Dealing with the Saudis, &c.

Ensaf Haidar holds a portrait of her husband Raif Badawi as she receives the 2015 Sakharov Prize in Strasbourg. (Vincent Kessler / Reuters)
On a brutal ally, a good economy, the politics of ice cream, and more

Back in Soviet days, we (the United States) would sometimes get prisoners sprung in exchange for some favor to Moscow — trade, for example. “We’ll give you that if you give us him.”

This was a little unsavory: Political prisoners were baubles, pawns, gifts. But at least we got them sprung.

If we did it when dealing with the Soviets, why not do it when dealing with the Saudis? We have offered an arms deal that the Saudi dictatorship very much wants. Why not get Raif Badawi out of it? He is but one political prisoner, and he is probably the most prominent in Saudi Arabia.

Badawi was a blogger asking for freedom, democracy, and human rights — those verboten things. He was arrested in 2012 and lashed. He has languished in prison ever since.

I wrote about him and his wife, Ensaf Haidar, in 2016 (here). Ensaf and their three children are now in exile in Canada. The Canadian government has been forceful on the issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Look: If we got prisoners sprung from our enemy’s jails, why not get them sprung from our friend’s? That should be easier — right? — and more imperative morally, too.

• Last year, President Trump went to Saudi Arabia and said, “We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.”

Well and good. That’s a laissez-faire attitude that most people can applaud. But you know who tells other people how to live, what to do, whom to be, and how to worship? Dictators — as in Saudi Arabia, China, and many another place. And oppressed people depend on free others to stand up for them. To speak for them, as they cannot.

Last month, I was talking with Antonio Ledezma, the exiled mayor of Caracas (former mayor). He made the point that to speak of “self-determination” in the present Venezuelan context is absurd. The Venezuelans have no say, in light of the chavistas’ destruction of Venezuelan democracy.

You see the point, I know.

• NBC News published a fascinating report under the heading “How a Saudi royal crushed his rivals in a ‘shakedown’ at the Ritz-Carlton.” It happened at the Courtyard by Marriott across the street, too. Those hotels were not open to the public during this operation.

The “guests” were tortured, of course — this is utterly routine in the Arab world (and elsewhere). Seventeen were hospitalized. One was killed.

While the operation was being carried out, President Trump tweeted, “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing. Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”

That’s not just a green light — that’s a green light with 76 trombones and complementary dancing girls. (Word to the wise: The milking, and the torturing, will continue.)

• Fred Ryan is the publisher and CEO of the Washington Post. Formerly, he was chief of staff to Reagan, in the years after Reagan left office. The Post, as you know, employed Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by the Saudi state. Ryan said, “If Saudi Arabia faces no consequences for Jamal’s murder, it sends a powerful message of tolerance, perhaps even encouragement. And every journalist in every country will be at greater risk.”

Well said.

• There is very good economic news — especially where job growth is concerned. Whenever there is good economic news, the party out of power (i.e., not in the White House) grits its teeth. I have seen it all my life. But honestly: We must all be grateful for economic health, because economic health alleviates a host of ills.

Rejoice . . .

• . . . but beware: “Bolton: National debt ‘threat to the society,’ forcing DoD spending to ‘flatten out.’” (Article here.) Big, big problem — a danger. A “threat to society” indeed.

• Carlos Curbelo is a congressman from South Florida, Miami-born. He is the son of Cuban exiles. Recently, a young man threatened to kill him. This happened on social media (where threats to kill flow fairly easily). The congressman then held a media event with his would-be killer.

Very interesting.

• Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is another congressman from Miami. She is retiring at the end of this term — and the post of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations is open. I think “Ily” would be superb — in the tradition of Moynihan, Kirkpatrick, Walters, Bolton, and Haley. The Castro government would be apoplectic. Other dictatorships would be apoplectic. She would speak for liberty and the rule of law, and she’d be a joy.

In short, she is a natural.

• At a rally, Trump did something interesting: He said “Barack H. Obama” — has anyone else ever said that? — and drew an H in the air. To emphasize the “Hussein,” no doubt. Has that ever worked against Obama? Will it now?

