Jeffrey Goldberg joined me this morning to discuss his astonishing interview with “MbS” –Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman:
HH: My guest is Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic. Good morning, Jeffrey, welcome to the program.
JG: Hey, how are you?
HH: I am great. I want to spend most of my time with you talking about this astonishing interview, but I have to begin, because my producer tells me I have to, by bringing up all my disclosures. Elaina Plott’s a friend of mine, Scott Pruitt’s a friend of mine. My son works at EPA. And I got into a knockdown with Richard Painter about this last night. But Scott…
JG: You’ve got a lot of friends.
HH: I’ve got a lot of friends…
JG: That’s the issue.
HH: And I just, here’s the issue. All of these decisions at the EPA have been reviewed by their chief ethics officer, who is their deputy general counsel, who I don’t know. He’s not my friend. His name is Kevin Minoli. He was appointed by Gina McCarthy. He’s been there since the Year 2000, for 18 years, and he’s been the deputy general counsel since 2014. Is that not relevant to every article about the alleged ethics violation? I don’t think there are any. I think it’s all just a bunch of nonsense. But isn’t that a relevant fact for every article?
JG: I think many facts are relevant for many articles. How is that for a PR answer that avoids the question entirely?
HH: That was not Jeffrey Goldbergesque.
JG: (laughing) Yeah, I know. You know, I think there are a lot of relevant issues that we could bring up in this, but I’m not here to talk about the EPA with you, am I?
HH: Okay, just go back to Elaina and ask her to please look into that one, because it seems important.
JG: You know, she’s a very professional reporter.
HH: Oh, she’s been on my MSNBC show a number of times. She’s very good. It’s just, I think people are missing and attempting to run Pruitt out of town on the basis of rulings made by Gina McCarthy’s ethics officer. It seems relevant to me.
JG: Got it.
HH: I just got done talking to Dr. Michael Oren, who found your article as astonishing as I did. Let’s start with the, by the way, would you set it up? You met with him at the Prince’s house outside of Washington. How long did you spend with him? How surprised were you to get the invitation?
JG: About an hour and a half, not that surprised. I mean, they’re on a charm offensive, or whatever you want to call it. They’re, you know, it’s surprising structurally in the sense that the Saudis have always been extremely wary of the Western media. You know, I told, the Crown Prince said to me, you know, you need to come to Saudi Arabia. I’ve been to Saudi Arabia a couple of times, but with official American, one with Chuck Hagel once, for instance, you know what I mean. But they don’t want, they certainly don’t want a lot of reporters, or having a lot of reporters wandering around. So I said you know, I’ve been trying to go solo for years, but you know, you don’t give me a visa, maybe because I’m Jewish, I don’t know why. And he said no, definitely come. Like they really are in a new mode. He is, I mean, look, he’s a radical departure from every leader in Saudi Arabia’s history in the sense that he’s not 85 years old.
JG: Right? His father is still king, obviously, and his father is not, from what we understand, terribly infirmed, at least by the standards of Saudi royalty, right? But this guy’s in charge, and he’s 32 years old, and he’s in a hurry, you know…
HH: And that’s what, stepping back, a 32 year old has got a 40-50 run at the head of the world’s oil power.
JG: (laughing) Wait, are you sure it’s not an elected position?
HH: You know, it’s sort of like he’s now Xi Jingping and Vladimir Putin and now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
JG: By the way, that sounds, to me, it sounds miserable. Imagine finding out that you have the job that you’re in for the rest of your life. How miserable is that?
HH: Well, I do, and so it is kind of a sobering thing, but he’s 32 years old. And every decision he makes now is going to reverberate through decades of the kingdom.
JG: Right, assuming he succeeds here.
JG: Let’s not make too many assumptions about whether he is clever enough to pull this off, because that is a snake pit.
