"He’s seen as a person who can keep things under check,” Trump said of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “I mean that in a positive way.”
“I mean that in a positive way.” This is a heckuva time to be promoting the Saudis' ability to “keep things under check” — a moment when their apparent killing of a well-known critic has created an international incident. Khashoggi’s detention and alleged murder sure seem like part of an emerging effort inside Saudi Arabia to silence dissent. And Trump is expressing admiration for that effort, at least at the macro level.
While this might be the most poorly timed bit of Trumpian admiration for authoritarians, it’s hardly the first example of it. Trump has praised Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for doing an “unbelievable job” with his drug war, an initiative that has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings. He has praised North Korea’s Kim Jong Un for seizing power at the young age of 27, saying: “It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one.” He has praised stiflers of dissent such as China’s Xi Jinping, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi for consolidating power.
The U.S. government has forged strategic relationships with all of these governments. But it’s one thing to deal with a human rights abuser because it makes strategic sense; it’s another to give them a complete pass on those abuses and even tacitly praise them. Trump seems to genuinely admire their approaches to dissent, because he views them as signs of strength. And it’s on brand; for Trump, everything is about strength and winning.
But therein lies the irony of the situation with Saudi Arabia. Unlike the above examples, we’re talking about a human rights abuse perpetrated against American interests. Khashoggi was a U.S. resident who wrote for an American newspaper, so the United States has an inherent interest in accountability. What Saudi Arabia did should rightly be viewed as an affront to the United States.
And by potentially not doing much about it — which Trump has made abundantly clear is his preference — the president would be taking a weak approach. He would effectively be acknowledging that the Saudis have too much leverage over him and the United States (and they do have leverage), and that he therefore can’t take strong punitive action.
That is reportedly the argument that senators are putting to Trump as he weighs how to react. And if anything proves compelling to the president, perhaps it will be that; Trump, after all, eschews weakness in any form.
Trump and his supporters have attempted to build a defense against this perception. The president has repeatedly emphasized that Khashoggi was not a U.S. citizen. There is also a nasty, counterfactual whisper campaign against Khashoggi on the right. It’s not difficult to see the emerging case for withholding serious punishment: He wasn’t even an American, and he wasn’t that good a guy, so it’s not worth it.
But make no mistake: What Saudi Arabia did was a provocation. Even if it was an accident, as the Saudis dubiously claim, it’s the kind of “accident” that countries should take extreme care to avoid when it comes to the world’s most powerful country. That care was clearly not taken here, to say the least.
And by giving Saudi Arabia a pass, Trump would be tacitly admitting that he’s not strong enough to exert his will in relations with such countries.