia’s “guardianship” laws, which forbid Saudi women and girls from traveling without the permission of a male sponsor. Prince Mohammed, who recently lifted a ban that kept women from driving, seemed eager to acknowledge that he wanted to bring about an end to these guardianship rules. “Before 1979 there were societal guardianship customs, but no guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia,” he said, referring to a hinge year in Saudi history, in which the Iranian revolution, as well as an extremist Sunni siege of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, caused a conservative backlash in the kingdom. “It doesn’t go back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. In the 1960s women didn’t travel with male guardians. But it happens now, and we want to move on it and figure out a way to treat this that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture.”
On issues related to human rights, openness, and the continued efficacy of the absolute monarchy model of governance, the crown prince was more circumspect and defensive, as you will see in this edited and condensed transcript of our conversation:
Goldberg: It’s good to hear about some of the things you are promising to do in Saudi Arabia, but it’s very early in the process. Yours is a big, complicated country, and it’s very hard to shift culture. Could you start by talking about Islam, the role you think Islam should play in the world?
Mohammed bin Salman: Islam is a religion of peace. This is the translation of Islam. God, in Islam, gives us two responsibilities: The first is to believe, to do good things, and not bad things. If we do bad things, God will judge us on Judgment Day.
Our second duty as Muslims is to spread the word of God. For 1,400 years, Muslims have been trying to spread the word of God. In the Middle East, in North Africa, in Europe, they weren’t allowed to spread the word. That’s why they fought to spread the word. But you also see that, in a lot of countries in Asia—Indonesia, Malaysia, India—Muslims were free to spread the word. They were told, “Go ahead, say whatever you want to say, the people have free will to believe whatever they want to believe in.” Islam, in this context, was not about conquering, it was about peacefully spreading the word.
Now, today, in the triangle of evil—
Goldberg: The triangle of evil?
MbS: Yes, I will explain in a moment. In this triangle, they are trying to promote the idea that our duty as Muslims is to reestablish the caliphate, to reestablish the mindset of the caliphate—that the glory of Islam is in building an empire by force. But God didn’t ask us to do this, and the Prophet Muhammad did not ask us to do this. God only asked us to spread the word. And this mission is accomplished. Today, every human has the right to choose their belief. In every country, it is possible to buy religious books. The message is being delivered. We have no duty anymore to fight to spread Islam. But in the triangle of evil, they want to manipulate Muslims, to tell them their duty as Muslims—their dignity as Muslims —requires the establishment of a Muslim empire.
Goldberg: About the triangle—
MbS: First in the triangle we have the Iranian regime that wants to spread their extremist ideology, their extremist Shiite ideology. They believe that if they spread it, the hidden Imam will come back again and he will rule the whole world from Iran and spread Islam even to America. They’ve said this every day since the Iranian revolution in 1979. It’s in their law and they’re proving it by their own actions.
The second part of the triangle is the Muslim Brotherhood, which is another extremist organization. They want to use the democratic system to rule countries and build shadow caliphates everywhere. Then they would transform into a real Muslim empire. And the other part is the terrorists—al-Qaeda, ISIS—that want to do everything with force. Al-Qaeda leaders, ISIS leaders, they were all Muslim Brotherhood first. Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of ISIS. This is very clear.
This triangle is promoting an idea that God and Islam are not asking us to promote. Their idea is totally against the principles of the United Nations, and the idea of different nations having laws that represent their needs. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Yemen—all of these countries are defending the idea that independent nations should focus on their own interests, in building good relations on the foundation of UN principles. The evil triangle doesn’t want to do that.
Goldberg: Isn’t it true, though, that after 1979, but before 1979 as well, the more conservative factions in Saudi Arabia were taking oil money and using it to export a more intolerant, extremist version of Islam, Wahhabist ideology, which could be understood as a kind of companion ideology to Muslim Brotherhood thinking?
MbS: First of all, this Wahhabism—please define it for us. We’re not familiar with it. We don’t know about it.
Goldberg: What do you mean you don’t know about it?
MbS: What is Wahhabism?