HH: Let me go back to the most shocking admission or statement he made to you. I believe that Palestinians in the, and this is a quote, I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have a right to their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations. You said you have no religious-based objection to the existence of Israel? The Crown Prince says to you 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, he continued. Our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews. Little jaw-dropping there, Jeffrey Goldberg.
JG: Yeah, I mean, it’s been evolutionary in those people who were paying attention, but still, it’s, to me, it’s a new iteration of a theme that they’re developing. Look, you know, the problem with the perception of a country or a person is that it always lags five to ten years behind whatever the reality might be. You know what I’m saying, right? And so I think this is, this has been evolving in part because Israel and Saudi Arabia have a common enemy – Iran. I mean, Saudi Arabia understands that Israel does not want to harm Saudi Arabia, and the Israelis understand, I mean, they all understand each other, that they don’t pose a threat to each other. Iran is their common threat. ISIS and al Qaeda, obviously, on the Sunni side, the Sunni side of the street, I guess you would call it. And so they see a common tactical interest. The Crown Prince is obsessed with technology, and he understands that Israel is the technology hub of the Middle East, and would like to tap into that. He’s trying to move away from oil revenue as the sole source of income in Saudi Arabia, so it makes sense. What is surprising, I mean, I can’t help it, because I have that same lag that a lot of people do. What’s so surprising is here’s the Crown Prince who will one day have the title guardian or custodian of the two mosques, right, Mecca and Medina. Here’s the guy who sits, the country that’s the birthplace of Islam basically saying yeah, Jews, fine, whatever, you know?
HH: (laughing) Yeah. That’s what, in fact…
JG: It is a little bit, it is like Soviet level in terms of like when the Soviet Union collapsed, you’re like wait, it did what, you know?
JG: And it’s like when the structures of Salafist Islam, of like a fundamentalist core of Islam seem to be weakening in a very, very, very important place, it’s somewhat surprising. I’ll give you that.
HH: I just wish they had this on film, because I would love to, as you just put it, the Jews? What do you think I think about the Jews? They’re doing wonderfully well over there.
JG: Yeah, Jews are fine. Yeah, Jews are fine, you know. I mean, you know, and because he understands, like he has, you have to understand, you can’t, this is why we’re possibly heading toward a kind of a cataclysmic war in the Middle East.
JG: Because the hatred between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the Iranian regime, let me be specific, is so deep, I mean, here’s the guy, here’s the thing that’s surprising to me. He said about the Supreme Leader of Iran that he’s worse than Hitler.
HH: I just quoted that to Oren, yeah.
JG: It’s like, you know, I mean, where do you go from there?
HH: You don’t. You’re done. Full stop. He also…
JG: Yeah, I mean, like you don’t have a negotiation after that.
HH: He stated in your conversation a very coherent view of the world, the triangle of evil, which is Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood and the terrorists – al Qaeda/ISIS. And so he has this three points of a triangle which he views as sort of the evolution of the Axis of Evil. And it was with such clarity, I tweeted the whole thing out last night, because he just said what John Bolton believes and Mike Pompeo believes, and I bet Jim Mattis believes, and Michael Oren believes and the West believes. He just articulated it with a clarity that our leaders sometimes have trouble achieving.
JG: Well, this was the problem that the Saudis had with President Obama, right? Obama said to them, said it to me in an interview a couple years ago that the Sunnis, the Gulf States need to figure out a way to share the Middle East with Iran. And you know, and he was, when I talked to the Crown Prince, he was very respectful toward Obama, but he said look, we have a fundamental disagreement about risk, you know? We cannot, Iran is a revolutionary state. He implied that of course that Saudi Arabia was post-revolutionary in its export of Islam, for instance. And therefore, there’s no, we cannot take that risk. And so you know, he’s aligned himself with the most hawkish elements of this administration, the right wing government in Israel. It’s a fascinating, it’s a fascinating alignment. I mean, when you think about an alliance that includes Donald Trump, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s…
HH: It’s mind-boggling. But he was very clear, Jeffrey.
