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Untangling the Middle East with Dexter Filkins: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes and Dexter Filkins sort through the region's bewildering number of individual conflicts and key players.

What is happening in the Middle East? Chris Hayes sorts through the bewildering number of individual conflicts and key players to get to the heart of what’s unfolding in the Middle East. And, at the heart of it, is one big potentially world-war-starting kind of fight that helps explains them all.

To understand the details of that fight, Chris turns to one of the best foreign reporters writing today — Dexter Filkins. He has covered the area extensively, knows the Middle East inside and out, and can tell us why we could be standing on the precipice of something era-defining.

Chris: The idea of one shot. One hacker.

Dexter: Yeah.

Chris: On behalf the government getting real cute with how they're gonna project their thing, it just makes me so freakin’ nervous.

Dexter: I think what's happened here, you know if you look at MBS since becoming crowned Prince, he's basically tried to overthrow two governments: Qatar and Lebanon. And he's waging war on a third, Yemen. And he's rattling his saber quite a lot at Iran.

Dexter: And I think what's happening is he's begin ... he feels empowered by the White House on all of this. On this whole front, across the front, which is we're going after the Iranians, and you can too.

Chris: Welcome to Why Is This Happening?, with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

Chris: So, if you're like me, you pick up the newspaper. Well okay, take that back. If you're like me, you scroll through Twitter and you read stories about the Middle east and you feel bewildered. And you feel bewildered for the same reason like Russian novels can be confusing, like you presumably don't speak Arabic and the names are foreign and hard to track and there's lots of places that are popping us and there are lots of back stories that you feel like you're not read into.

And so, it's very easy to look at the modern Middle East, right now, and be like, well, they're all fighting each other. Like it's a big plate of spaghetti and it's all just like tangled up. But actually there's really kind of one story happening in the Middle East right now. And when you understand that story, all the different parts start to fall into place. When you understand that there is in some ways, increasingly one axis of conflict in the Middle East right now. A gigantic, dangerous, high stakes possible World War III starting axis of conflict. When you understand this one axis of conflict, all of a sudden all the other stories individually about a place like the United Arab Emirates, or the Iran Deal, or Benjamin Netanyahu, or Jared Kushner going to Saudi Arabia, all of those start to make sense in the context of this one big fight.

That one big fight is the topic of my conversation today with The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins. Dexter is one of the best foreign affairs reporters we have, I think. He covered the Iraq War. He's covered Lebanon. He's covered the Syrian War and it's fallout. He's covered Iran. He knows the Middle East inside and out. And he, a little while back, wrote a piece for The New Yorker that was kind of about this one big conflict. This one big fight that's happening in which everyone is forced to pick a side and the previous administration, sort of, kind of, tried to avoid picking a side. And then they were replaced by the Trump Administration.

And from the first moment, Donald Trump and Jared Kushner and the people that they assigned said no, no, no, we are very much on this one side. Being on that one side has enormous consequences for how this battle's gonna play out. Because a lot of people who are on the same side now, as the US, and know the US will back whatever they want, are feeling very emboldened. And when they feel emboldened, the opportunities for escalation increase. I don't think it's hyperbole to say that we're standing on the precipice of something that's possibly era defining in terms of what my happen in the Middle East if what is now a kinda cold war between these two sides escalates into a full out hot war.

And there are people out there, on both sides of that conflict who want a hot war. And they are trying very hard to get the United States of America to back them in starting a hot war. So if you wanna understand the Middle East right now, if you wanna understand everything from who's fighting who in Syria, to how it was that Benjamin Netanyahu managed to persuade Donald Trump to get out of the Iran Deal, you need to understand this one big fight. This one central axis of conflict. And to understand that, you gotta listen to Dexter Filkins.

Chris: When I've gone back and read World War I history, one of the things that jumps out, and this is not like a novel take, this is like the consensus take on World War I, is like, this crazy chain of alliances had built up. Country A is sort of aligned with country B, which is aligned with country C, which is aligned with country D, which is sorta giving aid to country E. So if country E gets attacked, or has a beef, all of a sudden countries A through D all have the same beef.

Dexter: Yeah. Here we are.

Chris: I just look at the Middle East today and I say, "This looks unnervingly familiar in that way." That there are these forces aligned in what is kind of a war, cold war, sometimes hot. Is that fair to say that the Middle East right now is in the midst of a kind of hot and cold war?

Dexter: Yeah, everybody's lining up.

