On Tuesday, President Trump made a statement regarding the alleged Saudi governmental murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was a longtime critic of the Saudi regime; he was largely sympathetic to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. The Saudi government, according to the CIA, had Khashoggi murdered at the Saudi embassy in Turkey, at the specific direction of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to The Washington Post.
President Trump’s statement contradicts the CIA account, and seems to take at face value Saudi protestations to the contrary. But Trump also points out that the United States has geopolitical interests in alliance with Saudi Arabia, and that Khashoggi’s murder does not justify a complete reshifting of those interests in the face of increased Iranian terrorism and regional aggression.
President Trump’s statement, which carries his linguistic hallmarks, states:
The world is a very dangerous place!
The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more. Likewise, the Iranians have killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East. Iran states openly, and with great force, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” Iran is considered “the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”
All of this is true. It is also true that despite Iran’s regional ambitions — perhaps because of those regional ambitions — the Obama administration went out of its way to lie on behalf of the mullahs, hand them billions of dollars, and clear the pathway to a nuclear bomb for them. Trump isn’t wrong in his description of Iran’s role in the Middle East. Hearing this sort of language from Obama U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, for example, is particularly galling:
This from the same administration that precipitously withdrew from Iraq, leading to the rise of ISIS; provided Vladimir Putin with flexibility and leadership in both Ukraine and Syria; drew fake “red lines” in Syria that ended with the gassing of children; and cut the horrific Iran deal.
Back to Trump:
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave. They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has agreed to spend billions of dollars in leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism.
This was always questionable. Saudi Arabia has not, in fact, been a strong ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism historically. The Saudi involvement in Yemen is hardly as beneficent as Trump makes it out to be. But all of this has been true for decades (the Saudi government wasn’t exactly clean when it came to terrorism, particularly) and there were no serious consequences from Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. So when Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) says, “It’s hard to imagine that the Saudis would have taken this action under a Reagan, Bush, Clinton or Obama Administration without facing serious repercussions,” that’s obviously nonsense.
Trump then launches into a defense of our defense relationship with Saudi Arabia:
After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!
Obviously, justifying human rights violations on the basis of economic deals is a major moral disaster — and comes closer to the Obama agenda with regard to Iran than to actual principle. We don’t need Saudi cash. We do need Saudi Arabia to act as a counterweight to Iran. That’s the central point upon which Trump should have focused. And even then, we can help Saudi act as that counterweight without greenlighting or nodding away murder. But instead, Trump then went ahead and downplayed the CIA’s apparent findings with regard to Khashoggi:
The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone. Indeed, we have taken strong action against those already known to have participated in the murder. After great independent research, we now know many details of this horrible crime. We have already sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body. Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that – this is an unacceptable and horrible crime. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. 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! That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.
This sort of denial is common for Trump, who has denied Russian election meddling (“I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial”) and North Korea’s aggressive intentions (“I do trust him”). Trump has a nasty habit of believing the rosiest about those who treat him well.
In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world! I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction – and they are free to do so. I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America. After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!
The problem with Trump’s statement here is that he has essentially signaled that because the United States has strategic interests in alliance with Saudi Arabia, there will be no serious consequences for human rights violations. That’s unnecessary. The United States is the strong partner here, not the Saudis — they need us far more than we need them. We could certainly have slapped them on the wrist, at the very least — and it is not in the interest of the United States to stand idly while our allies commit open murders against dissidents. The Washington Post statement isn’t completely wrong:
Trump has violated core American principles with regard to standing against human rights abuses by allies. But Trump isn’t wrong to reject calls to completely rethink alliance with Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s murder. For many, those calls simply reflect erstwhile support of the Obama-led push to make Iran a regional leader at the expense of the Saudis (see Rhodes, Ben).