JG: It would be an interesting dinner party, put it that way.
HH: He was very clear about the nature of the Iranian regime. Then came 1979, he told you, which exploded everything. The Iranian Revolution created a regime based on an ideology of pure evil. He goes on to discuss the nature of the regime. It’s exporting revolution and the idea that the hidden Imam is coming out. So he understands the theological nature of Iran, separates it from other nation states. And here he is telling The Atlantic’s editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, about this in a matter of fact kind of way. And we, we’re not allowed to talk about this in the United States with a great deal of bluntness. It’s sort of prohibited.
JG: Well, we can talk about it. We do talk about it. I mean, there’s no, look, it was President Obama’s State Department that declared Iran to be the primary state sponsor of terrorism in the world. I mean, you know, there are, President Obama made a calculation A) that you could have a nuclear deal that would protect the Middle East from Iranian shenanigans, right?
HH: He thought he could change the nature of the regime.
JG: And in exchange for that, they would get certain things, and at least he would…
HH: Do you agree that President Obama thought he could change the nature of the Iranian regime?
JG: I don’t necessarily, because all I know is what he told me and what he’s told others, which he says I’m not banking on that. What he, in his, I think there were people around him who thought yeah, the openness will lead to moderation.
JG: I don’t know if he, maybe he had that hope, but I think he was very analytical and also obsessed with nuclear control treaties and thought to himself, all right, even if these guys are good, fine. And they’ll become more moderate. If they’re really the bad guys that people in the Middle East tell me they are, then at least I’ll keep nukes out of their hands for another ten years.
HH: And we can debate that, but I want to finish by talking about the clarity with which the Crown Prince described the Middle East. He says, “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.”
HH: I think that is realism, Jeffrey Goldberg, in a way that perhaps Americans aren’t used to hearing it put.
JG: No, you know, the problem for Americans in the Middle East is that we refract everything through our American good guy/bad guy, Gary Cooper prism, right?
JG: Like if there’s a bad guy, there has to be a good guy. In the Middle East, and by the way, around much of the world, there are bad guys and ever worse guys. And I mean, this is the story in Syria, obviously. It’s the story in Yemen. You know, nobody’s going to confuse the Saudis for, you know, the Saudi way of governance with a Vermont town meeting, right? The question is you know, when faced with a choice, a binary choice, Iran dominating the Middle East or Saudi Arabia dominating the Middle East, American policy makers have to reach certain conclusions, and also, by the way, sometimes hold their noses. That’s the argument for full-throated support of Saudi Arabia. But this is not a, this is not a controversy that we can settle. The other problem is that it’s become very partisan in America, which is to say that it seems that if more and more Republicans are siding with Saudi Arabia, and more and more Democrats are if not siding with Iran, I don’t want to say that, but are more open to good relations with Iran and hypercritical of Saudi Arabia. It’s very interesting the way it reflects.
HH: That’s a fair statement. That’s a fair statement. Michael Oren closed by, we were talking about in your article, in your article, the Crown Prince sounds almost wistful about Israeli technology. And Michael said what if we married Israeli technology and Saudi Arabian capital? Do you see any chance of that happening, Jeffrey Goldberg?
JG: Well, I think Benjamin Netanyahu is missing an opportunity here. I think some give on some questions would allow this under the table relationship between Israel and many, many Arab states to come to the top of the table or however you want to put it, which is to say a little give would go a long way, and then you would have this alliance that stretches from Morocco through Egypt to Israel and Jordan, and into the Gulf States. That’s the alliance. Israel is an important member of the alliance. But it’s the only member of that alliance that can’t actually acknowledge the existence of that alliance.
HH: Wow. Wow. Congratulations, it’s a great piece.
HH: I think everyone ought to read it. I think it’s going to go down as one of the more significant interviews of the last many years. Jeffrey Goldberg from The Atlantic, thank you for joining me.
JG: Thank you very much.
End of interview.