Chris: Right.

Dexter: On one side it's basically Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Hezbollah, Russia. Then on the other side you have Saudi Arabia, kind of Israel, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. And everybody in between is getting pushed on really hard to join one camp or the other.

Chris: I mean, talk about strange bedfellows. Enemy of my enemy. The evident marriage of convenience, but like really enthusiastic marriage of convenience between Israel and the Saudis.

Dexter: Yeah.

Chris: That's new, and kind of intense.

Dexter: Yeah. It was hard for me to figure out, are they just signaling each other? Or do they actually meet somewhere? And I, you know ...

Chris: What do you mean by "meet somewhere"?

Dexter: You know, maybe on a ship.

Chris: Oh, are they having back channel conversations, you're saying.

Dexter: I think so.

Chris: Yeah.

Dexter: I think so. I mean, it's not entirely clear, but they're definitely kind of…

Chris: Like they have to be, right?

Dexter: Well, they certainly figured out ways to communicate with each other. And they certainly have a common interest in a common enemy in Iran. And so everybody gets that.

Chris: So, we've got these two, I think the two teams, two camps, is a good way to think about this, 'cause it gets real confusing. But you got the Iranians, you got Hezbollah.

Dexter: Yup.

Chris: Which is a Shiite militia that operates in Lebanon, Syria. You've got the Lebanese government which is, fair to say, essentially controlled by Hezbollah?

Dexter: Well, they're stronger than the central government. I mean, that's kind of the tragedy of Lebanon. There's a political party and an armed group that's like the strongest group in the country. They basically run the show.

Chris: This is actually why this is just a wild thing to think through. Right?

Chris: Officially the Saudis and Israelis don't have relationships, but like, they do. Officially, Hezbollah does not run Lebanon, but they do. Right?

Dexter: Yes. Yup.

Chris: And then you've got Hezbollah in Syria.

Dexter: Yup, fighting hard.

Chris: Fighting hard for Bashar Al Assad.

Dexter: Yes.

Chris: So where does he fit in to this picture?

Dexter: Well, he's, you know, Syria is essentially the crucial pipeline for the Iranians to get stuff into Hezbollah in Lebanon. And you know Hezbollah's basically is an aircraft carrier parked right next door to Israel. That's how the Iranians see Hezbollah. It's a forward base to attack Israel.

Dexter: And so if packed, Iranians have packed Lebanon full of missiles and rockets, more than 100,000. So you know, whenever that balloon goes up, it's gonna be ... the next war in the Middle East is gonna be utterly catastrophic.

Chris: Do you think the Iranians think about doing that?

Dexter: Yeah, I don't think they want it. I don't think Lebanon or Hezbollah wants it. I don't think the Israelis want it. But we're talking Sarajevo 1914, so it's like, who missed calculates first.

Dexter: You know, the Israelis just bombed Syria and they've done that several times now. And they're killing Iranians. And so, you can easily see this thing spinning out of control. You know, that's what happened in 2006, and that was a pretty nasty war in Lebanon, basically between Hezbollah and Israel.

Dexter: But the next one's gonna be a lot worse.

Chris: And then you're got Russia. Why is Russia so invested? They have basically, like, there's Russian bases in Syria. Why is Russia so invested in Syria, in Assad defeating his enemies?

Dexter: Two reasons. One is, they wanna be there. They wanted to get back into the Middle East. They've been pushed out a long time ago and they felt irrelevant. And so this is a way for them to kinda flex their muscles again. And yeah, this happened at the same time that Obama was basically saying, we're outta here. You know, we're done with this neighborhood. It's too much for us.

Dexter: The other reason is, I think they really do fear that if Assad fell, there would be a kind of, Jihadi mayhem in Syria that would ultimately spill over into the Caucuses and the Chechens and it would essentially, they'd be dealing with it on their boarders. So let's go prop up Assad, 'cause he's keeping the crazies at bay.

Chris: It's funny, it's always hard, right, I always try to model, like in a good faith way, where these people are coming from. Right? No seriously, when you're thinking through all this. Okay, well the Iranians as actors, the Hezbollah as an actor. Let's be clear, Hezbollah does horrible, horrible stuff. And everyone here is using violence that we've described.

Dexter: Definitely. They're all pretty rational.

