If you were surprised by President Donald Trump’s decision to back Saudi Arabia on Tuesday instead of punishing the country’s government for murdering and dismembering journalist Jamal Khashoggi, then it’s worth looking at his worldview again.
Take away the fact that Trump has never been particularly sympathetic toward journalists and that human rights are, at best, an afterthought for his administration and it seems rather obvious that he never planned to retaliate against Riyadh for murdering the prominent dissident in Istanbul last month. Rather, not reprimanding Saudi royalty — especially de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS — fits perfectly within his foreign policy.
From the early days of his presidential campaign, the following three themes were immediately clear about Trump:
- He prioritizes deals — mainly economic — that he feels mostly benefit the United States
- He’s fine supporting whoever flatters him and eschews those who don’t
Those three pillars of Trump’s worldview form the spine of his foreign-policy decision-making, and it’s clear they came into play when he made his Tuesday statement.
Let’s start with the first pillar. “[T]he Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. … It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth,” Trump said, even though Saudi Arabia never agreed to pay that much for American products.
Critics argue that Trump effectively put a price tag on Khashoggi’s life, signaling to dictators everywhere that they can get away with murder, literally, as long as they say they’ll give America enough cash.
As for the second pillar, Trump said Riyadh has “worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels — so important for the world.”
By the Trump administration’s own statistics, Canada is actually the biggest supplier of American oil, sending about four times more crude into the US than Saudi Arabia does. But what appears to matter here is that Riyadh promised to accede to Trump’s “requests” — and it doesn’t hurt that they heavily feted the president when he traveled to Saudi Arabia last year.
And finally, the third pillar. After noting that both the king and MBS denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s demise, Trump said: “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
The problem is MBS did know, according to Trump’s own CIA. But the president hasn’t trusted America’s intelligence agencies since the start, namely, decrying a January 2017 assessment saying Russia tried to influence the 2016 presidential election. He’s even defended Russian President Vladimir Putin’s blanket denial of involvement in the Kremlin-ordered influence campaign.
“The president’s decision to support the Saudi regime’s horrific actions is yet another example of how he preferences authoritarians over all others, including his own intelligence agency,” Mara Karlin, a former top Pentagon strategist now at Johns Hopkins University, told me.
There’s a cold logic, however, to Trump’s decision. The decades-long alliance with Saudi Arabia has tangible benefits to the US, particularly in the Middle East, including pushing back against Iran and cooperation on terrorism. There’s an argument that these interests are too valuable to throw away in a spat over the death of one journalist, even though he was a US resident.
Trump may already feel he’s done enough after sanctioning 17 Saudis last week, each — including a top MBS aide — allegedly connected to the Khashoggi murder. (He also may not want to ruin a relationship with a client of his family business.)
But analysts I spoke to agree Trump made his decision less out of calculated realpolitik than its compatibility with his “America First” foreign policy: that all he should do is bring in benefits to the United States at the expense of everyone else — even journalists. The problem is it’s a short-sighted position, and could potentially imperil US-Saudi relations and global affairs in the future.
The consequences of Trump’s decision are far-reaching
Paul Musgrave, an expert on US foreign policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, noted two potentially serious consequences of Trump’s decision.
The first is that authoritarians around the world may take this as a green light to murder their own critics. “It really does matter when the United States can’t even rhetorically condemn atrocious acts” and “it really does matter when there’s a go-ahead given to dictators.”
Second, Trump’s hardcore support for Saudi Arabia may turn the Washington-Riyadh relationship into a partisan one. That’d be a huge change: Since 1945, Republicans and Democrats alike have embraced Saudi Arabia as a key ally over oil, money, and geopolitics (first in the anti-communist fight, and now mainly against Iran).
George W. Bush, for example, had a “close partnership” and “good relations” with the monarchy. And Barack Obama, while more critical of the kingdom, defended it against calls from Congress to curtail ties. They both believed Riyadh proved an important ally in the Middle East, and therefore chose to overlook many of the leadership’s problem signs.
But Trump’s unpopular decision may turn Democrats against Saudi Arabia now and perhaps into the future. “What Democrat will ever give Riyadh the benefit of the doubt?” Musgrave said. “I expect someone like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to make opposition to Saudi a cause and force Dems to take a position.” It’s kind of happening already: Democrats in the next Congress prepare to consider legislation ending America’s support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
That could mean Democrats currently in office or who run in future races — even for president — may have to bash Saudi Arabia to prove their liberal bona fides. That would make it harder for them to side with Riyadh if and when it’s in America’s interest to do so.
So Trump’s Khashoggi decision may keep the US-Saudi intact for now, but it could put a deep freeze on the future of the alliance.