Sometimes a middling foreign policy crisis produces a presidential decision of far more consequence. It clarifies and crystallizes the executive’s core instincts, thereby establishing a road map for managing the United States that countries around the world then follow. President Trump’s decision to excuse Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman for ordering the murder and dismemberment of one of his own citizens will be one of those junctures.
Trump’s “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” proclamation last Tuesday looked like a hasty, Thanksgiving Eve attempt to rid himself of a troubling mess in a part of the world that he wishes he could forget. Yet like President Barack Obama’s retreat from his own red line on Syria’s use of chemical weapons, Trump’s failure to exact accountability for the slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi will resonate far beyond the Middle East.
In Obama’s case, the world learned that the U.S. president was not willing to back up U.S. leadership with military force, even at the expense of his own credibility. Russia and China responded accordingly; the invasions of the South China Sea and Ukraine followed.
The Khashoggi affair similarly confirms several fundamental truths about Trump. The first and most obvious is that his narrow, idiosyncratic and sometimes personal interests take precedence over the defense of traditional American values and even the expectation of honest treatment by an ally. Not just Mohammed’s fellow Arab rulers but despots everywhere will study this case and conclude: If you heap flattery on Trump, court him with exotic entertainment, patronize his family businesses and promise to buy American, you can get away with outrages that would once have ensured censure and sanction from Washington.
The United States has always tolerated human rights abuses by friendly dictators, but there were limits — as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, the shah of Iran and, more recently, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak discovered. By refusing to impose sanctions on the Saudi crown prince even after the CIA concluded he was responsible for the Khashoggi murder, Trump has set a new standard. No atrocity is too much — not even sawing up a critical journalist and then baldly lying about it to the president and secretary of state.
The resulting open season on dissidents, journalists and human rights activists by regimes that used to worry about U.S. reaction will be compounded by a second Trump message: Abductions and murders in other countries are now okay. Western governments have been trying to resist a dangerous trend of international kidnappings and assassinations by Russia and China. Vladimir Putin incurred new sanctions when he tried to poison a KGB defector in Britain. Yet Trump showed no particular interest in the fact that Khashoggi was attacked not just on the territory of another nation but inside a diplomatic facility, a double offense to international norms nearly unprecedented in its audacity. That Turkey is a NATO member that the United States is bound to defend also didn’t matter.
We consequently shouldn’t be surprised if more exiled dissidents disappear or die, including in Western capitals. There are hundreds of expatriate Egyptians in the Washington area; some of them have told me they have been subjected to harassment and surveillance like that experienced by Khashoggi before his murder. If one disappears or is killed, will Trump punish his ally Abdel Fatah al-Sissi? The Khashoggi case gives the Egyptian dictator a blazing green light.
That leaves what will be the most enduring and poisonous legacy of the Khashoggi case: the confirmation that truth no longer matters in American foreign policy. A Kissingerian president might have acknowledged that Mohammed was a vicious killer, then argued that we needed to work with him anyway. Trump’s innovation is to say that whether a favored thug ordered a murder or not is not worth knowing — even if the CIA confidently concludes he is guilty.
The same goes for the vast benefits Trump claims for the Saudi relationship. It seems to matter not that Riyadh has delivered on virtually none of a promised $110 billion in arms purchases; or that, contrary to Trump’s rhetoric, it is seeking to raise rather than lower the price of oil; or that it is hurting rather than helping the containment of Iran.
If the facts are irrelevant, America can easily be fleeced so long as Trump insists that the opposite is happening. The hard-nosed determinations of interest that traditional foreign policy realists so admire are calculated by an alternative math in which only the president’s sentiments count. If there is no truth, there is no trade-off between accountability for crimes and other American interests. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” becomes the new cover for any dictator — provided he gives Trump cause to say, “He likes me.”