Chris: They're all pretty rational, I guess that's my point. So this is a foothold for Russia. And then there's this sort of Jihad-i thing, but I never can quite ... the Jihad-i menace always seems a little like bad faith, because at some level Assad made this extremely gnarly calculation that if he essentially got rid of whatever secular rebellion there was, it would leave the choice between him and Jihadis.

Dexter: Definitely. I mean, one of the things Assad did was open the prisons and let out all kind of guys that they'd been arresting for the last decade.

Chris: So that he could then turn around and be like, them or us.

Dexter: Yeah, and they turned around, the guys they let out, they turned around and took over the insurgency. It's like, see I told you so. They're all a bunch of lunatics.

Chris: Right.

Dexter: And yeah, very cynical.

Chris: Yeah. I mean, Assad is depthlessly cynical.

Chris: And so that's this we're alliance, you got Russia, you got Hezbollah and Lebanon, you've got Assad in Syria, and you've got Iran. Okay.

Chris: Iran freaks the people on the other side of this the F out. Is that fair to say?

Dexter: Yeah, big time. They're obsessed.

Chris: Obsessed. And I get it, I've, you know, what Iran has done and Iran has done lots of really terrible stuff. What is the thing that ratchets up the Iran obsession and fear? I feel like it has increased in the last five or six years in a way that's re-shaped the alliances of the region.

Dexter: Yeah.

Chris: Like, what is it?

Dexter: Well, they're coming. I mean, they've been very busy and so I think as somebody in the White House, in the Trump White House said to me, we kinda took the map out, we looked at the map and we looked at the whole northern tier of the Middle East: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon. It's gone. It's lost to the Iranians.

Dexter: So, we gotta push back. And if you're the Saudis, the Saudis, they look at the Iranians and they see Nazi Germany. They think the Iranians are gonna come rolling in to Riyadh. They're really intense about the Iranians.

Chris: Mohammed Bin Salman, who we're gonna get to in a second, who is, I mean, good god, one of the most fascinating figures in the world right now. I don't mean that as a compliment. He compared, in an interview with Jeffery Goldberg, he compared the Iranis to Nazi Germany. Again, I can't tell is that cynical rhetoric? Is that a good faith belief of theirs?

Dexter: Yeah, I heard that a lot in Saudi, among government officials you talked to. It's like the first thing out of their mouths. And I think in no small way because that's what the Crown Prince believes, but I think this is all ... it works back to why is the Trump administration and MBS, as he's known, why have they become so close?

Dexter: And I think one of those reasons is, they share this kind of intense animosity for Iran.

Chris: And when they say Nazi Germany, you just said, well they mean Nazi Germany not in genocidal, but in the Hitler rolling his tanks through Poland way.

Dexter: Yeah.

Chris: Like they area fundamentally acquisitive and want elbow room, as Hitler used to call it. And they want to expand.

Dexter: Yes. You know, they look at, again, the Saudis population of 20 million people they look up at the Iranians population of 70 million people. And I think they feel a little threatened, but the level of intensity on that is pretty striking.

Chris: Among the sort of Saudi ruling class.

Dexter: Yes. They feel like the Iranians, particularly under the last eight years under the Obama administration, Obama gave them a pass, right? Obama wanted the nuclear deal so badly that they basically let him get away with murder. And they let him take over like half the Middle East.

Dexter: They have a point, but I think they feel like, okay, now no more mister nice guy. Like, we're pushing back.

Chris: Now, it seems to me the other thing that's changed, right, is Iraq. I mean, that's the big change, is that Iraq has, in the wake of the American invasion there, become essentially an Iranian proxy state.

Dexter: Yeah.

Chris: When it was Iran's, probably greatest regional counter-balance. They fought one of the most bloody wars of the last 40 years.

Dexter: Yeah. Pretty ironic that after all of that. And they're still, you know, 15,000 American troops there, but after of all of that, it's essentially an Iranian ... it's not exactly a satellite, but the Iranians are very influential inside Iran. More so than we are. I mean, they're much more heavily invested. They live right next door.

Chris: They live next door.

Dexter: Yeah, they can reach out and touch anybody they want.

Chris: So now let's turn to the other team. No, because ...

Dexter: Shirts and skins.

Chris: That's right. You know, we're chuckling because it's sort of callous humor, like it's Sarajevo 1914. It's a grim situation.

Chris: Israel, the Saudis, the UA, United Arab Emirates.

Dexter: Yup.

Chris: And the Trump admin, right? Is that fair?

Dexter: Absolutely.

