It is not unusual for the security of the Middle East to be put at risk by incompetent, greedy, misguided princelings. Sometimes they are worse than that and downright evil as Saudi Arabia’s murderous Prince Mohammed bin Salman or Bashar Assad illustrate. But for the most dangerous of them all to be from the United States of America is a new twist.
Sepulchral choir-boy Jared Kushner does not look that dangerous. Reed-thin with a permanent deer-in-the-headlights expression and seemingly only a few years from having had his voice change, you would never guess that right now it is possible that Kushner is the second most powerful man in the Trump administration.
In part that could be that most of the semi-competent or otherwise more influential people in the administration have already quit or been indicted. But mostly, it is because on October 25, 2009, a date that could live in infamy in the Middle East and beyond, Charles and Seryl Kushner’s little boy Jared married Ivanka Trump.
At the time of their wedding, of course, the marriage was not seen to be that consequential - the marriage of the rich son of a convicted felon to the daughter of a comically-cheesy television reality star and real estate huckster with a checkered past.
But history has a way of taking perverse turns. And when fate and Vladimir Putin smiled on Jared’s father-in-law and he became president, Jared was soon designated his Secretary-of-Everything, the man his wife’s father entrusted with everything from Middle East peace to America’s trading relations with Mexico.
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Of course, nepotism alone was not responsible for Jared’s ascension. He had played a central role in running his father-in-law’s presidential campaign. Soon, that is a distinction that may win him his own up-close and personal involvement with the U.S. criminal justice system. But for a brief shining moment, it seemed like it was one of the few things that young Jared had actually achieved on his own merits.
After all, the way Jared’s family pulled strings to get him into Harvard and NYU Law School has been famously exposed. The floundering fortunes of his family real estate firm have also won wide coverage in the press. His brief stint as the owner of The New York Observer, a peripheral New York media outlet, was later characterized by one of his senior editors as a "shit show."
But Trump won and he showed no hesitation to make his daughter and her husband two of his top advisors, laws against nepotism notwithstanding. Indeed, as we have recently learned, those laws were not the only impediments to empowering this man whose lack of experience was only surpassed by his proven odiousness and incompetence that the president saw fit to ignore.
More worrisomely, if that is possible, last week we learned that when it came time to assess Kushner’s eligibility for the high-level security clearance Kushner would need to do his job, not one but two professional evaluators recommended that clearance be denied.
Only when a third apparently succumbed to political pressure and over-ruled them did Kushner get access to classified documents and even then, he was not permitted to see the most sensitive materials. (The supervisor who overruled the prior decisions is now at the center of a brewing scandal for having reversed the evaluators 30 times during the past year and a half, when such reversals had happened only once in the three years prior to his arrival. Congress is now investigating.)
This is a big deal because there are only a few reasons a federal official can be denied top clearances. According to NBC News, Kushner’s background review flagged "questions about his family business, his foreign contacts, his foreign travel and meetings he had during the campaign" as potential reasons to deny him access to sensitive information.
More worrisomely, Kushner sought even higher-level top-secret clearances that required CIA approval - and that approval was denied. That means both that Kushner was seen as a security risk and that a key "architect" of America’s Middle East strategy and peace plan scriptwriter either did not have access to critical intelligence or, alternatively, did have access he shouldn’t have had.
Again, the main reasons for denying someone highest-level clearances would be just the kind of things that should deny them high-level sensitive jobs - debts, a criminal past or questions about the potential leverage foreign actors might have over the individual.
In each case, there are red flags associated with Kushner - from his family real estate company’s precarious finances to their business history to his family company’s seeming openness, both during the campaign and after, to seek business dealings with people who might also have official business with the United States.
Such compromising ties exist for Kushner across the Middle East - from Israel to Saudi Arabia to Qatar to the UAE. Further, during the campaign but especially after, representatives of those countries have sought ways to take advantage of Kushner’s special combination of inexperience, ignorance and openness to persuasion.
In Israel, this has manifested itself in the embrace of Kushner, whose family has long-standing investments in the country - and donations to West Bank settlements - and who is seen as an unabashedly pro-Israel, Zionist advocate for whatever the Israeli right prescribes as desirable. At the same time, his ties to Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman led the Saudi prince at one point to proclaim that Kushner was "in his pocket."
In both cases, Kushner has actively advocated for his friends, propriety or U.S. interests be damned. Notably, Kushner was seen as the MBS-whisperer before and during the crisis surrounding the Saudi’s brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi - helping to shape narratives to get the Saudis off the hook for their crimes.
But Kushner, despite it all, has ascended further in the White House and was seen as a point person in the recent negotiations with the U.S. Congress on the government shutdown. (Another Trump/Kushner fiasco.)
Going forward, the wounded administration seems likely to ramp up tension with Iran because both the Israelis and the Saudis crave it, and because Trump desperately needs a distraction from his scandals at home.
So, another war may be on the horizon in the Middle East and perhaps the most influential representative of the most powerful geopolitical actor in the world is not trusted by his own intelligence community, is under scrutiny by law enforcement, doesn’t have access to key intelligence, has compromising ties to the region, has no experience, has no background in the history of the region and is a proven incompetent whose failings go unpunished because he is married to the favorite child of the president-king of the United States.
As we say in the U.S., "What could go wrong?"
David Rothkopf is a foreign policy expert and author, host of the Deep State Radio podcast and CEO of The Rothkopf Group, LLC a media and advisory firm. His next book, on the national security threat posed by the Trump administration, is due out later this year. Twitter: @djrothkopf
One of the clients of the Rothkopf Group is the government of the UAE