If you listen to either President Trump or his secretaries of defense and state, you would think Saudi Arabia was a superpower and that the United States is a third-world, minor power. Why do we countenance and even help cover up the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — a U.S. resident — thereby giving our stamp of approval to a reckless autocrat?
Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky observe in USA Today:
From the outset of the Trump presidency, the pattern has been clear: Trump, contradicting both U.S. interests and values, feels more comfortable with strongmen and authoritarians than with America’s traditional democratic allies. It’s no surprise he’s courted Saudi King Salman and coddled the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
All administrations deal with strongmen — and none have elevated human rights to the key organizing principle in U.S. foreign policy. But this administration has nearly emptied America’s foreign policy of moral or ethical values and provided a green light to every authoritarian to repress or kill journalists without consequence, certainly from Washington. And Trump described Saudi Arabia as a “spectacular ally,” even though the CIA has concluded MBS ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
The president — and, now, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — would have us believe we’re entirely dependent on the Saudis to keep the peace in the Middle East and to check Iran. Miller and Sokolsky write: “No matter how much he believes the Saudis will shove the administration’s yet-to-be-revealed peace plan down the Palestinians’ throats, spend $450 billion in the U.S. to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, do America’s bidding on oil pricing policy, and be the linchpin for putting Iran back in its box, it is all magical thinking — just like his beliefs that Mexico will pay for his ‘beautiful wall,’ trade wars are ‘easy to win,’ the Russians didn’t interfere in our presidential election because Putin strongly denied it.”
To become convinced the Saudis are so critical to our defense, Trump must either be very gullible or very indebted (financially and/or emotionally) to the House of Saud.
Trump has a habit of giving despots what they want — i.e., exoneration for the crown prince, praise and legitimacy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a PR bonanza for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — in exchange for nothing at all. (“The Khashoggi murder confronted Trump with his first sustained foreign policy crisis, and he has failed miserably. The pass Trump has given to MBS has badly tarnished America’s reputation and signaled to other dictators and despots that they can kill and brutally suppress dissidents without fear of repercussions.”) What has he gotten in return? Not a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians; not capitulation by Iran (e.g., returning to the bargaining table); not a dramatically different version of the North American Free Trade Agreement (I refuse to remember or use the new, unpronounceable acronym); not denuclearization in North Korea; not an end to cyberwarfare or theft of intellectual property by China; and not restraint from Russia (if anything, Putin is bolder, as we saw in Russia’s attack on Ukrainian naval vessels). Most of our major allies don’t trust or respect this president.
In the case of the Saudis, Congress may have the last word. The Post reported on Wednesday, “The Senate on Wednesday advanced a resolution seeking to end U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, delivering a sharp rebuke of the Saudi crown prince and President Trump’s decision to defend him amid the fallout over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing. . . . The resolution, which seeks to invoke the War Powers Act to end military support for the campaign in Yemen, will likely be subject to several amendments before it stands for a final vote.”
In the Trump era, we aren’t tired of winning. We’re tired of Trump and his minions pretending that their appeasement of foes and hostility toward allies amount to winning.