Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
October 28, 2013

Vali Nasr - Wrong Premise, Bad Advice

Vali R. Nasr is the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. In an op-ed in the New York times he writes:
The coup last July in Egypt opened a new divide in the Middle East, alienating the Gulf monarchies from the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a momentous change in the region’s strategic landscape that promises to influence governments and regional alliances for years to come.

For six decades, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood were comrades in arms. Theirs was an Islamic alliance, formed in the 1950s to defend against the secular Arab nationalism that Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had unleashed. The alliance survived the end of that ideology, and since the 1980s it had defended the Sunni claim to Islamic leadership against the Shiite challenge from Iran.

How wrong is it necessary to be to stay in such a prestige job?

While the Saudis have at times financed some parts of the Brotherhood and used them internationally when convenient, like sending them out against the Soviets in Afghanistan, while suppressing them in Saudi Arabia. There never was a major alliance between them and they were certainly never "comrades in arms". It is, and has always been, a serious danger to the Saudi family regime. At least since the early 1990s the Saudi regime sees the Brotherhood as one of its major foes.  The "new divide" Nasr sees is  nothing new but is decades old. 

From a long 2004 piece on the Brotherhood:

The Brotherhood began to fall out of favor with the Saudis in 1990, when the Ikhwan backed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Kuwait. The Saudis slowly cut off funding.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Saudi leaders began describing the transnational Brotherhood as the germ of al Qaeda while playing down the role of its government-backed clergy. Recently, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef repeatedly denounced the Brotherhood, saying it is guilty of "betrayal of pledges and ingratitude" and is "the source of all problems in the Islamic world."

From his wrong premise Nasr argues that the U.S. should meddle more in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan and through economic help somehow miraculously create coalitions of secular democrats with "willing elements of the Muslim Brotherhood" in these countries. That he says would then somehow cure the current rift with the Saudis.

Does that sound confused? That is likely because it is confused. Nasr, despite being a so called Middle East expert, seems not to understand the basic history, believes and interests of the various powers in the Middle East. Vali Nasr is a member of the State Department's Foreign Affairs Policy Board. He is one of the reasons why U.S. Middle East policy is a chaos.

Posted by b on October 28, 2013 at 02:53 PM | Permalink


The problem with international relations programs in US universities is that they have a vested interest in urging the US to meddle in other nations. It creates programs that they and their students can gain employment. I think their incompetence is deliberate -- it helps create the crises that then provide them with the jobs. Vali Nasr worked for a few years in Afghanistan and he wrote a long article on that experience. What a muddled piece that one was.

Posted by: ToivoS | Oct 28, 2013 3:30:30 PM | 1

"....Nasr, despite being a so called Middle East expert, seems not to understand the basic history, beliefs and interests of the various powers in the Middle East. Vali Nasr is a member of the State Department's Foreign Affairs Policy Board. He is one of the reasons why U.S. Middle East policy is a chaos."

Which is good news for the enemies of empire: the more corrupt and chaotic that US policy is the sooner those behind it will fall. This is either a classic example of hubris, or an indication of the utter contempt in which the US government holds public opinion which is fed complete pig swill.

Posted by: bevin | Oct 28, 2013 4:11:26 PM | 2

This is the reason all of USGovs foreign policy initiatives create so many problems. These hamfisted experts and their NGO's and causes destabilize other countries and they try to create mini-Americas. The country ends up looking like the USA today corrupt and with do nothing politicians who can't do a damn thing. Respect other countries sovereignty, it's people's customs and traditions cual regio cual religio.

Posted by: Fernando | Oct 28, 2013 4:19:45 PM | 3

I think that Vali Nasr's views and those of the Saudis are rubbish, and could easily change tomorrow. Vali Nasr necessarily changes his views according to the situation; he is an academic in America. The Saudis are in internal conflict. Bandar has made a policy, but it is not necessarily accepted. No doubt much to with an imminent change of regime when Abdullah dies.

Posted by: alexno | Oct 28, 2013 4:53:23 PM | 4

Vali Nasr is the mainstream media's "public intellectual" of choice when it comes to Iran and Shia Islam in general. His book The Shia Revival made the New York Times bestseller list. I've seen him a few times interviewed on The PBS News Hour and he struck me as having perfected the foreign policy pundit art of monotonously speaking word after torpid word without saying a single thing.