Goldberg: You’re the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. You know what Wahhabism is.
MbS: No one can define this Wahhabism.
Goldberg: It’s a movement founded by Ibn abd al-Wahhab in the 1700s, very fundamentalist in nature, an austere Salafist-style interpretation—
MbS: No one can define Wahhabism. There is no Wahhabism. We don’t believe we have Wahhabism. We believe we have, in Saudi Arabia, Sunni and Shiite. We believe we have within Sunni Islam four schools of thought, and we have the ulema [the religious authorities] and the Board of Fatwas [which issues religious rulings]. Yes, in Saudi Arabia it’s clear that our laws are coming from Islam and the Quran, but we have the four schools—Hanbali, Hanafi, Shafi’i, Maliki—and they argue about interpretation.
The first Saudi state, why was it established? After the Prophet Muhammad and the first four caliphs, the people of the Arabian Peninsula went back to fighting each other like they did for thousands of years. But our family, 600 years ago, established a town from scratch called Diriyah, and with this town came the first Saudi state. It became the most powerful economic part of the peninsula. They helped change reality. Most other towns, they fought over trade, hijacked trade, but our family said to two other tribes, “Instead of attacking the trade routes, why don’t we hire you as guards for this area?” So trade grew, and the town grew. This was the method. Three hundred years later, this is still the way. The thought was always that you need all the great brains of the Arabian Peninsula—the generals, the tribal leaders, the scholars—working with you. One of them was Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab.
But our project is based on the people, on economic interests, and not on expansionist ideological interests. Of course we have things in common. All of us are Muslim, all of us speak Arabic, we all have the same culture and the same interest. When people speak of Wahhabism, they don’t know exactly what they are talking about. Abd al-Wahhab’s family, the al-Sheikh family, is today very well known, but there are tens of thousands of important families in Saudi Arabia today. And you will find a Shiite in the cabinet, you will find Shiites in government, the most important university in Saudi Arabia is headed by a Shiite. So we believe that we are a mix of Muslim schools and sects.
Goldberg: But what about the funding of extremists?
MbS: When you talk about funding before 1979, you are talking about the Cold War. You had communism spreading everywhere, threatening the United States and Europe and also us. Egypt had turned in that time to this sort of regime. We worked with whomever we could use to get rid of communism. Among those was the Muslim Brotherhood. We financed them in Saudi Arabia. And the United States of America financed them.
Goldberg: Was it a mistake?
MbS: If we went back in time, we would do the same thing. We would use these people again. Because we were confronting a bigger danger—getting rid of communism. Later on we had to see how we could deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. Remember, one of the presidents of the United States called these people freedom fighters.
We tried to control and manage their movements. But then came 1979, which exploded everything. The Iranian revolution [created] a regime based on an ideology of pure evil. A regime not working for the people, but serving an ideology. And in the Sunni world, extremists were trying to copy the same thing. We had the attack in Mecca [on the Grand Mosque]. We were in a situation of revolution in Iran, and they were trying to copy it in Mecca. We were trying to keep everything tied together, to keep everything from collapsing. We faced terrorism in Saudi Arabia and in Egypt. We called for the arrest of Osama bin Laden very early, because he was not in Saudi Arabia. We suffered quite a lot by fighting terrorism, until 9/11 happened. This is the story.
Goldberg: I spent a lot of time in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the late 1990s, early 2000s, and it was generally understood that the militant madrassas were getting money from Saudi Arabia. It seems from what you’re saying that things got out of control—your government, your family, didn’t control spending and ideological support, and then it came back and hurt not only you but your friends and allies as well. Your big project, if I understand correctly, is to try to contain some of the things that were unleashed by your country.
MbS: We used the Muslim Brotherhood in the Cold War—we did, both of us—
Goldberg: I’m not saying the U.S. is innocent here—
MbS: This is what America wanted us to do. We had a king who paid with his life trying to counter these people, King Faisal, one of the greatest kings of Saudi Arabia. When it comes to financing extremist groups, I challenge anyone if he can bring any evidence that the Saudi government financed terrorist groups. Yes, there are people from Saudi Arabia who financed terrorist groups. This is against Saudi law. We have a lot of people in jail now, not only for financing terrorist groups, but even for supporting them. One of the reasons we have a problem with Qatar is that we are not allowing them to use the financial system between us to collect money from Saudis and give it to extremist organizations.