Chris: Let's talk through the big players here. I wanna start with the UAE, because you wrote this New Yorker article where there's a guy that runs the UAE, who goes by MBZ.

Dexter: Yes. Mohammed Bin Zayed.

Chris: What's his deal?

Dexter: He's a pretty extraordinary guy. I mean, who ever heard of the United Arab Emirates? It's a tiny country, it's very wealthy. It's kind of a, I compared it to a middle eastern Singapore. You know, it's very wealthy, it's very efficient, and it's very authoritarian.

Dexter: And so many people, probably many of your listeners will have changed planes in Dubai. The big airport. And it's kind of the big city state there. But they have one agenda, push back on the Iranians wherever you can and crush political Islam, IE, the Muslim Brotherhood, wherever you can. Whether that's in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, or anywhere in the region.

Chris: And what is motivating them to do that? What accounts for that?

Dexter: Well, I think it's about their desire to stay in power. They view the Muslim Brotherhood, or any kind of manifestation of political Islam is a threat.

Chris: UAE does?

Dexter: Yeah, they're gonna crush them. But I mean, somebody said to me when I was working on this story. We were talking about the Saudis and the Emiratis getting angry at the Qataris for funding violent Islamists. And they said, for the Saudis to accuse the Qataris of doing that, that's like McDonald's accusing Burger King of like selling, you know, fatty food. I mean, everybody does it. You know?

Chris: You got MBZ in UAE, who is an operator, is fair to say.

Dexter: Super operator. Really close to the Americans. Including the Obama administration. Everybody loves him, every time we call up. Every time an American President picks up the phone and says we need something, MBZ says "yes" and "how much".

Chris: He is also, was instrumental, and again we're gonna get to the Saudis. But he's instrumental in essentially, either the coup or uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.

Dexter: Yeah, it's pretty amazing. It's pretty amazing. This is like one of the things I kind of discovered along the way, but it was, if you remember Mubarak was overthrown, the longtime dictator. Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood gets elected. The moment that happens, as I was told, the Emiratis and the Saudis went into overdrive. We're taking him out.

Dexter: And so they found, or essentially, created a kind of local group on the ground, pumped a lot of money in there. Made promises to the Generals, and in particular the Defense Minister El Sisi, and said, we've got 20 billion dollars right here on the table if you take out Morsi, we're stepping up. And the coup basically happened.

Chris: I also wanna be clear that I don't wanna take away the agency of the millions of people in Egypt who hated the Muslim Brotherhood, protesting the streets, wanted it gone. One doesn't ...

Dexter: Yeah, it just makes you wonder, yeah, how it would have happened. Or would it have happened differently without all that money and influence?

Chris: So you got MBZ, and then you got Sisi in Egypt.

Dexter: Yes.

Chris: And they're sort of, now, aligned.

Dexter: Definitely.

Chris: And then we got the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Who is Mohammed Bin Salmen? MBS.

Dexter: Well he's a pretty extraordinary guy, as you alluded to. I mean, you think Saudi King and the image that would come to mind would be some kind of 85 year old guy with a keffiyeh on, kind of mumbling unintelligibly. He is, MBS, is young, he's dynamic, he's smart, he's really ambitious and he's really impatient to change Saudi Arabia. And, he has to change Saudi Arabia because the math, when you sit down and do the math, the price of oil is dropping. The entire economy of Saudi Arabia, it's a very generous welfare state, relies on oil. And so, he knows, he's got 20 years to utterly transform his country, or they're doomed.

Chris: I have to say, I watch ... to me it's like, okay, what all you said is true. But, he basically took power, right? Fair to say?

Dexter: Pretty much. You know, I think it was a very complicated kind of court game.

Chris: Right.

Dexter: But he emerges. Yeah, he's next in line now. Probably the most powerful man in the country, right now.

Chris: Probably the most powerful man in the country.

Dexter: Yeah.

Chris: One of the ways he consolidates that power is totally bonkers. Which is the scene at the Ritz Carlton. What goes on there?

Dexter: It's amazing. I mean, in one stroke he rounds up the wealthiest people in the country, and there are some extraordinarily wealthy people in the country, puts them in this kind of gilded prison. You know a hotel for princes, but usually not princes who are under arrest. Locks them up and then comes to them, essentially with their asset sheets, and throws it down on the table and says, we want half your money and you're not gonna leave until we do.