I also wish to ask this, speaking of the middle initial H: How did “Jesus H. Christ” ever come about? (“Howard,” perhaps? Lots of great Jewish kids had that name, once upon a time.)

• “Barbed wire used properly can be a beautiful sight,” said Trump. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, said someone else.

• This business of executive orders? Trump abolishing “birthright citizenship” with a wave of the hand and all that? I thought of a Saturday Night Live skit, mocking Obama (“Barack H. Obama”) for his end-runs around our constitutional procedure. Did you ever see this? A public service, an instance of civic education.

• Trump is talking about 15,000 troops to our southern border. Or is it up to 20,000 or more now? I’ve thought of December 1998: when Clinton ordered a bombing of Iraq. This was on the eve of impeachment. Was he “wagging the dog”? This was a big phrase of the day. (In fact, it became a movie title, as I remember.) Was the president deploying the military for personal or partisan purposes?

That is bad news bears (another movie title).

• Speaking of bears: A clip embedded here provides a lesson in persistence. When you have three minutes or so, enjoy it.

• What is the worst kind of politics? I have a vote, or a nomination: ice-cream politics. Check this out if you can stand it: “Ben & Jerry’s Admits They’re ‘Comfortable’ Partnering with Women’s March Despite Group’s Ties to Farrakhan.”

I scream, you scream, we all scream for less ice-cream politics (or I do). (I may not be nuts for Jerry Garcia, but I am nuts for Cherry Garcia.)

• A long time ago, I heard Bob Novak say something about a basketball game. (Novak was a basketball fanatic — especially college basketball.) He didn’t like either team. And he said, “That game’s like the Battle of Stalingrad for me.”

I have used that line many times. (Other people say “Iran-Iraq War.”) But what I need is a phrase with the exact opposite meaning. What do you say when you love both teams?

I did not necessarily love both teams in the recent World Series. But I loved the two pitchers on the mound for the final game (what proved to be the final game): David Price (Red Sox) and Clay Kershaw (Dodgers). These are two of my favorite pitchers and two of my favorite athletes.

Not the Battle of Stalingrad. (If you can think of the kind of phrase I’m after, please let me know at

• I was talking with my old friend Ed Klum, a legend in our state of Michigan, as both player and coach. He was saying — and I was saying — it’s virtually impossible to stay neutral when watching a game. There are two teams you don’t particularly care about. You don’t care which team wins. You just want to enjoy the game. But you find yourself rooting for one team or the other — despite yourself.

“I’ll be watching a soccer game,” said Coach Klum. “Now, this is not a sport I know much about or care much about. But, strangely, I’ll start to root for one team or the other. Same with Little League baseball, when it’s played at Williamsport. What in the world would I care about Little League baseball teams? Yet I find myself rooting.”

One theory: We do this, consciously or not, in order to keep ourselves interested.

• This does not fall under the category of sports, but it’s related, you could say: In Madeira Beach, Fla., recently, I saw a mini-golf place. And I thought, “Mini-golf, after all these years? That must be one of the few old-school entertainments that have survived into the digital age.” Mini-golf, in 2018. Geez. I almost expect carhops.

• In Chicago, I saw a girl — maybe a junior-high-schooler — wearing a shirt: Throw Kindness Like Confetti.

• Below is a photo from Washington, D.C. How did the word “Oriental,” a beautiful word, get stigmatized? Sort of bothers me.

• Here is a photo from my block (New York) early on Halloween night:

• In the run-up to the midterm elections, some cookies are bearing a message:

(For me, all cookies bear the same message: Eat Me.) (I don’t mean this dirtily, for once.)

• Let me end on a musical note. I often say that you can’t ruin, or even stifle, Bach. No matter how you play him or on what — a kazoo, or triangle — he will out. Something similar can be said of “Amazing Grace.” In Central Park the other day, I heard it played on the erhu, that twangy Chinese instrument. Not bad, not bad at all.

See you, Impromptusites, and thank you.


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