Goldberg: You think you’ll ever be friendly again with Qatar?
MbS: It has to happen, one day. We hope they learn fast. It depends on them.
Goldberg: You speak extraordinarily bluntly about Iran and its ideology. You’ve even equated the supreme leader to Hitler. What makes him a Hitler? Hitler is the worst thing you can be.
MbS: I believe that the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good.
MbS: Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. This is bad.
Goldberg: Yes, very bad.
MbS: But the supreme leader is trying to conquer the world. He believes he owns the world. They are both evil guys. He is the Hitler of the Middle East. In the 1920s and 1930s, no one saw Hitler as a danger. Only a few people. Until it happened. We don’t want to see what happened in Europe happen in the Middle East. We want to stop this through political moves, economic moves, intelligence moves. We want to avoid war.
Goldberg: Is the problem in your mind religious?
MbS: As I told you, the Shiites are living normally in Saudi Arabia. We have no problem with the Shiites. We have a problem with the ideology of the Iranian regime. Our problem is, we don’t think they have the right to interfere with our affairs.
Goldberg: I’m curious about Donald Trump and Barack Obama on this issue. It seems you think Donald Trump has a better understanding of this issue than Barack Obama.
MbS: Both of them understand it. I believe that President Obama had different tactics. President Obama believed that if he gave Iran opportunities to open up, it would change. But with a regime based on this ideology, it will not open up soon. Sixty percent of the Iranian economy is controlled by the Revolutionary Guard. The economic benefits of the Iran nuclear deal are not going to the people. They took $150 billion after the deal—can you please name one housing project they built with this money? One park? One industrial zone? Can you name for me the highway that they built? I advise them—please show us something that you’re building a highway with $150 billion. For Saudi Arabia, there is a 0.1 percent chance that this deal would work to change the country. For President Obama it was 50 percent. But even if there’s a 50 percent chance that it would work, we can’t risk it. The other 50 percent is war. We have to go to a scenario where there is no war.
We are pushing back on these Iranian moves. We’ve done this in Africa, Asia, in Malaysia, in Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon. We believe that after we push back, the problems will move inside Iran. We don’t know if the regime will collapse or not—it’s not the target, but if collapses, great, it’s their problem. We have a war scenario in the Middle East right now. This is very dangerous for the world. We cannot take the risk here. We have to take serious painful decisions now to avoid painful decisions later.
Goldberg: Speaking of painful decisions, are you making the situation in Yemen worse though military actions that are causing humanitarian catastrophes? There’s a lot of justified criticism of your bombing campaigns.
MbS: First of all, we have to go back to real evidence, real data. Yemen started to collapse not in 2015 [when the Saudis intervened], but in 2014—based on UN reports, not based on our reports. So it’s collapsing for one year before of the campaign started. We had a coup d’état in 2015 against a legitimate government in Yemen. And from the other side al-Qaeda tried to use this move for its own sake and to promote its own ideas. We fought to get rid of extremists in Syria and Iraq and then they started to create a haven in Yemen. It would be much harder to get rid of extremists in Yemen than Iraq or Syria. Our campaign is focused on helping the legitimate government and bringing stability. Saudi Arabia is trying to help the people of Yemen. The biggest donor to Yemen is Saudi Arabia. The people who are manipulating this aid in the 10 percent of Yemen not controlled by the government is the Houthis.
What I want to say here, to make it simple, is that sometimes in the Middle East you don’t have good decisions and bad decisions. Sometimes you have bad decisions and worse decisions. Sometimes we have to choose the bad option. We don’t want to come here, as Saudi Arabia, and be asked these questions. We want to be asked about the economy, our partnerships, investment in America and Saudi Arabia. We don’t want to spend our lives arguing about Yemen. This is not something about choice here. This is about security and life for us.