Posted by: Mike Maloney | Oct 28, 2013 5:05:22 PM | 5

'For six decades, Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood were comrades in arms. Theirs was an Islamic alliance, formed in the 1950s to defend against the secular Arab nationalism that Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had unleashed. The alliance survived the end of that ideology, and since the 1980s it had defended the Sunni claim to Islamic leadership against the Shiite challenge from Iran.'

middle east version of the Evil Empire: these guys are the ones behind so much of the backwardness and violence in middle east

Posted by: brian | Oct 28, 2013 5:19:04 PM | 6

Consilium, the Second Part of the Current New left Review (83) by Perry Anderson, is devoted to analysing the Foreign Policy analysts in the United States. It begins thus:

"In the American intellectual landscape, the literature of grand strategy forms a domain of its own, distinct from diplomatic history or political science, though it may occasionally draw on these. Its sources lie in the country’s security elite, which extends across the bureaucracy and the academy to foundations, think-tanks and the media. In this milieu, with its emplacements in the Council on Foreign Relations, the Kennedy School in Harvard, the Woodrow Wilson Center in Princeton, the Nitze School at Johns Hopkins, the Naval War College, Georgetown University, the Brookings and Carnegie Foundations, the Departments of State and of Defense, not to speak of the National Security Council and the CIA, positions are readily interchangeable, individuals moving seamlessly back and forth between university chairs or think-tanks and government offices, in general regardless of the party in control of the Administration.

"This amphibious environment sets output on foreign policy apart from the scholarship of domestic politics, more tightly confined within the bounds of a professional discipline and peer-review machinery, where it speaks mainly to itself. The requirements of proficiency in the discourse of foreign policy are not the same, because of a two-fold difference of audience: office-holders on the one hand, an educated public on the other. This body of writing is constitutively advisory, in a sense stretching back to the Renaissance—counsels to the Prince. Rulers tolerate no pedants: what advice they receive should be crisp and uncluttered. In contemporary America, they have a relay below them which values an accessible éclat for reasons of its own. Think-tanks, of central importance in this world, dispense their fellows from teaching; in exchange, they expect a certain public impact—columns, op-eds, talk-shows, best-sellers—from them: not on the population as a whole, but among the small, well-off minority that takes an interest in such matters. The effect of this dual calling is to produce a literature that is less scholarly, but freer and more imaginative—less costive—than its domestic counterpart.

"The contrast is also rooted in their fields of operation. Domestic politics is of far greater interest, to many more Americans, than diplomacy. But the political system at home is subject only to slow changes over time, amid repeated institutional deadlock of one kind or another. It is a scene of much frustration, rare excitement. The American imperial system, by contrast, is a theatre of continual drama—coups, crises, insurgencies, wars, emergencies of every kind; and there, short of treaties which have to pass the legislature, no decision is ever deadlocked. The executive can do as it pleases, so long as the masses—a rare event: eventually Korea or Vietnam; marginally Iraq—are not startled awake by some unpopular setback. [1] In this enormous zone of potential action, the advisory imagination can roam—run riot, even—with a liberty impossible at home. Whatever the results, naturally various, there is no mistaking the greater intellectual energy that foreign policy attracts in the thought-world of the Beltway and its penumbra."

Posted by: bevin | Oct 28, 2013 10:30:35 PM | 7

aren't u supposed to recommend "meddling" when yer looking for a job promotion in the us state dept foreign affairs dept?

Posted by: james | Oct 28, 2013 11:38:35 PM | 8

Saudi suicide Oct 28, 2013

Meyssen's deductions are usually interesting and often get closer to the ultimate realities than the wishful thinking of many paid pundits.

Posted by: Hoarsewhisperer | Oct 29, 2013 1:25:05 AM | 9

qataris have a sense of humor: state run Aljazeera complains chinese media takes its marching orders from the state:

'Chinese media outlets are known to receive direct instructions from the government directing their reporting of events deemed threatening by the ruling Communist party, which in recent months has moved to tighten controls over all forms of media.'

this could have been written by US state dept flacks
the Uigurs in the story have members currently waging Jihad in syria

Posted by: brian | Oct 29, 2013 2:54:32 AM | 10

I disagree with the major premise of this article. The MBs were indeed a Saudi auxiliary for decades. Said Aburish nailed it in his book on Nasser (pp 96, 113, 126, 133, 141):

