Okay. Relatively, on these pages, I’ve held off from comment on the successive circuses starring the American president and the tangle of partisan truths and lies animating what’s become the nightly Mueller Show.
In part because one’s embarrassed for civilization and a lifetime accumulation of (well-educated) North American friends but also because there’s a good chance that all the deflection and confusion generated by a POTUS who is also a celebrity wannabe rich-lister is obscuring a lot of deadly stuff that’s very profitable to some of the planet’s biggest corporate and financial raiders.
However, there were moments when this suspicious hubris hit headlines, even in this distant part of the world where the wildfires and humanitarian crises engulfing the Middle East are a mystery to most of us.
Last year and very suddenly, the Saudis were blockading neighbouring Qatar, supported by Donald Trump. Arms dealers from the Big Five nations (this time Britain) were visible, busy cashing in.
Then, late last month, I was in California’s Monterey. After a day listening to a series of inspirational global conference speakers and then dinner at the bar of the shack-like Sardine Factory restaurant in Cannery Row, I ambled back to the hotel room and found myself, mid evening, with the television remote in my hand.
And I discovered Cable, spending the next half hour spellbound while MSNBC anchor Rachael Maddow laid out a trail of factoids leading as surely as a string of pebbles to the heart of the mystery of Qatar’s blockade.
White House top aide and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner had been followed by persistent allegations he was mixing the needs of his family’s real estate business with conversations about US government policy as a White House advisor.
Then his father pitched to Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund about putting money into the family’s biggest real estate screw-up, a big Manhattan office tower that the Kushner family bought, but couldn’t afford. He was turned down.
Jared made a high level tour in the Middle East (sans security clearance but still in the senior advisor job) and then President Trump, with no warning, came out very strongly against the nation of Qatar. He called the country a supporter of terrorism and applauded the surprise blockade launched against Qatar by neighbouring Middle Eastern states.
Everybody was like “Hey, what now? What just happened?” said Maddow with a sideways grin at the camera. “We’ve got thousands of US military personnel based in Qatar. It’s our biggest outpost in the Middle East. CentCom literally has their headquarters in Qatar.
“Whether you like Qatar as a country or you don’t, even if you can’t quite remember how to pronounce the place, they are an active and important US ally in that region and they have been for some time.”
And there it rested. Until, in April and equally suddenly, the Emir of Qatar was effusively hailed back into the US sphere of approval by a glad-handing Donald Trump who, said Maddow, “called him a ‘friend of mine’. He said he was a great gentleman. He said ‘there are a lot of good things happening. We’re working very well together’.”
Then she interviewed the New York Times journalist who had just broken the story that the sovereign fund investing on behalf of the Qatar government had rethought its refusal to invest in the Kushners’ Manhattan tower, swivelled a wrist over its cheque book and suddenly Qatar and the US were friends again.
By now, Qatar’s only land border and air and sea routes had been cut off by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and the Saudis were reported to be planning a 60km canal along their mutual border – with a dump for nuclear waste nearby.
It was left to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Riyadh on his first overseas trip as the US’s top diplomat, to call off the blockade with the simple message: Enough is enough.
But the unimaginable had just happened, as Morrow said, and this new way of doing things looked remarkably like extortion and foreign policy for sale.
That was just the first segment of that night’s news, and I never did get to see Fox live in its own country. That cable channel – for all its offshore odium – is still top of primetime US figures but has slipped 13 percent in the first quarter of 2018 relative to the first three months of the current presidency (when it set records). MSNBC is at the other end of the political scale and its 1.85 million viewers, though still fewer than Fox’s, is up 30 percent year on year.
The nightly show may go on for some time. • Liz Waters