Goldberg: Do you believe in women’s equality?
MbS: I support Saudi Arabia, and half of Saudi Arabia is women. So I support women.
Goldberg: But equality? Equalizing society?
MbS: In our religion there is no difference between men and women. There are duties to men and duties to women. There are different forms of equality. In the Saudi government women are paid exactly like men. We have regulations like this that are going into the private sector. We don’t want divided treatment for different people.
Goldberg: But what about the guardianship laws? That’s something you want to change for good? I think everyone is impressed that you’re letting women drive, but for many Americans the main issues are the real structural impediments to women’s equality.
MbS: Before 1979 there were societal guardianship customs, but no guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t go back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. In the 1960s women didn’t travel with male guardians. But it happens now, and we want to move on it and figure out a way to treat this that doesn’t harm families and doesn’t harm the culture.
Goldberg: You’re going to get rid of these laws?
MbS: There are a lot of conservative families in Saudi Arabia. There are a lot of families divided inside. Some families like to have authority over their members, and some women don’t want the control of the men. There are families where this is okay. There are families that are open and giving women and daughters what they want. So if I say yes to this question, that means I’m creating problems for the families that don’t want to give freedom for their daughters. Saudis don’t want to lose their identity but we want to be part of the global culture. We want to merge our culture with global identity.
Goldberg: This is a values question. You come from a country that’s very different than ours—yours is an absolute monarchy, a place where people don’t have the right to vote, you have corporal punishment and capital punishment carried out in ways that a lot of Americans don’t like—
MbS: We don’t share values. But I also believe that different states in the United States don’t share values. There are different values between California and Texas. So how come you want us to share your values 100 percent when you are not sharing values? Of course there is a foundation of values that all humans share. But there are differences, state-to-state, country-to-country.
Goldberg: But absolute monarchy?
MbS: Absolute monarchy is not a threat to any country. You say “absolute monarchy” like it’s a threat. If it were not for absolute monarchy, you wouldn’t have the United States. The absolute monarch in France helped the creation of the United States by giving it support. Absolute monarchy is not an enemy of the United States. It’s an ally for a very long time.
Goldberg: That’s very clever, but it avoids the subject.
MbS: Okay, each country, each regime, it has to do what the people think is workable. Saudi Arabia is a network of thousands of absolute monarchies, and then has a large absolute monarchy. We have tribal monarchies, town monarchies. Moving against this structure would create huge problems in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi fabric is much more complicated than you think. And actually our king doesn’t have absolute power. His power is based in law. If he is making a royal decree, he can’t say, “I’m King Salman and I’m doing this.” If you read decrees, you first see the list of laws that allow the king to take this decision. By the way, the queen of the United Kingdom, she has absolute power with any law. But she doesn’t practice it. So it’s complicated.
Goldberg: Could you see yourself moving toward a system in which people vote for their representatives? When you start to let people choose who represents them, that’s change.
MbS: What I can do is encourage the power of law. We would like to encourage freedom of speech as much as we can, so long as we don’t give opportunity to extremism. We can improve women’s rights, improve the economy. There is tension here, but we should do it.
One American visitor told me a really interesting thing. He said that Americans don’t recognize the difference between the two things—there is the end, and there is the means. The end here is development, rights, and freedom. The way to get to it, and this is the American view, is democracy, but the way to get to it in Saudi Arabia is our more complex system.
Goldberg: Let’s talk about the broader Middle East. Do you believe the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland?
MbS: I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.
Goldberg: You have no religious-based objection to the existence of Israel?
MbS: We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people.
Goldberg: Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a place that has produced a lot of anti-Semitic propaganda. Do you think you have a problem with anti-Semitism in your country?
MbS: Our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews. Our Prophet Muhammad married a Jewish woman. Not just a friend—he married her. Our prophet, his neighbors were Jewish. You will find a lot of Jews in Saudi Arabia coming from America, coming from Europe. There are no problems between Christian and Muslims and Jews. We have problems like you would find anywhere in the world, among some people. But the normal sort of problems.