In 1956, the British established contact with the Muslim Brotherhood aimed at overthrowing Nasser … The only success the British propaganda machine achieved was to entice the Muslim Brotherhood to direct broadcasts against Nasser from Cyprus and to accuse him of dragging Egypt “into an abyss.” This was the one thing Nasser feared most; he was convinced that Eden would use the Brotherhood’s network within Egypt to carry out a coup against him. But the nationalisation of the canal was so popular that even the Muslim Brotherhood suffered because it opposed it. Later the pro-Nasser Arab employees of British Broadcasting in Cyprus walked out in protest against London’s policies, and the station, which was financed by the Foreign Office and was not part of the BBC, had to run a reduced service … Later still, (but only briefly) the CIA funded a Muslim Brotherhood office in Geneva, the Islamic Center, which was entrusted with the planning of Nasser’s assassination, codenamed Operation SI/PONY. According to former CIA regional director James Critchfield, Kamal Adham, head of Saudi intelligence and Faisal’s brother-in-law, was a key player in this operation. SI/PONY was aborted at the last minute because the decision on how to assassinate Nasser kept changing. On one occasion the protagonist was arrested, a second would-be assassin failed, and the third gave up … The US prevailed on Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria to give refuge to the Muslim Brotherhood and on Saudi Arabia to give the Brotherhood money. Once secret, these facts about the Brotherhood were revealed in a television interview by Tariq Ramadan in Nov 2001. In fact, for thirty years the Brotherhood was the only legal political party in Jordan, and for most of this time it was the beneficiary of US support. Some of the militant Islamic groups operating in Jordan today go back to that period … It is well to note that in Africa, Israel could count on the support of the Brotherhood against Nasser (Dr Zaki Badawi, interview, London, Jun 2000).

(pp 256-7, 303, 265)

In 1964, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a fatwa against Arab nationalism that condoned the idea of assassinating Nasser. A year later it almost succeeded. And at the outbreak of the 1967 War Egypt was still recovering from the most serious attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow the Nasser government. There were numerous attempts, according to Heikal at least fourteen, including an ambitious one to blow up the Alexandria-Cairo train carrying Nasser. At one point during its campaign the Brotherhood did manage to blow up sixteen bridges. The Brotherhood went further and recruited members of Nasser’s Special Forces. Saudi Arabia acted as financial backer, and the Saudi government and the CIA were cosponsors of the Brotherhood and other Islamists. Saudi Arabia managed to smuggle light arms through the Sudan to the Brotherhood’s Special Apparatus. The US-Islamist alliance created an odd situation which was to repeat itself in later US dealings with Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Then as now the Americans were acting against Arab leaders who exploited popular Islam against the political Islam backed by the House of Saud, the CIA, and the State Department. Even with Qutb’s books and other writings available to everybody and advocating an unmistakably anti-American Islam, the Americans saw Nasser as more immediately dangerous to their Middle East position and so backed the Islamists against him. The same shortsightedness led the Americans to support Osama bin Laden years later. By the end of the 1960s, US financial aid to the Brotherhood had reached unprecedented levels, with tens of millions of dollars transferred into the Swiss bank account of Said Ramadan, the Brotherhood’s supreme guide. Saudi Arabia joined the US in this policy, and King Hussein of Jordan succumbed to American pressure and provided the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood with logistical support, which included giving them diplomatic passports … Feisal of Saudi Arabia and Hussein of Jordan cooperated more with, and contributed more toward the growth of Islamic fundamentalism than any other leaders in modern Arab history.

Posted by: Rowan Berkeley | Oct 29, 2013 4:37:49 AM | 11

54 millions stolen. Enough to entertain a bunch of djihadists for the next century.

Posted by: Mina | Oct 29, 2013 7:20:14 AM | 12

What you cite, Rowan @11, is both correct and salutary. But in a sense this confirms b's conclusion that US policy in the middle east is chaotic and long has been.
The source of the chaos is to be found in the Machiavelli-by-Committee ruthlessness which leads to the frenetic making and breaking of alliances.
Essentially the thinking has been: Nasserism is preferable to Communism, but the Brotherhood is preferable to Nasserism and better than all of these is Mubarakism. Best of all is Mubarakism refreshed by the ritual defenestration of the old Mubarak and his replacement by a shining new unspotted neo-liberal military dictator called Sisi.
The essence of these policies is the maintenance of instability-chaos is a feature not a bug- because the reality is that any Egyptian government, whether it be Khedivist, Communist, Ikhwani or liberal democratic, will, once it becomes stable and independent, turn against Israel.

One area in which the Brotherhood, the Saudis, the British, Israel and their Uncle Sam co-operated notably, was in the Yemen in support of the "royalist" reaction to the Nasser supported secular government in the early sixties.

