Making the click-through worthwhile: A U.S. troop deployment to a dangerous corner of the world deserves more public attention and debate, The New Yorker wants to argue that Al Franken got a raw deal, and I’ve got 99 of something . . . but not problems.
Psst: Don’t Tell Anyone, We’re Sending U.S. Troops Back into Saudi Arabia
The sort of news that doesn’t generate many outrage clicks, but probably matters more than, say, baseball Hall-of-Famer Mariano Rivera’s allegedly “far-right politics”: In June the Pentagon started deploying equipment and hundreds of troops back to a military base in Saudi Arabia — Patriot missile air-defense batteries, fighter jets, and eventually, more than 500 personnel.
On paper, the deployment of U.S. troops to protect Saudi Arabia was one of the factors that prompted Osama bin Laden to declare war against this country. OBL wrote in 1998:
First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.
I say “on paper” because U.S. forces left Saudi Arabia in 2003 and OBL and al-Qaeda didn’t change one bit. This is why a lot of us don’t take the listed grievances of Islamists all that seriously — make a concession in one area, and they’ll just refocus on other areas and keep trying to kill you.
But at the time, the U.S. military believed the departure of U.S. troops would calm the region down a bit. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, speaking May 9, 2003:
There are a lot of things that are different now, and one that has gone by almost unnoticed–but it’s huge–is that by complete mutual agreement between the U.S. and the Saudi government we can now remove almost all of our forces from Saudi Arabia. Their presence there over the last 12 years has been a source of enormous difficulty for a friendly government. It’s been a huge recruiting device for al Qaeda. In fact if you look at bin Laden, one of his principle grievances was the presence of so-called crusader forces on the holy land, Mecca and Medina. I think just lifting that burden from the Saudis is itself going to open the door to other positive things.
By 2004, the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia was down to “between 200 and 300 U.S. military personnel” “to administer long-standing U.S. training programs in conjunction with U.S. civilians and local hires.” But the Muslim world didn’t seem to notice. In 2008, Gallup polling found many Muslims around the world saying their view of the United States would improve “if the U.S. removed military base from Saudi Arabia.” The U.S. military had left, beyond a nominal force for training programs with the Saudi military, and most of the Muslim world was unaware. Maybe it doesn’t matter how many or how few American servicemen are on the ground in Saudi Arabia; chunks of the Muslim world will choose to believe conspiracies about Western Crusader conquest.
Maybe you think sending U.S. troops back, at the invitation of the Saudi government, is a good idea. (Pentagon officials said Saudi Arabia has already agreed to pay some of the costs associated with having U.S. personnel and assets there.) Maybe you think it’s a bad idea. But clearly this is a decision that was made with almost no discussion by Congress or the American public.
Make no mistake, the troops will be in harm’s way. Every American in Saudi Arabia lives with some level of risk — seen in the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, the Riyadh compound bombings of 2003, the beheading of Paul Suarez in 2004, the shooting attack on American oil-company employees the same year. Iranian-allied Yemeni rebels have attacked Saudi airports and pipelines with cruise missiles and drones in recent months. The United Arab Emirates are walking away from the fight in Yemen, and Saudi’s Prince Mohammed bin Salman “is now hoping Washington will help make up the difference with new American military support, according to diplomats with knowledge of the conversations.”
The American people might look at this and conclude that “This isn’t our fight, this isn’t worth risking a single American serviceman, just let the Saudis and Iranians duke it out.” Or they may see a great deal of trouble ensuing from the prospect of an Iranian-allied force taking over Yemen, with its 1,100-mile border with Saudi Arabia and strategic location at one end the Red Sea. (Picture Iran controlling access to the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz and access to the Red Sea through the Bab al-Mandab Strait.)
Support the deployment of more U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia or oppose it, shouldn’t this sort of thing be discussed more?
We’re Spending This Week Relitigating Al Franken Again, Huh?
The mental bandwidth of the collective American news media and its audiences is finite; we’re not likely to talk about the deployment to Saudi Arabia much this week because The New Yorker wants to reopen the argument that former Minnesota senator Al Franken got a raw deal. Jane Mayer profiles Franken today and finds, “seven current and former U.S. senators who demanded Franken’s resignation in 2017 told me that they’d been wrong to do so.” She lists them: Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Angus King of Maine, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Tom Udall of New Mexico.
The former senator insists his interactions with Leeann Tweeden were on the up-and-up, that she never indicated any objection to his actions, and that she’s lying about his actions.
Tweeden may well have felt harassed, and even violated, by Franken, but he insisted to me that her version of events is “just not true.” He confirmed that he had rehearsed the skit with her, noting, “You always rehearse.” The script, he recalled, called for a man to “surprise” a woman with a kiss, in a “sort of sudden” way, and though Tweeden had read the script, it’s possible that in the moment he startled her. Tweeden wasn’t an actress — before going into broadcasting, she had been a Frederick’s of Hollywood model — so she may have been unfamiliar with rehearsals. But Franken said, of Tweeden, “I don’t remember her being taken aback.” He adamantly denied having stuck his tongue in her mouth.
Franken tells Mayer, “He’d never heard any complaints about his behavior toward women — ‘not firsthand, secondhand, or thirdhand’ — until the day Tweeden’s story broke.” Why does he think that is exculpatory? Does he think that every woman who is made to feel uncomfortable by an older, more powerful man registers objection right then and there?
There’s actually one really good observation in the story, from New York magazine writer Rebecca Traister: “One of the troubling things about this is that there aren’t easy answers. When you change rules, you end up penalizing people who were caught behaving according to the old rules. But if you don’t change the rules they will never change.”
Let me float one other observation: The world of modern politics reveals that a lot of partisans love to denounce the creeps in the other party but prefer to avert their eyes from accusations against someone on their side. All the allegations against Trump are false and the Access Hollywood tape is just “locker room talk,” while every accusation against the Clintons must be true, and vice versa — the contention, from Meyer and her colleagues at The New Yorker, that the accusers of Franken are sketchy and not believable but anyone who ever attended a school with Brett Kavanaugh is automatically plausible. (That “She had been a Frederick’s of Hollywood model” line up there sure carries a lot of subtext, doesn’t it?)
By December 2017, we knew about Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner. (We didn’t yet know about Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York, abusing women.) We knew that some of the biggest names in media — Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin — had been creeps and predators for years. We knew that Harvey Weinstein had operated as a habitual predator in Hollywood for years, as well as figures Garrison Keillor, Russell Simmons, Louis C.K., Mario Batali. Everywhere good liberals looked, they saw good liberal men revealed as not so good after all.
A recent essay by Lisa Miller tries to grapple with the full consequences of the sexual revolution: “A generation of entrepreneurial and ‘brilliant’ men took the job of defining the ‘erotic’ for everyone else, without consulting or including the interpretations of women, and then purveyed to the masses an eros that degraded women and girls while pitching it as ‘healthy.’” In other words, powerful, wealthy, and famous men created an environment and culture where they were able to sexually pursue anyone they wanted, however they wanted; they were able to persuade a chunk of the culture at large that this was sophisticated and romantic. Woody Allen, Roman Polanski — only the prudes got hung up about what they did with young women.
Al Franken became something of a scapegoat in the Biblical sense — an animal that is ritually burdened with the sins of others, and then driven away. He had his own sins; it’s really hard to believe that all eight women who accused Franken of creepy behavior and touching are lying or exaggerating, as the Mayer profile strongly implies. But it’s fair to argue that Franken’s behavior is a different degree of wrongdoing than, say, a woman passing out and being taken to a nurse after an encounter in Matt Lauer’s locked office.
ADDENDUM: Ninety-nine reviews!