Dexter: Looks like his guys did some other kind of, they were slightly more forceful than at least some other incidents, but basically it was a big shake down of the wealthy class. And yeah, pretty amazing. He basically took on the most ... he's 32 years old, he took on the most powerful people in the country. Shook them down, and then cut 'em loose. And humiliated them publicly.

Chris: And what's amazing about it to me, as well, is it's the perfect, to me, the kind of radically view of MBS that you get. The version of MBS young reformer is like, this guy knows that his fellow ruling class are stealing from the Saudi people and finally speaks up on their behalf and that the Saudi people support him, because they know that they're being taken for a ride. And he brings them in, and this is an anti-corruption campaign in which he forces them to give back the hard-earned money of the Saudi people.

Chris: And the other side is like, the dude possibly tortured someone too death in the Ritz Carlton and shook a bunch of people down for billions of dollars.

Dexter: Yes. And both of those things are true.

Chris: I guess, is that the way that I should think of it? That both of those things are true.

Dexter: Yeah, they're hard to kind of hold in your head at the same time, but on one hand, those guys, a lot of those people who were rounded up in the Ritz were indeed corrupt and they'd been shaking down the country on their own for a long time.

Dexter: On the other hand, a lot of people that he threw in the Ritz Carlton were potential rivals. And so he was able, under the cover of an anti-corruption campaign, he was able to basically eliminate anybody who was a threat to his power. So, you know, how convenient.

Chris: So then it gets crazier, because while he's plotting this, Jared Kushner, the American crown prince, Jared Kushner and MBS strike up a what?

Dexter: Well, they're kindred souls by most accounts. I mean, they really, they're close. They hit it off very quickly. They didn't meet until after the inauguration, but someone told me this extraordinary story. Somebody who was in the White House at the time, and they said that just a couple days after the inauguration, "We took out the map of the Middle East, Jared and I, and a couple others. Rolled it out on a table and just took a look at it and thought, okay, look. The northern tier of the Middle East is a loss to Iran. What do we got here? Who are our friends? Where are the pillars?" And they said, "It's Israel over here and Saudi Arabia over there. And kind of the United Arab Emirates as well." But basically Israel and Saudi Arabia. "We are gonna do everything we can to make these guys stronger."

Dexter: And then Jared kind of reached down into Saudi Arabia and said, "And that guy, MBS, he's the one."

Chris: And he was not the crown prince yet, and he had not sort of pulled off this audacious grab for power yet.

Dexter: No. And so, one of the big questions is, did we kind of help make that happen?

Chris: There's reports that Jared Kushner shared classified intelligence briefings about who MBS's internal enemies in Saudi were, with MBS.

Dexter: It's pretty clear they're very close and there was a very important ... it was called the Riyadh Summit, when it was Trump's first trip as President in early 2017 after the inauguration. Brought everybody together in Riyadh, and basically the whole time the spotlight was on MBS. And he came out of that looking really strong. Looking very powerful. And within a very short period of time, all these things start happening in the Middle East, including, he becomes Crown Prince.

Dexter: And so, is it a coincidence? It's hard to believe it is.

Chris: The Trump Administration now is very closely aligned with the Saudis. Just to be clear, obviously the U.S. and Saudis have had this strong relationship since all the way back and FDR, right? He has this sort of ...

Dexter: They have. You know Obama tried to change that. And I think he was put off by the Saudis, and sort of looked at them and thought, you know, they treat women really badly. They're very repressive. They sell us a lot of oil, but we don't really wanna buy that anymore. And they're trying to drag us into a war with Iran. So I'm gonna stick my long arm out and keep some distance here.

Dexter: And he really tried to do that. And they came really to dislike him very strongly. The Saudis. And they made that very clear. And Obama made that very clear.

Chris: I feel like everyone on the team that we're talking about now, which is Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel, Mohammed Bin Salem and the Saudi ruling class, MBZ and the UAE, absolutely hate Barack Obama and think he's a feckless duffus.

Dexter: I think that's pretty clear. You know, Ben Rhodes, who was deputy in house security advisor to President Obama, said to me, "The Saudis and the Emeratis together in Washington are the most powerful lobbyists in town. And they are more responsible for the image of Barack Obama as being kind of soft in the Middle East than anybody else." He said, "They trashed us all over town."

Chris: So now there's just two flash points here. And we're gonna talk about one of them. One, I wanna just mark, which is Yemen, where essentially is the place where a hot war's happening.

Dexter: Yes.

