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Saudi Arabia's great bamboozle of Donald Trump

In a stunnin...

Posted: Nov 22, 2018 12:29 PM
Updated: Nov 22, 2018 12:29 PM

In a stunning statement, brutally honest even by Trumpian standards, the President made his views of Saudi Arabia -- past, present and future -- crystal clear Tuesday.

Undermining his own CIA's intelligence assessment and hyperventilating about the virtues of the Saudis (a "truly spectacular ally," he called them last weekend), Donald Trump made plain he has no intention of losing confidence in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, let alone imposing sanctions or him or any other Saudi royal over the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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Trump not only pardoned the Thanksgiving turkey, he also pardoned the crown prince, to the detriment of US interests and values.

Doubling down on Saudi Arabia

Having not bothered to listen to the audio of the horrific final minutes of Khashoggi's life or to read the CIA's report on why analysts reasoned that the prince directed the killing, Trump doubled down on his apparent conviction that the relationship with Saudi Arabia was too big to fail.

His first foreign trip as President took him to Riyadh and Jerusalem -- a remarkable and unprecedented effort to reinvest in two relationships he believed his predecessor had undermined for the sake of a nuclear agreement he deemed the worst in history. And over the past year, Trump and his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, never looked back, giving the young crown prince support and the space to pursue a series of reckless, impulsive policies -- from Qatar to Yemen to a repressive crackdown at home.

Is Saudi Arabia really an ally?

Trump went to considerable lengths Tuesday to laud the virtues of the kingdom with respect to the United States -- on arms sales, investment, containment of Iran and the fight against Islamic terror. And there's no doubt the United States has an important relationship with the Saudis stretching back decades, driven primarily by oil and the need to maintain stability in the Gulf. But it's also a fact that America's close allies -- France, Britain, Australia, Canada -- share values as well as interests. And while no two countries' interests line up across the board, the weight of relationships must reflect more than just commercial or economic interest.

It would be more accurate to describe Saudi Arabia as a security partner -- and not necessarily on all issues. Under the crown prince, Riyadh has become even more repressive, as the brutal killing of Khashoggi and the crackdown on all domestic dissent suggest. But for Trump, allies are merely transactional partners heaping material benefits on the United States -- in this case cheap oil, money for weapons sales and job creation. The President ignores the downsides of these transactions and exaggerates the upsides.

The great bamboozle

But it is no exaggeration to suggest that amid all of Prince bin Salman's failures, perhaps his most important foreign policy achievement has been the bamboozling of Trump. Look no further than Tuesday's statement. Yes, the crown prince has undertaken some ameliorating steps at home, such as an effort to diversify the economy, allowing women to drive and controlling the religious police. But he's covered that over with deep repression on any and all dissent.

Abroad, Trump has watched from the sidelines as the Saudi royal has laid economic siege to Qatar, where the United States maintains its most important military base in the region, and he's intensified a war in Yemen with much help from the rival Houthis and Iran -- in the process turning an already failing state into the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

Indeed, instead of helping to contain Iran, Saudi Arabia has helped expand the room it has to meddle. As for arms sales and investment, Trump has profoundly exaggerated what the Saudis have done for America -- $14.5 billion in weapons sales, not $110 billion, and tens of thousands of jobs, not half a million, let alone the million to which he has referred.

The US has leverage

The killing of Khashoggi and the absence of an appropriate response will only persuade Prince bin Salman and other authoritarians that when it comes to human rights, and journalists, America just doesn't give a damn. The Trump administration has already coddled strongmen -- from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Chinese President Xi Jinping, to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. And so the pass on the Saudi crown prince was predictable.

And yet looked at from another perspective, the United States now has leverage over Saudi Arabia.

It's a perverse thought that in going easy on Prince bin Salman on the Khashoggi killing, the Trump administration could well press harder to end the war in Yemen, ease tensions with Qatar and get the Saudis to support a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is fair and equitable and that goes beyond the pro-Israeli approach the administration appears to be taking.

Of course, the Trump administration would need to show a willingness to use that leverage. And while stopping US refueling of Saudi aircraft operating in Yemen is a good step, as the administration announced earlier this year, it's going to take a great deal more than that to resolve the conflict.

One can always hope. But it seems doubtful, in light of Trump's statement Tuesday, that he is willing to make the effort to restore balance and reciprocity to a US-Saudi relationship.

Right now, that relationship is much more focused on meeting Saudi interests than ours.

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