A trio of top players: MBS, Pelosi and Trump

| October 31, 2020 | 0 Comments
Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, was never supposed to become the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, yet today, he is its de facto ruler, whose character seems to be made up of equal parts genuine desire to modernize and ruthless authoritarianism. (Photo: U.S. Department of State)

Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, was never supposed to become the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, yet today, he is its de facto ruler, whose character seems to be made up of equal parts genuine desire to modernize and ruthless authoritarianism. (Photo: U.S. Department of State)

MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman
Ben Hubbard
Tim Duggan Books, Random House, 2020
384 pages
Hardcover: $36.63
Kindle: $17

At one point in early adulthood, Mohammed bin Salman, now the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, coveted land from a man who would not sell it, so he demanded that the cleric in charge of the land registry simply sign the property over to him. When the cleric refused this illegal transaction, the young prince “sent him an envelope with a bullet in it,” writes author Ben Hubbard. It was an early example of what was to come as the young Saudi began climbing the family ladder toward ultimate power.
MBS, as he is often called, was never supposed to become the crown prince. Yet today he is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, a powerful and divisive figure whose character seems made up of equal parts genuine desire to modernize and ruthless authoritarianism.
Because he was dozens of rungs down the ladder of succession (the sixth son of the 25th son of the king who founded Saudi Arabia, to be exact), little is known about the young MBS. Unlike his many relatives in the constantly proliferating House of Saud, “he never ran a company that made a mark. He never acquired military experience. He never studied at a foreign university. He never mastered, or even became functional, in a foreign language,” Hubbard writes. But in a conservative kingdom, he was an early adopter of modern technology and social media. And, says Hubbard, “his deep understanding of the kingdom and its society would enable him to successfully execute moves that few thought possible.”
By sheer chance — a series of deaths over time of key figures inside the royal family, MBS’s father, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, became king in 2015. The young MBS had been close to him, and King Salman granted him important portfolios, including defence and the chairmanship of the massive oil company, Saudi Aramco. The crown prince, though, was his uncle, Mohammed bin Nayef.
Early in 2016, the kingdom announced a crackdown on corruption, including 47 executions. Then came an announcement that Aramco would be modernized through a share offer. MBS, already consolidating power, had begun to weave a narrative about a modern Saudi Arabia based on transparency and ending corruption. He had some of the world’s most prestigious business experts create a reform document called Vision 2030. He stripped the religious police of most of their repressive powers while courting “young, tech-savvy clerics.” He dazzled global high-flyers from Richard Branson of the Virgin Group to Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. He met with Tim Cook at Apple and Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook. He began loosening social and entertainment restrictions inside the kingdom, recognizing that young, educated Saudis could not live contentedly in the “excruciatingly boring” kingdom of his elders. He also became good friends with Jared Kushner (“the two princelings,” Hubbard calls them).
In keeping with the over-the-top spending habits of Saudi royals, and his own growing wealth and influence, MBS bought one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated yachts — for $456 million — and the “world’s most expensive house”: a French château with a gold-leafed fountain and a moat of glass walls.
And he tolerated, for a time, the mild criticism of a Saudi journalist named Jamal Khashoggi.
But MBS clearly wanted more, and he began with unceremoniously forcing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef to renounce his position — by having him arrested, withholding his diabetes medication and refusing him food until he signed away his title to his nephew. MBS would later try unsuccessfully to force out the prime minister of a sovereign nation — Lebanon — through much the same method, kidnapping and roughing him up. He began a destructive, bloody bombardment of Yemen. He purged dozens of Saudi princes who could be potential threats to his power.
Yet, having charmed so many in the West, he was indulged by world leaders because of his goal of modernization — until the Khashoggi affair.
The gruesome death of Khashoggi, killed by Saudi agents inside the Saudi embassy in Ankara, Turkey, in 2018, where he was likely suffocated and his body dismembered, reverberated worldwide, perhaps for the first time illustrating to those outside Saudi circles the ruthlessness of the MBS machine. The fact that Khashoggi, while criticizing some Saudi policies, was never a dissident in the traditional sense and never called for the overthrow of the regime, made not a jot of difference to MBS: He had to go.
While the CIA concluded that MBS “likely ordered the crime,” the Trump regime took only minimal punitive action, sanctioning 17 individual Saudis. But others disassociated themselves from the bloody policies of MBS. To the world, Hubbard writes, “Khashoggi’s killing was a wake-up call. In a few weeks, it flushed away much of the goodwill and excitement that MBS had spent the last four years generating.” (A lawsuit launched this summer by a former Saudi spymaster who lives in Canada and maintains MBS tried to assassinate him, too, suggests that the Khashoggi killing was hardly a one-off idea.)
But how much does world opinion matter to MBS? By his 34th birthday in 2019, the crown prince had “eliminated his rivals, extended his control over the essential organs of the Saudi state and solidified his position as the kingdom’s undisputed centre of power.”
Now, Hubbard writes, the question is whether his bloody purges of enemies are “the youthful acts of an inexperienced ruler … Or do they spring from deeper in his character?” The world will likely have decades to find out.