Goldberg: Do you think Iran is bringing you and Israel together? Without Iran, could you imagine a situation in which you had other interests in common with Israel?
MbS: Israel is a big economy compared to their size and it’s a growing economy, and of course there are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and countries like Egypt and Jordan.
Goldberg: I’m curious about your youth. This is a complicated job for a young man.
MbS: I believe humans learn to the last days of their life. Anyone who claims he knows everything doesn’t know anything. What we are trying to do is to learn fast, to understand fast, to be surrounded by smart people. I don’t believe my youth is a problem. I believe the best creations in the world came from young people. Apple is a good example. Apple was created by Steve Jobs, who was in his early 20s when he started inventing. Social media, Facebook, created by guy who is still young. I believe that my generation can add a lot of things.
Goldberg: One thing Steve Jobs had was freedom. He lived in a country where you could do anything. I don’t think anyone would describe Saudi Arabia as a place where you can do anything from a human rights perspective, from the perspective of freedom.
MbS: In Saudi Arabia you can do whatever you want to do in a business, in what kind of work and what kind of project you want to develop. Also, there is a different standard of freedom of speech. In Saudi Arabia we have just three lines—anyone can write whatever they want to write, speak about whatever they want to speak about, but they shouldn’t reach these three lines. This is not based on the interest of the government, but on the interest of the people. Line one is Islam. You cannot defame Islam. Line two—in America, you can attack a person and his company or a minister and his ministry. In Saudi Arabia it’s okay to attack a ministry or a company, but the culture of the Saudis, they don’t like to attack a person, and they like to leave the personal issue out of it. This is part of the Saudi culture.
The third line is national security. We are in an area not surrounded by Mexico, Canada, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. We have ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hamas and Hezbollah and the Iranian regime, and even pirates. We have pirates that hijack ships. So anything that touches the national security, we cannot risk in Saudi Arabia. We don’t want to see things that happen in Iraq happening in Saudi Arabia. But other than that, people have the freedom to do whatever they want to do. For example, we didn’t block Twitter. Or access to social media. Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat. Name it, it’s open for all Saudis. We have the highest percentage of people around the world using social media. In Iran they block social media and in other countries they block social media. Saudis have free access to whatever media around the world.
Goldberg: I’m not so sure that Twitter is good for civilization, but that’s for a future conversation. Thank you very much.
March 20, 2018
When The Atlantic’s founders created this magazine 161 years ago, the American family was not top of mind. The Atlantic, they wrote, would be devoted to literature, art, and politics. Early on, its foremost concerns included the abolition of slavery and the then-parlous future of America as a united nation.
Soon enough, though, the editors came to understand that the well-being of a nation, its culture, and its economy was tied up with the health and vitality of its families. And so the questions families face—how to raise children, how to sustain love, how to build equality into the most-complicated human relationships, how to earn and save money in such a way as to make the next generation better off than the last—soon became preoccupations of the magazine.
Over the years, our writers have wrestled with these issues, almost always with deep curiosity, often provocatively, sometimes even with humor. In 1932, Helen Keller wrote in our pages of the effect machines had on kitchen work, as a pretext for a deeper exploration of the relationship between humans and technology, and between women and men. Throughout the 20th century, The Atlantic chronicled the country’s shifting norms around gender, marriage, and child-rearing. More recently, articles such as Hanna Rosin’s “A Boy’s Life,” Dan Slater’s “A Million First Dates,” Liza Mundy’s “The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss,” Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s “When Your Child Is a Psychopath,” and Jean Twenge’s “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” have shaped the national conversation in useful and important ways.
It is in the spirit of these and other articles that today we are launching our newest editorial initiative, a section that will provide readers with essential and sophisticated journalism about the building-block unit of civilization: the family. We will be covering parenting as a fundamental part of our work. We will provide advice to those who seek it. We will cover politics and economics through the prism of families’ experiences. We will study families in all their diversity, and in their largest contexts.
Our coverage of family matters will express itself digitally, of course, but also in our print magazine, documentaries, and podcasts.
