The Trump administration’s plan to sell nuclear technologies to the Saudi Arabian regime is a case study in the decay of American imperial power, the essential corruption of the Trump White House and the self-serving and reckless character of the military-industrial complex. After two years of this administration, it is shocking, if unsurprising, that President Trump shows flagrant disregard for the law, is hypocritical with regard to his claimed desire to ‘drain the swamp’ of big money lobbying and is enabling the intensified militarisation of great power geopolitical rivalries.
In so doing, Trump has accelerated longer-term trends begun under successive previous presidents since the end of Second World War. He has declared the return of great power global rivalries, with China and Russia as the biggest threats to US power.
But Trump is not alone in this drive to further destabilisation: the Saudis have also shortlisted Russia, China, France and South Korea to bid for nuclear contracts. Russia has already signed nuclear power agreements or understandings with Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. And China’s Belt and Road Initiative features plans to build nuclear plants in dozens of countries on the Silk Road; China has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Armenia and the UK.
There have been reports that Russian and Chinese firms would cooperate with other states’ nuclear plans in West Asia, including Trump’s, but that Obama-era US sanctions on Russia stood in the way. If taken seriously by the numerous investigating bodies focused on the Trump White House, this may well prove to be a key driver of Trump’s relatively non-hostile rhetoric towards President Putin.
But this ramped up cooperative competition for markets and contracts, and other pending arms deals, may also explain the immediate reasons why the Republican president ignored CIA intelligence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered and directed the killing and dismemberment of regime critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The gruesome killing of the journalist – a member of Trump’s “enemy of the people” fake media, as opposed to his supporters at Fox News – could hardly be expected to hold up the brutal jockeying for advantage in the world’s most volatile – and tragic – region.
An interim report by the Democrat Elijah Cummings-chaired House Committee on Oversight and Reform, based largely on credible whistleblower accounts – including emails and other documents from within the White House itself – suggests that Trump and his trusted lieutenants, in particular, Jared Kushner, regardless of legal advice to the contrary, are finalising plans that may violate the Atomic Energy Act 1954, which provides powers to Congress to oversee the sale and use of nuclear technologies.
According to the Cummings committee report, “Under Section 123 of the Act, the U.S. may not transfer nuclear technology to a foreign country without the approval of Congress, in order to ensure that the agreement reached with the foreign government meets nine specific non-proliferation requirements.”
Not only has the Trump administration refused to provide information to Congress on the so-called “Middle East Marshall Plan”, including to GOP senators Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, but it has also apparently ignored its own lawyers’ and ethics advisers’ admonitions to stop the process.
Having unilaterally abrogated the UN-backed nuclear agreement, sanctioned Iran even though it had upheld the agreement and threatened sanctions against states and firms doing business with the country, President Trump now aims to nuclearise the entire region.
Conflicts of interest abound in this matter. Trump acolytes are looking to make billions of dollars by winning fees, commissions and contracts in Saudi Arabia. What is sold as an attempt to make Saudi Arabia less reliant on fossil fuels for revenues, and more secure against regional powers like Iran and Syria, appears to be a rather unsubtle money grab. At the centre of the controversy is IP3 International, a firm whose leadership reads like the membership list of the morally and intellectually bankrupt military-industrial complex. Its name, according to its website, is an abbreviation for ‘international peace, power and prosperity’.
Before digging a little deeper into IP3 International, it’s worth looking at where within the Trump camp this scheme originated and developed. Retired General Michael Flynn’s name is all over this plan. His Flynn Intel Group consultancy is closely linked with IP3 International’s plan to build dozens of nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia and across the Gulf states. Flynn pushed the Saudi plan before and after the 2016 election, once he was named national security adviser and even after he had been dismissed for lying about his discussions with the Russian ambassador about US sanctions; he’s currently awaiting sentencing for lying to the FBI, among other things.
Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, troubleshooter and West Asia peace envoy, has been praising and protecting the Saudi crown prince as some sort of Kemal Ataturk-like visionary set to drag the kingdom and the region into the 21st century. Kushner has links with Westinghouse Electric Company – a nuclear services breakaway from the original Westinghouse Electric Corporation – and its current major shareholder, Brook Asset Management, which is closely linked with IP3 International.