After U.S. President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Democrats realized that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not a ”relic of the past,“ but rather, an experienced and savvy leader who would work hard to keep the administration honest. (Photo: U.S. Department of Labor)

After U.S. President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, Democrats realized that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was not a ”relic of the past,“ but rather, an experienced and savvy leader who would work hard to keep the administration honest. (Photo: U.S. Department of Labor)

By Molly Ball
Publisher: Henry Holt and Company, 2020
Pages: 336 pages
Kindle: $16
Hardcover: $27.88

When Nancy Pelosi was first elected to the U.S. Congress in 1987, there were only 23 other women in the 435-member House of Representatives. None of the significant House committees was chaired by a woman, and there wasn’t even a women’s washroom near the House floor.
The U.S. Congress in the Reagan-era 1980s was still very much an old boys’ club, where, even within the Democratic Party, women’s opinions were rarely sought and not particularly respected. Instead, as author Molly Ball writes of the political environment of the day, “the men were always winking, cracking jokes, laughing at (women) … Behaviour that today would be considered sexual harassment was rampant and unremarkable.”
This is the backdrop against which Nancy Pelosi rose from junior congresswoman to Speaker of the House of Representatives – one of the most powerful political jobs in the U.S. While today we sometimes take for granted that, in democracies, women can win any position (Canada has a female deputy prime minister; Germany a female chancellor, for example), Pelosi’s story is a reminder that gender still matters in the halls of power.
Born into a political family — her father was a multi-term Democratic congressman and mayor of Baltimore — young Nancy watched as her five brothers were raised and groomed to enter politics. She married straight out of college and had five children of her own. Her husband’s successful career in finance took her first to New York, then to San Francisco, and the family was comfortably well off.
In fact, because they owned the biggest house among their circle, Pelosi hosted frequent fundraisers for the Democrats, honing skills that would serve her well later on: “the ability to seek and return favours, the ability to flatter the egos of larger numbers of people who believe themselves very important” and so on, Ball writes. Pelosi developed deep contacts inside and outside the party, having learned from her father that “a politician’s job is to help anyone who asks.” Eventually she chaired the California Democratic Party. She had a flair for organization and strategy, and she was the only one apparently surprised when she was tapped to run for Congress in 1987. She was 47.
From the start, Ball writes, Pelosi was determined to pursue a progressive, liberal agenda regardless of what the boys thought. She campaigned to help AIDS victims at a time when American politicians still shied away from discussing the “gay disease,” let alone the rights of homosexuals. She took a vocal stand against the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, railing about China’s human rights record, even as Democratic president Bill Clinton worked to regularize trade policy with Beijing.
Pelosi also turned out to be a veritable money machine (after two years in Congress, she was the leading Democratic fundraiser in the House, a skill that can never be underestimated in U.S. politics). In 2001, she was elected House minority whip, and a year later became minority House leader. “She was the only woman ever to be part of a meeting between the president of the United States and the leaders of the legislative branch,” Ball notes.
Pelosi’s big strength, aside from her astonishing fundraising prowess (she brought in $7 million for the 2002 congressional races), was her ability to count the votes accurately, negotiate with everyone and anyone and trade favours with congressional representatives from both sides of the floor in order to move legislation through. She was, as one fan put it, not ideological, but “operational.” Her style, Ball writes, was to be over-prepared, hyper-attentive to detail and “decisive to a fault.” She was also a rather wooden speaker. She distrusted the press and had “a tendency to hold grudges.”