February 20, 2018
In 1868, the abolitionist and orator Anna E. Dickinson published What Answer?, a novel that explored, in a manner revolutionary for its time, the subject of interracial marriage. The Atlantic assigned its assistant editor, William Dean Howells, to review the book. Howells, who would later become the magazine’s editor in chief, was, in the years following the Civil War, something of a racial optimist. He opened his review by recounting a story told to him by one of The Atlantic’s most important contributors:
Mr. Frederick Douglass said the other day that times were when his color would secure him the advantage of a whole seat in a railroad car, but that since the war he was by no means safe from molestation. He told a good story of a citizen with conquered prejudices, who stirred him up out of his nap on the cars recently, and demanded a place beside him. “I’m a nigger,” said Mr. Douglass, showing his head from beneath the shawl in which it had been wrapped. “I don’t care what you are,” answered the liberal-minded intruder; “I want a seat.”
Howells seems to have derived too much hope from this story. He acknowledged that some whites—in particular “those low-down Democrats who spell negro with two g’s”—would not allow expediency or reality to mitigate their enmity for black people. But he nevertheless argued that “there is a great deal to be hoped from human selfishness, fortunately, and we shall not despair of mankind while we all continue so full of egotistical desires and interested ambitions. Pure cussedness is much rarer than would appear.”
Howell’s sanguinity, born of the recent Union victory and the seeming advances of Reconstruction, was premature. Whites would not, in sufficiently meaningful numbers, come to understand either the practical or the moral advantages of racial equality. Thirty-two years after Howell’s review, W. E. B. Du Bois would write in these pages that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” And 62 years after Du Bois made this prediction, The Atlantic would publish Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” under the title “The Negro Is Your Brother.” The letter, one of the immortal documents of American history, could be read as a refutation of post-Reconstruction hopefulness, and as proof of the accuracy of Du Bois’s prediction:
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
The hope of well-meaning people is that the color line will not be the chief problem of the 21st century—but the analysis of realists, particularly in the wake of the 2016 presidential contest, indicates that matters of inequality and racism may be with us for decades to come.
When Vann R. Newkirk, one of our staff writers, and Adrienne Green, the magazine’s managing editor, proposed that we publish a special edition to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, I was intrigued, but also concerned that such an issue be an exploration of our fraught moment, and not merely a devotional artifact. My colleagues suggested that we use this opportunity to refract King’s life through the prism of his three main preoccupations—the “three major evils,” as he called them—of racism, poverty, and militarism. Working with the entire magazine team, including Scott Stossel, the magazine’s editor, and Burt Solomon, this project’s editor, Newkirk and Green and their collaborators invested this issue with urgency, argument, beauty, and truth.
Howells, in his review of Dickinson’s novel, aligned The Atlantic’s “most earnest and hearty sympathies” with the cause of the “largest individual freedom.” This was Martin Luther King Jr.’s cause as well, and we are proud to advance it with this issue.
* Image above: In a Nonviolent Movement, Unmerited Suffering Is Redemptive, by Hank Willis Thomas, from the installation “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around” (2015–16). Glass, silver, and digital prints; dimensions variable. Commissioned by the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, New York. © 2016 Hank Willis Thomas. Original images © 1965 Spider Martin.
February 2, 2018
I’m writing to let you know that we’re creating a place online for your ideas and feedback. Our new Letters section, like its counterpart in print, will feature the smartest, most compelling responses to our journalism. It will be a venue for respectful dialogue, criticism, meaningful observations, and challenging ideas.
We want to hear from you, and we want to make it easy for anyone to find and share the most compelling responses to our journalism, and to the most pressing issues of the day.
We’ve also made the not-unrelated decision to close our comments section. Over the years, robust conversation in The Atlantic comments section has too often been hijacked by people who traffic in snark and ad hominem attacks and even racism, misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish invective.
Instead of hosting these sorts of unhelpful, even destructive, conversations on TheAtlantic.com, we are choosing now to elevate respectful, intelligent discourse and argument. We want smart and critical readers to have a more visible role on our site, and we’re looking forward to hearing from you, and publishing you.
To send a letter to our editors, email Letters@TheAtlantic.com.