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Trump’s curious evolution on Saudi Arabia

President Trump meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office on March 20, 2018. (Evan Vucci/AP)

President Trump says the United States might go to war to protect Saudi Arabia, amid signs that Iran might have played a role in an attack on Saudi oil fields.

“There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification,” Trump tweeted Sunday, “but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

The idea that the United States military would be at the beck and call of Saudi leaders was odd enough. But then Trump clarified Monday morning that it wasn’t even about us needing Saudi oil. “We don’t need Middle Eastern Oil & Gas, & in fact have very few tankers there, but will help our Allies!” he said.

So the “America First” president who pledged a noninterventionist foreign policy is threatening to go to a war with little strategic interest for the United States because ... he just wants to help?

The sentiment is strange in and of itself. But it’s even odder when you compare it with how Trump used to talk about Saudi Arabia. For decades, the Gulf nation was one of Trump’s favorite punching bags — emblematic of U.S. leaders allowing other countries to walk all over them. And in contrast with the president we see today, he repeatedly derided the U.S. government for protecting it.

The most direct contradiction to what Trump is saying today is from 2014, when Trump tweeted, “Saudi Arabia should fight their own wars, which they won’t, or pay us an absolute fortune to protect them and their great wealth.”

Even as he was launching his presidential campaign a year later, he made a point of lifting our relationship with Saudi Arabia up as an example of U.S. foreign policy gone wrong.

“I love the Saudis. Many are in this building,” Trump said after descending the golden elevator in Trump Tower. “They make a billion dollars a day. Whenever they have problems, we send over the ships. We say ‘we’re gonna protect.’ What are we doing? They’ve got nothing but money.”

But while those might be the two most discordant notes relative to what we see today, this is a tree Trump had been barking up for three decades.

In 1987, he paid nearly $100,000 for full-page ads in The Washington Post, the New York Times and Boston Globe that spotlighted Saudi Arabia as a country that was taking advantage of the United States’ patronage.

“The world is laughing at America’s politicians as we protect ships we don’t own, carrying oil we don’t need, destined for allies who won’t help,” Trump said in the ad.

In the ad, Trump also said that countries such as Saudi Arabia, Japan and others should pay for U.S. assistance, since they were wealthy enough to provide it for themselves. It would be a demand he would make repeatedly in the years to follow.

“We have absolute obligations to protect freedom, but we don’t have obligations to protect freedom of countries that are far wealthier than we are,” he said in an ABC News interview talking about the ad.

In a 1999 Fox News interview, Trump accused the Saudis of being bad partners.

“I mean, the money they make, and then when we wanted to go over and fly our planes and land our planes in Saudi Arabia, in the war, to protect them; they didn’t want us on their land,” he said. “I mean, you explain that one to me.”

Trump has also repeatedly suggested that the United States is propping up the Saudi government, which would crumble without U.S. help.

“If we leave Iraq with a wonderful new government in place, it will be overthrown in about 15 seconds, just as the Saudi government would be overthrown in about 15 seconds if we weren’t protecting Saudi Arabia,” Trump said in a 2004 Playboy interview.

Trump criticized both George W. Bush and Barack Obama for their deferential treatment of the Saudis.

“And because we have a stupid president they get away with it, I mean, we have a president that goes to Saudi Arabia and wraps his arms around these people and says, you know, ‘We love you, we love you, we love you,' ” he said of Bush in a 2008 appearance on Howard Stern’s show. “The next day they announce they’re not going to do anything for us.”

When Obama was in office, Trump joined with many Republicans in mocking him for bowing to a Saudi king. “Do we still want a President who bows to the Saudis and lets OPEC rip us off?” Trump said, before urging people to vote for Mitt Romney on the eve of the 2012 election.

Trump’s comments on Saudi Arabia have occasionally ventured into the conspiratorial. In the Stern interview above, he accused the Saudis of providing a haven for Osama bin Laden.

Trump said bin Laden was “walking in the woods of probably Saudi Arabia, in my opinion. I happen to think he’s in Saudi Arabia.” Trump added that, if he were president after 9/11, he “would have gone into Saudi Arabia and gotten the families of the terrorists.”

Trump in 2012 also accused Obama of taking illicit campaign contributions from the Saudis. And he pointed to Saudi money going to the Clinton Foundation in 2016.

“Saudi Arabia and many of the countries that gave vast amounts of money to the Clinton Foundation want women as slaves and to kill gays,” Trump said on Facebook. “Hillary must return all money from such countries!”

Trump has also over the years elevated a couple of Twitter followers who called the Saudis names and accused the country of funding ISIS, calling the Islamic State by another name.

And in 2013, he alleged that Saudi Arabia had turned down a seat on the U.N. Security Council because “they don’t want responsibility. Just have us do their heavy lifting.”

Even as of October, Trump was telling the Wall Street Journal that the Saudis weren’t paying up. “We’re defending Saudi Arabia. They have — they’re a vastly wealthy country, and we’re defending them, and we’re not being reimbursed for our costs. A very small percentage is being reimbursed,” he said.

That appears to be the last time he has strongly criticized our relationship with the Saudis. Three weeks later, The Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence had determined the Saudi crown prince ordered Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Trump bent over backward to absolve the Saudis — particularly Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — of direct responsibility.

And ever since then, Trump has emphasized the importance of the relationship. It all culminated in his repeated suggestions over the last 24 hours that the United States might go to war for Saudi Arabia. “The United States is more prepared” for a conflict than any country in history, Trump said Monday afternoon, before adding that he would like to avoid one.

He would probably argue that they have started paying up, most notably by buying U.S. arms. But he has badly exaggerated the size of those sales. He has also credited the Saudis with helping rebuild Syria, but again, even as of less than a year ago, he said it wasn’t nearly enough.

And Trump is sounding at least open to doing some heavy lifting for the Saudis today. But he emphasized Monday that “I haven’t promised the Saudis that,” and, “We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out.”

Trump is clearly at risk of looking like the beholden and manipulated American leader he once decried, and he doesn’t really seem to be trying hard to fight that perception. The question is why? Why has Trump pulled such an about-face on the Saudis? Is it because he recognizes the importance of the alliance in a way he didn’t before he was president? That’s certainly not the explanation he gave Monday. In fact, he suggested quite the opposite — that the United States has no real interest in a conflict there. Nor does it seem that the Saudis have suddenly started paying up, judging by Trump’s comments to the Journal less than a year ago.

Trump doesn’t exactly pride himself on rhetorical consistency, but this evolution might be one of his strangest. If Iran were involved in the attack, it would certainly be a highly provocative act, and the U.S. government has an interest in a stable Middle East. But it would not be the kind of conflict that Trump’s past rhetoric suggests he thinks we should be getting involved in, and Trump in many ways seems to be arguing against his former self.