The most determined backstage voice pushing to not upend the relationship is that of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has made M.B.S. a central node in his yet-to-be-seen Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. Speaking at a CNN forum yesterday, Kushner waved away a question about the shifting explanations Saudi Arabia has offered about Khashoggi’s disappearance. “I see things that are deceptive every day. I see them in the Middle East, I see them in Washington—and so, again, I think that we have our eyes wide open.” (The White House declined to comment.)
This is what happens when you give an undeserving, arrogant young man responsibilities that far outpace his knowledge and skills. And it’s also a reminder that the Saudis erred in letting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seize the reins of power.
Senior adviser Jared Kushner was the one who pushed a Saudi-centric policy. One can easily see why. In the crown prince Kushner no doubt saw a kindred spirit — a young sophisticate living in his family’s shadow who had great potential to transform the region. He (Kushner) and the actual crown prince, MBS, were a match made in heaven, although hardly an even match. Kushner seemed to ingest every foolish idea about the Middle East (“the conflict between Arabs and Israelis was essentially a real-estate problem, a deal to be worked out”) and, like his father-in-law, fell prey to the flattery of whomever he faced at the moment. MBS convinced Kushner that making the Saudis the Trump administration’s surrogate would work out for both.
As a result, Kushner and Trump engaged in what can only be described as the worst bargaining in recent history since President Barack Obama recognized Cuba with no promises on human rights. In some ways, Kushner followed the worst efforts of previous administrations. “Deals” became giving the other side whatever it wants (e.g., arms for Saudi Arabia, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem) in exchange for nothing. Hey, this guy is a sucker. We can do whatever we please.
“The leaders of the two countries, Mohammed bin Salman and Benjamin Netanyahu, have given Trump what he most craves: sycophantic support. On substance, however, they have done next to nothing to reciprocate unilateral Trump concessions such as the embassy move or the resumption of U.S. support for Saudi bombing in Yemen,” my colleague Jackson Diehl wrote last week. Fatefully, MBS perceived that he had Kushner wrapped around his finger and confidently set out on his repressive juggernaut, resulting in the killing of Khashoggi.
The irony is that conservatives with varying degrees of justification accused the Obama team of not driving hard enough bargains on foreign policy. The Trump-Kushner team, however, has done one better (worse?) — giving our worst foes a pass on egregious human rights violations and allowing our allies to run wild. This comes from the president who is always accusing our allies of taking advantage of us. Well, now they are, and what does Trump intend to do about it?
Putting together a viable policy while simultaneously trying to avoid U.S. commitments to the region won’t be easy. His effort to peddle minimalist sanctions is unlikely to work — and judging from his willingness to dump the problem into Congress’s lap, the White House knows it. The Saudis will not escape unscathed if Congress has its way, and the young menace, the callow heir, who has arguably made the Middle East more unstable and less amenable to U.S. leadership, should go. And MBS should go as well.