Soon after the shooting of American citizens at the Pensacola Naval Air Station last Friday (December 6) by a Saudi national who was in the US for flight training, President Trump, speaking from the White House, read a statement from Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. President Trump let us know "the Saudi people are greatly angered by the barbaric actions of the shooter." He then reassured us, "this person [the perpetrator] in no way shape or form represents the feelings of the Saudi people who love the American people."
As an American who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East on a full-time basis for over ten years, I was astonished by this obviously untruthful and deceiving statement that President Trump was parroting on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Lest we forget, 15 of the 19 hijackers who committed the 9/11 terror attacks – and their leader Osama bin Laden – were Saudi nationals. Moreover, anti-American Saudi nationals killed twenty US soldiers and injured 500 more in a car bombing attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in June 1996. I guess the Saudi nationals who perpetrated these attacks (among others I could cite) also were "in no way, shape or form [representative] of the feelings of the Saudi people" and thus these attacks also should be excused.
Even when I worked for the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s twenty years before Al Qaeda; Americans were tolerated in the Kingdom only if we kept a low profile and adhered to the Saudis’ strict social norms – since they loathed ours. The "Saudi people" whom the King refers to are predominately devout Sunni Muslims who practice a medieval form of Islam called Wahhabism (which they taught to the Afghan Taliban). These Salafists ("true believes") uneasily coexist with a minority pro-Iranian Shiite sect in the Eastern Province where Aramco operates. The claim these two staunchly anti-Western Islamic sects "love Americans" and condone our way of life is laughable.
Given this reality, I was astonished that no mainstream media reporters who knows the Middle East (surely some do) didn’t immediately called out the deception that King Salman and President Trump were perpetrating on the American public. I surmise a lot of "damage control" is going on. Indeed, this shooting reveals the obvious risks – given the ominous parallel to 9/11 – of having Saudi national pilots (and those of other Muslim nations) being trained on American soil on how to fly the high-performance military aircraft that US arms merchants eagerly sell these nations. These contracts include provisions for pilots from the acquiring countries to be trained at US military bases in America. It’s easy to imagine a radicalized foreign-national pilot in a single-seat jet fighter crashing his plane into a nearby city rather than landing it back on his flight-training base.
This possible scenario shows the danger to Americans back home of keeping the Middle East arms race going unchecked for the financial benefit of our burgeoning military-industrial complex. Apparently, Congress (which authorizes foreign arms sales by US firms on a case-by-case basis) is more interested in sustaining the profits of arms merchants (who are big contributors to individual members’ reelection campaigns) than they are in ensuring the safety of the American homeland.
This pilot-training risk falls into the category of an "inconvenient truth" related to the international arms business. More ominously, the Pensacola attack reveals the inevitable "blowback" inherent in our country’s current pro-Israel Middle East foreign and military policy. Like the foreign-pilot training risk, the blowback issue is never mentioned nor debated by policymakers in Washington. Indeed, it is taboo to do so.
As background on the blowback issue, I traveled through the international airport in Dubai – the crossroads of the Middle East – over 20 times on my R&R trips home from the civilian advisor jobs I held in Afghanistan over seven years (2008-14). I always browsed the airport bookstore looking for something to read on the 13-hour flight to Dulles; or to take back to Kabul or Kandahar. Throughout this period, the #1 bestseller on the non-fiction rack was always The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. This controversial work was published in book form in US in August 2007, after The London Review of Books had published it in manuscript form in June 2006.
The main thesis of this book is that America’s interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East (including starting the Iraq war; maintaining a threatening posture toward Iran; and Congress’ unconditional support of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians) is driven by a very powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington. Given this lobby’s influence (which includes interfering in U.S. Congressional elections on behalf of Israel’s interests), Mearsheimer and Walt argue in their dispassionate analysis that current US policies in the Middle East do not serve the best interests of the American people. In the months following the publication of their book, it was viciously discredited by the pro-Israel/pro-war US foreign policy establishment and corporate media.
Consequently, in the 12 years since his taboo-bashing book was published, it has had no effect on US foreign policy; nor did it lead to a just resolution of the long-festering Israel-Palestine conflict – as some open-minded reviewers had hoped. Thus, this timely and important work is not relevant to the current discourse on Middle East foreign-policy in our country. The only matters under discussion are (1) when to attack Iran and (2) how to further destabilize Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – both in support of Israel.