Posted by: bevin | Oct 29, 2013 10:36:21 AM | 13

Yes, Yemen seems to have been the first provable instance of covert Saudi-Israeli cooperation.

Posted by: Rowan Berkeley | Oct 29, 2013 10:53:07 AM | 14

vali nasr another tv mouther:

paid to deceive, mislead, disinform, and use his persian pedigree as proof of his wisdom.

Posted by: delta | Oct 29, 2013 3:26:25 PM | 15

the sauds certainly have their political beliefs but i doubt they do much without sponsorship, persuasion - england then now zionized usa.

bandar could be in some sort of shell shock/ptsd from his deserved syrian treatment.

anyway, his fits if that's what they are are probably coordinated/choreographed with everybody's boss israel.

"this is netanyahoo, give me your ear."

Posted by: delta | Oct 29, 2013 3:32:10 PM | 16

Rowan is right re 11, that the Ikhwan and Saudi were allied in the past.

I don't think one can accuse Vali Nasr of being ignorant of the Middle Eastern situation, prejudiced maybe. More he is a survivor, a careerist who will say anything in order to improve his situation.

I would think that the separation of Saudi and the Ikhwan may be temporary. They have much in common, and one could imagine in the future another somersault, and they're allied again.

The problem at the moment is the confused position in Saudi. The King is aged, and probably senile. The princes fight for the succession. Bandar has launched an aggressive foreign policy. But it is not certain that he is wholly supported. The failure to take up the Security Council place sounds like he did not win that one.

The question must be: does an aggressive foreign policy pose too many dangers for the survival of the Saudi regime? I am sure there are many princes who fear that a jihadist victory in Syria (and Iraq) might lead to blow-back on Saudi Arabia.

They are right. A quietist policy would be safer, but the Saudis are obsessed by the problem of the Shi'a population of the Eastern Province, who happen to be sitting on the oil-wells. No concession can be offered, all Saudis are agreed. Saudi is Wahhabi Sunnism; start to admit that the Shi'a have rights means the danger of losing their resources. The situation could be described as one of colonialism. They conquered the Eastern Province in the 1920s. The position is quite similar to that of the French in Algeria: declared an integral part of the homeland, the Saudis will fight to the end to retain the territory.

It should not be forgotten that Saudi is a mosaic of different territories conquered by Ibn Saud in the 1920s and 1930s. The Sunni regions seem mostly happy to go along with the regime. The hot spots are the Shi'a in the east, and the Yemenis in the southwest. The southwest doesn't have much chance, but the Shi'a of the east could go for independence, if they have sense. And they are sitting on Saudi's oil-wells. Not surprising that Saudi sentiment goes ballistic.

So we are where we are: choose Bandar's aggressive foreign policy, or that of the quietists? Which is more likely to calm the Eastern province? I would say neither.

A more pluralist policy is required, if Saudi Arabia is to remain united. Unlikely with the Saudi dynasty. Nevertheless, most of Saudi Arabia is a logical entity, and it would be wrong to break it up. With exception of the Eastern Province, which unfortunately has all the oil.

Posted by: alexno | Oct 29, 2013 5:47:11 PM | 17

I think that the Saudis should not only take over as primary funder of "democracy" in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, etc., but ISRAEL too!!!
save me a lot of money, and what it would do for "homeland" security....!
but that kind of brilliance won't get me an op-ed space in the NY Times, let alone a column...

Posted by: anon | Oct 29, 2013 9:33:00 PM | 18

Meyssan, who is sometimes right, thinks the Saudis are "committing suicide":

Posted by: Rowan Berkeley | Oct 30, 2013 4:35:40 AM | 19

Alexno @17

I am sure there are many princes who fear that a jihadist victory in Syria (and Iraq) might lead to blow-back on Saudi Arabia.

Or the opposite?
I suspect a (large?) part of the ruling plutocracy in SA wasn't too enthusiast about the Bandar ways. A defeat for the jihadist in Syria means those who survive will come back “home” to SA where they could threaten the stability of the regime. A victory on the other side would see the jihadis embolden and possibly take their “crusade” further East (Irak) and North (the Caucasus) - or stay in Syria. But anyway stay out of SA.

Agree with the rest of your post, though.

PS - United States eyes a Shi'ite-led West Asia at ATOL is an interesting alternate view on global mess in the Middle East.

Posted by: Philippe | Oct 30, 2013 9:00:10 AM | 20

The comments to this entry are closed.