The country that President Trump once believed would offer his White House the surest path to Middle East peace has instead created his administration’s greatest foreign policy crisis yet. Despite campaign boasts to the contrary, Trump is learning that brokering diplomatic deals in that troubled region is no easier than taming the bloodlust of a petulant young Saudi Arabian prince.
But the multitude of miscalculations regarding Mohammed bin Salman have not been concocted by Trump alone. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, developed a close friendship with MBS, as the crown prince is known, and bragged that he spent the weekend with him last fall just before his crackdown on family members and political rivals inside Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton. Soon after stories of torture and murder spread beyond the walls of the Riyadh Ritz, MBS was given a hero’s welcome in America by Oprah Winfrey, Rupert Murdoch, Bob Iger, Jeffrey P. Bezos (who owns The Post), Tim Cook and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The prince scored a Buckingham Palace audience with Queen Elizabeth II in England and even sipped coffee with Michael Bloomberg at a New York City Starbucks.
Were Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood icons too distracted by Saudi oil money to notice that their new friend was jailing women’s rights activists, torturing political rivals and indiscriminately killing civilians across Yemen? Now that MBS’s penchant for silencing critics is believed to have cost the life of a Virginia resident and Post contributing columnist, Trump is learning too late that there are bloodstains that cannot be washed away by Saudi oil.
Trump has bumbled about incoherently since the disappearance and killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The president has promised consequences, speculated about Khashoggi’s fate, warned of potential impacts on the U.S. defense industry and belatedly appeared concerned about the well-being of the journalist. Bowing to pressure, the president is now distancing himself from MBS and telling White House insiders that he barely knows him. More preposterously, Trump is claiming that Kushner never cultivated a close relationship with the Saudi leader.
Others inside the administration are backing away from MBS as well. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin followed the lead of JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon and other top business executives by refusing to participate in the upcoming “Davos in the Desert” investor conference. But as the young prince faces his reckoning, Trump is learning that blood-stained Saudi leaders are no better for his brand than campaign chairmen who end up on the wrong side of the law. They are also apparently just as disposable in Trump world.
MBS’s alleged crime may feel like a crime against humanity, but it was felt most acutely by Khashoggi’s loved ones and friends, including many working at The Post. Some have suggested that MBS picked the wrong newspaper to cross, but editorial writers and news directors across the world have been unyielding in their condemnation of the killing. The Wall Street Journal editorial board has demanded action against the kingdom, and so, too, will Congress. The Pentagon could preach patience in hopes of propping up the House of Saud, but MBS’s long-term viability as a world leader looks as bleak as that of the shah of Iran’s at the beginning of 1979.
The president must apply pressure on the Saudis to find a viable replacement to MBS or watch this U.S. ally become an international pariah. Replacing the crown prince would serve the interests of the Saudis, the Americans and the world. The geopolitical stakes are high. The United States can do without Saudi oil, but the kingdom’s sandy real estate is a vital asset for America’s spying capabilities across that volatile region. Its air space is perfectly suited for both defending Israel and striking Iran. Until last week, the morally challenging Saudi-U.S. alliance was a deal with the devil that both Democratic and Republican presidents were willing to make in the name of regional security. But as they say in the Florida Panhandle, that dog won’t hunt anymore.
Trump may willingly turn a blind eye to oppression in Egypt, human rights abuses in Russia and extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. But the gruesome murder of a Post contributing columnist on the world stage is a torched bridge that cannot be rebuilt by bluster, bullying or billions of dollars.
Mohammed bin Salman’s short reign is over. The sooner Trump and the House of Saud face that reality, the sooner Saudi Arabia and its allies in the United States can return to their immoral marriage of convenience.