But as I observed traveling through the Dubai airport, these scholars’ fact-based expository book on the "special relationship" between Israel and the US has remained a bestseller in the Middle East. Unlike in America, this topic is discussed and is a motivating issue throughout Islamic world. I was often asked by the college educated/English speaking Muslims with whom I associated and mentored, "Why is America spending hundreds of billions to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East; yet you country allows the Israelis to treat the Palestinians so unjustly?" Most knew the real answer to this question and were just jiving me. I would tell the others, "I’ll lend you a book to read."
Thus, I was not surprised to learn on Sunday two days after the Pensacola shooting – first exclusively reported by foreign media sources – that the Saudi pilot trainee (who would have been similarly educated and fluent in English like my Iraqi and Afghan associates) had posted on his twitter account (now suspended) a manifesto in which he confesses:
“I’m against evil, and America as a whole has turned into a nation of evil. I’m not against you for just being American, I don’t hate you because your freedoms, I hate you because every day you [are] supporting, funding and committing crimes not only against Muslims but also humanity.” He wrote he condemned US support for Israel and included a quote from Al-Qaeda’s deceased leader, the Saudi Osama bin Laden." (For more quotes from the shooter’s manifesto – which are now banned from the internet – see Scott Horton’s Antiwar.com article, “Pensacola: Blowback Terrorism.”)
Regarding the shooter’s Osama bin Laden reference, The Guardian on December 3, 2007 reported Osama had declared two days earlier that: "The events of Manhattan were a response to the American-Israeli coalition’s murder of our people in Palestine and Lebanon." Going back to the 1980s, "Palestine has featured in practically every statement and interview by Bin Laden."
Congressman Matt Gaetz (R), whose Florida district includes Pensacola Naval Air Station, is one of the few public officials who has called this attack on Americans on US spoil what it is: "an act of terrorism." It’s noteworthy that Rep. Gaetz is one of the few members of Congress who is highly critical of our country’s foreign interventions and endless wars in the Middle East. Thus, he has already broken with the Washington establishment.
In contrast, more than 48 hours after the attack and notwithstanding foreign media’s revelation of the shooter’s manifesto, the Pentagon and FBI still have yet not called the attack terrorism. They refer to the shooter’s tweets and manifesto as being "some concerning statements and online materials [we have] discovered." In a Saturday morning interview on national television when the Trump administration’s spokesperson was asked about the Pensacola attack, she uttered the usual evasive non-answer babble: "we’re looking into it, we can’t get ahead of the investigation, we’ll get to the bottom of it." (Since when has President Trump not gotten ahead of an investigation?) She also proclaimed, "President Trump always puts Americans’ safety first" – and he "won’t let this happen again!"
But if the administration doesn’t yet know yet the shooter’s motivation or his possible terror-network affiliations, how can the president assure the American people that such attacks won’t happen again? I’m suspicious. There are currently 852 Saudi nationals in the US in various military training programs along with an unreported number of nationals from other Muslim countries among the over 5,000 foreign military personnel receiving training. This flight training is conducted as part of foreign arms-sales contracts with American firms. That’s a lot of canceled contracts and loss of future business if the reality is: the only way to assure that Americans are safe is to close down the military’s foreign-pilot training program.
Spoiler Alert: Don’t expect an official account in the MSM confirming the Saudi shooter’s anti-Israel inspired animus toward America and seeing the full text of his manifesto. The Washington establishment has closed ranks to mitigate this attack’s negative effect on foreign arms sales and its pro-Israel Middle East foreign policy. In Washington’s counterfactual narrative, the American public is supposed to believe the Saudis are good guys who "love Americans" and tacitly support Israel (despite being Salafi fundamentalists). The truth is the Saudis are America’s arms merchants’ best customer. And since the US military got (mostly) kicked out of Iraq in 2011, Pentagon needs to use bases in Saudi Arabia to attack Iran and continue its interventions in other neighboring Islamic countries.
When the truth becomes known, this Pensacola attack – just like 9/11 – will fall into the category of "blowback."
As Mearsheimer and Walt tried to warn the American public in their courageous book published twelve years ago, there is a "cause and effect" to Washington’s decidedly pro-Israel foreign policy in the Middle East. In a recent article (A Manifesto for Restrainers) that Mr. Walt published before the Pensacola attack, he presciently advocates for a less militaristic, noninterventionist foreign policy devoid of "special relationships" with allies who perceive they "deserve US support no matter what they do."
Maybe this time our elected officials will heed Mr. Walt’s sage advice, and our country will avoid getting bogged down in a third protected, multi-trillion-dollar, unwinnable war in the Middle East.
Ronald Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA and MIT graduate who served in the US Air Force and has lived, worked and traveled extensively in the Middle East, including working as an USAID contactor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in the Iraq and Afghan wars from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?