Chris: Between these two teams. Right? These two sides. That is costing the lives of tens of thousands of people. It's a horrific humanitarian crisis. What is happening there?

Dexter: Well Yemen kind of fell apart. I mean, it's a deeply impoverished country, but it kind of fell apart after the Arab Spring after 2011. And it hasn't really come back together again. But basically what happened is, it's a Sunnis country, predominantly and it's right on Saudi Arabia's boarder. And a couple of years ago a small group of, they're called the Houthis, and they're Shiites. They entered the capital. And that set the Saudis off and particularly MBS. And they didn't see just Houthis and just Shiites, they saw Iranians.

Dexter: And so, in that kind of Iranian obsession that they have, they began a very intense military campaign. The Saudis are bombing and it has not be a very ... I think it's fair to say, it hasn't been a very accurate bombing campaign. They've killed a lot of civilians. Very haphazard bombing campaign. The Emiratis have been fighting on the ground.

Dexter: So basically between those two, they see themselves as fighting the Iranians on their boarder.

Chris: They've also blockaded parts of the country that are held by the rebels.

Dexter: Yeah. As you say, it's a humanitarian catastrophe.

Chris: Thousands with cholera.

Dexter: Yeah. I mean, there's tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who are under threat of starvation and cholera. And when's the last time we had an outbreak of cholera like that?

Chris: That's the hot war.

Dexter: Yes.

Chris: Where these two sides clash. And then there's the cold war of Qatar.

Dexter: Yes.

Chris: Which is some ways to me is where everything comes together. I mean, Yemen too, because that's where the arms America sells the Saudis, with our help, are waging this war that is causing humanitarian disaster. Not unilaterally, the Houthis bear some responsibility as well.

Dexter: Yeah.

Chris: But what happened with Qatar? Because out of nowhere, all of a sudden it was like, that group of countries were just like, we hate Qatar and we want to destroy you.

Dexter: Yeah. Qatar is a really bizarre place. It's really small. Less than a million people. And they're sitting on this, essentially, infinite sea of natural gas. They're just immensely rich, and they have just loads of money on their hands.

Dexter: And when you go there, you know, you feel like you're in Hong Kong. It's this beautiful place and lots of nice buildings and cars and you can get a drink and it's very open place. But they have so much money on their hands that they literally, they're funding everything, everywhere, all the time in the region. So Aljazeera. That's a Qatari creation, it's incredibly influential around the Middle East. And they're also poking the Saudis and Emeratis and saying all these corrupt monarchies, you know, when are they gonna go?

Dexter: It's a little ironic, because, of course, the Qataris themselves are ruled by a monarchy. And the Qataris are big supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which that's toxic for the Saudis and the Emeratis. And so, you know this goes back a long time.

Dexter: But so you have this key moment in early 2017, Trump and Jared go to Riyadh, they have the Summit, everybody gets together. And very shortly afterwards, within a couple of weeks afterwards, it's looks like there's a coup in Qatar. There's a blockade of the country by Saudi Arabia and by the United Arab Emirates.

Dexter: It looks like, according to the people I spoke to, like they were gonna invade and try to take out the government there. And the United States, again, very confusing situation. It seems pretty clear that the White House kinda knew that something was up. But the rest of the U.S. government was in the dark, so people like Jim Mattis the defense secretary, then the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had no idea what was going on. No idea.

Chris: Just to be clear. Jared Kushner appears to have known that there is going to be possibly, like a hot shooting war of an invasion of a sovereign country in the Middle East by U.S. allies with a tacit go ahead of the US government, via the President's son-in-law, while the secretary of state and secretary of defense do not know that.

Dexter: There we are. Yeah. It's not clear exactly ... A lot of that is kinda shrouded in shadows and mystery.

Chris: Right.

Dexter: But clearly, I mean, Steven Bannon spoke publicly about this, and he said, “I don’t think its any coincidence that we read the riot act to the Qataris in Riyadh and then a couple weeks later the blockade happened. Not a coincidence.”

Chris: Two more things about this. Which is that, the way this starts is the most bonkers things. I think I've said that already once. Am I correct the Qatari state news agency starts running a ticker during a broadcast with a quote of the Qatari leader.

Dexter: Yes.

Chris: That is an endorsement of Iran.

Dexter: Yeah, kind of, but like not shocking. It's sort of like, well the Iranians are a great Muslim country or something like that. And you would think, okay, but so what.

Chris: So this appears. Just to be clear, it's not video, right? It's like a ticker quote.