And she could sometimes send mixed messages, as in her stance on the invasion of Iraq by George W. Bush. While she opposed the war, she tried to walk a line by still supporting the troops. “The distinction may have been clear in her mind, but it came off as contradictory,” Ball writes.
Under Pelosi’s leadership, the Democrats finally took control of the House of Representatives in 2006 — making her the first female Speaker of the House in U.S. history. Just two years later, Barack Obama was elected president. One might think the feisty female House leader and the ground-breaking black president would hit it off. But according to Ball, they did not.
Obama, she writes, seemed to feel little need to work with Pelosi, having run as a Washington outsider who, naïvely, thought he would build consensus across party lines. Pelosi, on the other hand, felt that with Democrats controlling both Congress and the presidency, the time had come to get things done. But, the White House “seemed to want to get its way on policy without taking any responsibility for the legislation itself.” Obama, in other words, would take the glory, but the fights on the floor, the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, and the inevitable and occasional failures — all would rest at the House leader’s feet. When, after bitter battles, health care reform finally made it through the Byzantine process that is American politics, many thought the credit should have gone to Pelosi, not Obama.
The Obama presidency, Ball writes, was “a Groundhog Day cycle of crisis” featuring “marginalized Democrats, recalcitrant Republicans, a White House unwilling or unable to strategize around them … and a government that could barely keep the lights on.” Pelosi, who at this stage in her career had a long track record of successfully working both sides of the House, “was still routinely cast aside.”
Throughout the Obama years, and becoming much worse under the Donald Trump presidency, Pelosi would endure outrageous personal attacks. The GOP, for instance, began an online fundraising campaign called FireNancyPelosi.com, featuring an image of her raising her fists against a background of flames. “Fire Pelosi” yard signs and ball caps were sold to Republican supporters. During one election cycle, Republicans aired more than 160,000 anti-Pelosi advertisements, at a cost of $70 million. Even Obama insiders failed to respect her. “Behind her back, they called her ‘Nasty P‘,” Ball writes.
By 2016, Pelosi, now in her mid-70s, was seen by many within her own party as “a relic of the past.” Then Donald Trump won the presidency, and it did not take long for Democrats, and many Americans, to appreciate that there was at least an experienced and savvy Democratic House leader to try to keep the Republican president and his administration honest. Pelosi held on to her job, and the Democrats won the House in 2018, though the GOP spent more than $100 million on ads attacking Pelosi personally during the campaign.
In Ball’s telling, Pelosi’s own reputation as an ossified Miss BossyPants turned around during the federal government budget shutdown of Christmas 2018. Trump demanded money to build his wall on the Mexican border; the Democrats stood firmly against it, saying that if he wanted to keep government running, he would have to forget funding for the wall. A frustrated Trump told Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer that he would take responsibility himself for the looming shutdown. Pelosi had manoeuvred him into taking the blame. Appearing at a press conference later, wearing a rust-red coat and sunglasses, she was “the coolly collected woman who’d flustered the raging president without breaking a sweat,” says Ball. With that image, Pelosi “went from bogeyman to icon.”
How is Pelosi seen today? The author admits that, on starting research for the book, she did not expect to find Pelosi “particularly compelling.” But the Speaker’s story, she concludes — one of standing up to men and wielding power alongside them to do good for the U.S. — is “extraordinary.”

Former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton’s book is a wince-inducing chronology of ineptitude, infighting and psychological dysfunction in the White house. (Photo: White house)

Former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton’s book is a wince-inducing chronology of ineptitude, infighting and psychological dysfunction in the White house. (Photo: White house)

The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir
John Bolton
Simon & Schuster, 2020
592 pages
Hardcover: $30
Audio book: $55.84
Kindle: $17