Trump’s inauguration lead and close confidant, Tom Barrack, was reported by the New York Times as having raised investments topping $7 billion since Trump’s nomination, with a quarter of that deriving from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Barrack justified his and the Trump administration’s business dealings with Saudi Arabia by praising the economic vision of the kingdom’s “young, brilliant new leader”. He justified the killing of Khashoggi thus: “Whatever happened in Saudi Arabia, the atrocities in America are equal or worse than the atrocities in Saudi Arabia.” Skullduggery, falsehood and self-interest justified by a self-serving admission of truth, while Trump’s brutal anti-immigrant policies and defence of police killings continue apace.
IP3 International and Flynn Intel Group are core drivers of the programme, as is Colony NorthStar, Tom Barrack’s real estate investment firm. ACU Strategic Partners, led by Alex Copson, is also mentioned in the House interim report.
IP3 International’s leadership team is almost a case study of the military-industrial complex. Of its leadership team of 21, there are five retired US generals and four retired US Navy admirals. Among its three co-founders are General John ‘Jack’ Keane and Robert ‘Bud’ McFarlane. An architect of Reagan’s Star Wars nuclear programme, McFarlane is a convicted felon from the Iran-Contra scandal – found guilty of illegally selling arms to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war to illegally fund the Contras fighting the revolutionary-democratic Sandinista administration in Nicaragua. Congress had banned US aid to the Contras at the time. McFarlane spends some of his time promoting US wars via the Committee on the Present Danger. He is a non-executive director of the British military corporation Aegis Defence Services, which has ‘offices’ across West Asia.
General Keane retired from the military in 2003, became an analyst with Fox News and advised on the US occupation of Iraq. He was an architect, along with Fred Kagan, of the murderous 2007 “surge” in Iraq. Keane is a director of General Dynamics, consultant-advisor for the Erik Prince-founded private military company Blackwater, now called Academi, and executive chair of the Humvee manufacturer AM General.
Finally, ambassador Denis Ross is on IP3 International’s advisory board. Ross, a Democrat, has faithfully served American imperial power for decades – under both Republican and Democratic presidents. IP3 International opens its coffers and serves both parties. Ross is an arch-Zionist, indeed named as such in Walt and Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby as a key supporter of AIPAC. He advised Hillary Clinton on West Asian affairs, and considers the Saudi crown prince a true “revolutionary”.
So much for draining the swamp of big money politics. The rule of law and due process have little meaning for the increasingly fascist Trump administration – the White House just ignored a deadline for the Senate to receive a report on the killing of Khashoggi. In this context, it seems almost quaint to expect Trump’s team to abide by the constitution’s emoluments clause or any code of ethics for governing the world’s most powerful ‘democracy’.
Kushner heads off to West Asia in the final days of this month to continue discussions on the nuclear programmes. President Trump is reported to have attended a meeting on February 12 at the White House with private nuclear corporations including Westinghouse, General Electric, and AECOM, “led by General Keane… ,” according to the congressional report.
The military-industrial complex has made the US government and geopolitical interests inseparable from their own personal and corporate interests. A remarkable March 4, 2017 email from McFarlane to the National Security Council’s Derek Harvey, titled “We’re Very Close to Losing Our Position in the Middle East” and reproduced in the House committee’s interim report, makes this all too clear.
McFarlane notes 30 Russian nuclear agreements or understandings in the region which he claims are “a central element of a much broader Russian plan to dislodge and replace the U.S. as the dominant power in the Middle East”. He emphasises how betrayed the Saudis feel about the (now defunct) Iran nuclear agreement. The US, McFarlane contends, can pre-empt a nuclear arms race between Iran and the Gulf states by building thirty nuclear power plants and restore US leadership in the region.
According to the congressional interim report, one senior official said the proposal to sell nuclear technology and build and operate nuclear reactors – with scant, if any, regard for procedures to prevent weaponisation – was “a scheme for these generals to make some money”.
What’s good for the generals must be good for America?
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London. His twitter handle is @USEmpire.