Dexter: Yes.

Chris: That's saying, like, he's saying this about Iran as a great Muslim country. Immediately ...

Dexter: Immediately.

Chris: The Saudis denounce him.

Dexter: Yeah, and it seemed pretty clear they were ready. I mean, they were just like sitting there watching their televisions waiting for the ticker to come by.

Chris: But wait, this is the best part. He never said it, someone hacked into the state news agency and ran the ticker.

Dexter: Yeah, it's really funny. I mean, they were quoting the Amir of Qatar at a meeting at which he did not speak. So, it never happened.

Chris: Dude, think about ... no, but seriously. You wanna talk about back to Sarajevo 1914, and the assassination of the Archduke and the idea of one shot. Like, one hacker.

Dexter: Yeah.

Chris: On behalf the government getting real cute.

Dexter: Yeah.

Chris: With how they're gonna project their thing. It just makes me so fricken nervous.

Dexter: Well, I think what's happened here, you know, if you look at MBS since becoming crown prince, he's basically tried to overthrow two governments, Qatar and Lebanon. And he's waging war on a third, Yemen. And he's rattling his saber quite a lot at Iran. And I think what's happening is he feels empowered by the White House on all this, on this whole front, across the front, which is, we're going after the Iranians and you can too.

Dexter: And so that's ... I think that's the danger here, is that he feels empowered. He's 32 years old. He doesn't have a lot of experience, but he's ready to act. He's clearly a very impulsive guy.

Chris: He also kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon, who's a Saudi citizen?

Dexter: Yeah, seems pretty clear. Yeah. I mean, there's lots of denials all around, on all these things. But you know, I did my best to kind of pierce all those denials. And it seems like what happened was, he got fed up with the prime minister of Lebanon, which is couple countries away. They'd been sending them a lot of money for a long time, but he called him up and said, time to come home.

Chris: And he's a Saudi.

Dexter: He's a Saudi. There's a very close relationship between the prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri. I mean, he went to Georgetown.

Chris: Yeah.

Dexter: He's western educated. Very modern guy.

Chris: Son of Rafik Hariri who was assassinated.

Dexter: Yes. And all this comes back to Iran. Hezbollah and Iran are in Yemen, and Hezbollah of course is based in Lebanon. MBS basically lost his temper by all accounts. He said, you know, I've been sending the Lebanese government all this money for all this time and Saad Hariri, and he doesn't do anything.

Chris: Right.

Dexter: And he lets Hezbollah do whatever they want.

Chris: Right and they roll right over him.

Dexter: And then they roll right over him.

Chris: And he's the punitive head of state, but Hezbollah still runs everything there, and I'm fed up with it.

Dexter: I'm getting him out of there, basically.

Chris: So he calls him back to the kingdom.

Dexter: Calls him back to the kingdom and then, as far as I can gather, he thought he was going to kind of settle some debts and kind of make up and everything would be fine. And they basically yanked him into a room and slapped him around and forced him to resign. And he went on television a few hours later and read his resignation on the air.

Dexter: Absolutely bizarre. You know, Lebanon was essentially paralyzed. And I don't know what ... it's really not clear what MBS thought was gonna happen when he did that. Would there be a big power vacuum in Lebanon? Or, what was gonna happen? Was Hezbollah gonna try to take over and that would be a pre-text? Or whatever. But it basically united the country against Saudi Arabia and for Saad Hariri. So essentially, it completely failed.

Chris: Where does this go next?

Dexter: I think that's the danger, you know. I mean, if you look at the current configuration of the White House with H.R. McMaster, now security advisor's gone, in his place is John Bolton who is, I think he's publicly advocated preemptive strikes against Iran. Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, also very aggressive towards Iran.

Dexter: And so if you take somebody like MBS and you think, well he's gonna be more empowered than ever to be picking fights in the neighborhood. And then the Israelis of course are very close to ... the Israelis government's very close to the Trump Administration. So, they wanna build this kind of cordon down around Iran. You know, maybe that will work, but where I think we're in some pretty dangerous territory right now.

Chris: Dexter Filkins is a contributor for The New Yorker and covers the Middle East. Like I said, he's one of the best reporters we have on the region.

Chris: Dexter Filkins, thanks so much, man.

Dexter: Thank you, sir.

Chris: Why Is This Happening? is presented by MSNBC and NBC News Think. Produced by the All In Team with music by Eddie Cooper.