If you were a loyal adviser to China’s Xi Jinping, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, you would have given your boss a copy of John Bolton’s book the day it was published. It is a savage recounting of Donald Trump’s incoherent attempts at foreign and security policy — useful insight for anyone facing off with the U.S. over, say, global trade, terrorism or nuclear disarmament.
For the rest of us, The Room Where It Happened is yet another wince-inducing chronology of ineptitude, infighting and psychological dysfunction in the White House. Bolton views events through the unique lens of the national security portfolio, and given what he relates, it’s no wonder the White House tried to stop publication of this memoir.
Bolton’s title is apt: For a year and a half, the former UN ambassador and hawkish veteran of the Reagan and two Bush administrations struggled to manage security hot potatoes for the president, meeting regularly with Trump and other top cabinet officials face to face. “Trump’s favourite way to proceed was to get small armies of people together, either in the Oval [Office] or the Roosevelt Room, to argue out all these complex, controversial issues. Over and over again, the same issues. Without resolution, or even worse, one outcome one day and a contrary outcome a few days later. The whole thing made my head hurt,” Bolton writes. It’s one of his more flattering observations.
In Bolton’s telling, indecision, inconsistency and emotion marked Trump’s every major security decision. Take the Iran drone attack, for instance. Trump had triumphantly withdrawn the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by Barack Obama, but when Iran began attacking tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the president hesitated to act. Then Iran shot down a U.S surveillance drone, reportedly in international air space. The president’s senior military, security and foreign policy advisers, including Bolton, agreed the U.S. should strike back in a “proportional” way, targeting three sites along Iran’s coast. Trump enthusiastically approved. The strike was set for 9 p.m. one evening.
Instead, Trump called it off at 7:30 because, he told Bolton by phone, a White House official had suggested there might be 150 Iranian casualties. Nobody knew where that number had come from but the president was worried about TV images of body bags. “The figures were almost certainly conjectural, but Trump wasn’t listening,” writes Bolton. “There was no explaining to be done.” There was also no immediate retaliation against Iran, no message sent. Trump’s pattern was to talk a tough game, but seldom follow through.
Trump was also given to foreign policy rambles whenever officials tried to focus him on one issue. For example, he wanted American troops out of Afghanistan (indeed, he wanted them out of just about everywhere) and had authorized Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to start negotiations on this. But during a typical meeting on the topic, described by Bolton, the president first confused the current Afghan president with the former one, then “repeated one of his hobbyhorses, namely that it was cheaper to rebuild the World Trade Centre than to fight in Afghanistan, inconveniently ignoring the loss of life in the 9/11 attacks.
“The discussion meandered around for a while, with Trump asking me why we were fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, but not Venezuela,” Bolton continues. Then the president complained about Congress’s refusal to fund the Mexican border wall. Then he wondered “Why are we in Africa?” In another meeting on Afghanistan, Trump criticized U.S. military programs in Africa, dissed the 2018 NATO summit, denounced the ongoing U.S.-South Korea war games, touched on security in Greenland, threatened to pull U.S. troops out of Germany, switched to the situation in Kashmir. Focus, in other words, was nigh impossible to attain.
Much has been written about Trump’s belief that he is a master negotiator, that only he can get a deal done — and that it will happen in dramatic, TV-friendly fashion. This mentality was behind his desire to meet in person with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore. “I want to go. It will be great theatre,” he told a highly skeptical Bolton. And perhaps it was. But it didn’t move North Korea one inch on renouncing nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, Trump seemed smitten with Kim. By the time of a second summit, in Hanoi, both sides were frustrated no meaningful nuclear deal was yet at hand and they argued over a final communiqué. Kim, looking clearly unhappy, “lamented that he felt a barrier between the two leaders, and felt a sense of despair. Kim was smartly playing on Trump’s emotions and I worried it might work,” Bolton writes. “Trump said he wanted Kim to be happy. No words for that.”
China’s Xi also knew how to play the president. The Chinese company ZTE had broken American law by violating U.S. trade sanctions with Iran and North Korea and had been successfully prosecuted by U.S. justice. Violations had continued, however, which could mean significant fines for ZTE, and cutting it off from the U.S. market. When Xi raised this personally with Trump, the president said he had told his officials to “work something out for China.” Xi replied that if that happened, he would owe Trump a favour. Later, before a G20 meeting in Osaka, Trump talked to Xi by phone about the next presidential election, says Bolton, “alluding to China’s capability to affect the ongoing campaigns, pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win … He stressed the importance of farmers, and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome.” Trump also wanted a trade deal with the Chinese, and Xi was amenable to restarting talks. Gushed Trump: “You’re the greatest Chinese leader in 300 years!” He amended it a few minutes later to “the greatest leader in Chinese history.”
Bolton’s book is not kind to Trump. Nor is he kind to many high-profile people around Trump: former secretary of state Rex Tillerson (“susceptible to capture by the State Department bureaucracy”); former defence secretary John Mattis (who “had a high opinion of his own opinion”); former UN ambassador Nikki Haley (“untethered” … “a free electron”); and others whom the president initially appointed. He felt the “axis of adults” in Trump’s original power circle had treated the president poorly. Yet he himself eventually resigned too, unable to manage a man who set policy by “personal whim and impulse.”
“Trump,” Bolton writes, “was not following any international grand strategy, or even a consistent trajectory. His thinking was like an archipelago of dots (like individual real estate deals).” Later, he summarizes: “It was like making and executing policy inside a pinball machine, not the West Wing of the White House.”
At the end, one is left wondering: If Trump could not get along with a hawk like John Bolton, an unapologetically partisan Republican who despised Obama, the Democrats and the press, who on Earth could the U.S. president get along with — aside from thugs and dictators?


Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator
Jung H. Pak
336 pages
Ballantine Books, Random House
Kindle: $16.99
Hardcover: $28.24

When North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il died in 2011 of “overwork” (likely heart issues), many predicted the Hermit Kingdom would rapidly fall apart. How could his son, Kim Jong Un, an heir only in his mid-20s with no leadership experience, hold together a country that was “poor and isolated, unable to feed its own people?” How would the country’s elders ever accept his authority?
So much for skepticism. Today, the younger Kim has centralized power, removed or marginalized rivals who might have challenged him and adopted new weapons (cyber warfare, for instance) alongside Pyongyang’s ongoing nuclear program. He has stood face to face with an American president, Donald Trump, and not blinked. Still, not much is known about him personally. Author Jung H. Pak, a CIA analyst, attempts to fill in more details about the man and his ambitions for North Korea.

The Fight for History: 75 years of Forgetting, Remembering and Remaking Canada’s Second World War
Tim Cook
487 pages
Allen Lane Canada, Penguin Random House Canada, 2020
Kindle: $17
Hardcover: $22.50

Even though they were part of a victorious allied effort from 1939 to 1945, “Canadians did not see themselves as a warrior people,” writes Tim Cook in his latest examination of the nation’s military past. Canada’s defence minister of the immediate post-Second World War era, Brooke Claxton, felt no one would be interested in reading about that conflict. And indeed, for a time, the events of that war seemed to be pushed aside from collective consciousness, despite Canada having 1.1 million men and women in uniform and despite 45,000 of them being killed. Canadian veterans were mostly silent on the conflict and novelists and filmmakers were indifferent.
Cook’s mission in this book is to chronicle why and how this seeming neglect of such a major historical event happened, and how the country’s memory was rekindled in the 1990s with a “concentrated effort” to restore the Second World War to a prominent place in Canadian history.

Haldane: The Forgotten Statesman Who Shaped Britain and Canada
John Campbell, in collaboration with Richard McLaughlan
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020
483 pages
Kindle: $39.96
Hardcover: $49.95

Most Canadians have probably not heard of Richard Burdon Haldane, yet this scholarly, renaissance-minded minister in the British government prior to the First World War had a hand in everything from the creation of MI5 to the London School of Economics to the British Expeditionary Force. As a statesman, writes author John Campbell, he was even known to best Winston Churchill on occasion. But Haldane was disgraced in 1915 and dismissed from cabinet, wrongly accused of being a German sympathizer as Europe plunged into war.
For Canadians, however, his influence over the interpretation of the Canadian Constitution is a compelling part of his story. A member of the judicial committee of the (British) Privy Council, he sat on more than 30 Canadian appeals, helping to interpret the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments as set out in the British North America Act 1867.
Campbell writes it is “high time” Haldane resumed his rightful place in British and Canadian history.

Christina Spencer is the editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen and the inaugural recipient of the Claude Ryan Award for Editorial Writing at the 2017 National Newspaper Awards. She has a master’s in international affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

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Christina Spencer is the editorial pages editor of the Ottawa Citizen and the inaugural recipient of the Claude Ryan Award for Editorial Writing at the 2017 National Newspaper Awards. She holds a master's in international affairs from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

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