Trump is Crude. But He’s Right about Saudi Arabia

By Michael Doran and Tony Badran

New York Times

November 21, 2018


There’s not much Republicans and Democrats agree on nowadays, but President Trump’s expression of support for Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi killing managed to unite them. Democratic and Republican leaders declared that the president’s statement was dishonest, morally blinkered and strategically obtuse.

True, Mr. Trump’s sidestepping of reports that the C.I.A. believes that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing as “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” was jarring. But every president since Harry Truman has aligned with unsavory Middle Eastern rulers in the service of national interests. The difference here is that Mr. Trump seemed unapologetic about this state of affairs with only a passing nod to the affront to our values that Mr. Khashoggi’s murder represents.

That’s nothing to cheer. But it is vitally important to evaluate the policy on its merits more than its mode of expression. And the truth is that on the big strategic questions, Mr. Trump is cleareyed and right.

Let’s start with the question of honesty. Critics focused on Mr. Trump’s claim that “we may never know all of the facts surrounding” Mr. Khashoggi’s death, highlighting the contradiction between this energetic uncertainty and the reported assessment of the C.I.A.

Presidents, however, routinely advance useful fictions.

President Barack Obama, for example, helped sell his nuclear agreement with Iran by claiming that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons. No bipartisan clutch of senators insisted that Mr. Obama’s claims clashed with the views of intelligence analysts, who possessed hard evidence of a nuclear weapons program.

The true test of whether a presidential fiction is acceptable is whether the strategy it serves is sound.

In Mr. Obama’s case, the answer was no, because his policy did not actually stop Iran’s nuclear program. It only delayed it, and, in the meantime, strengthened Iran without moderating Tehran’s fundamental anti-Americanism. But Mr. Trump understands the centrality of Riyadh in the effort to counter a rising Iran and he is rightly unwilling to allow the murder of Mr. Khashoggi to imperil that strategy. 

Mr. Trump’s critics counter with the claim that he is emboldening evil. Samantha Power, former ambassador to the United Nations, cited autocrats like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Vladimir Putin of Russia, in addition to Prince Mohammed, in saying that “Trump’s siding with the meanest and nastiest out there” will “leave the world even nastier.” His statement, she said, “is a green light for would-be murderers in countries that have things Trump thinks we need.”

Notably absent from Ms. Power’s list of evildoers, however, are Iran and its proxies. The omission is telling. As part of its pivot toward Iran and away from the Sunni states and Israel, the Obama administration turned a blind eye to the slaughter in Syria that Moscow, Tehran and its proxies unleashed, and, thanks to the nuclear deal, delivered countless billions to the Iranian war machine.

His critics would say that Mr. Trump is now similarly emboldening a reckless Saudi regime.

This is a false analogy. The Saudis are not the moral equivalents of Iranians and the Russians. The kingdom has sheltered comfortably for over 75 years under the American security umbrella, which the United States happily extended not least because the Saudis and their oil have played a pivotal role in American economic strategies. Mr. Trump’s statement acknowledged that the Saudis are assisting him with stabilizing global oil prices as he seeks to quash Iranian oil sales.

Whatever Prince Mohammed’s faults may be, he actively supports the American regional order that the Iranians openly seek to destroy.

Mr. Trump’s critics are asking us to believe that the priority for stabilizing the Middle East today is distancing the United States from one of its oldest allies and instead working to achieve a balance of power between Riyadh and Tehran. The Saudis, they claim, need us far more than we need them.

This is a dangerous assumption that is not born out by experience. In recent years all of America’s allies, from Mr. Sisi in Egypt to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, have begun spending as much time in Moscow as in Washington. Why would we think the Saudis might not also seek protection from Russia if they are shunned by America?

Instead of standing with the Saudis, Mr. Trump’s critics call for, as Senator Lindsey Graham recently did, sanctions that would persuade King Salman to appoint a new crown prince. But King Salman is not the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia; Prince Mohammed is. A policy that seeks to change the king’s mind is based on a delusion that is far more deranged than anything in Mr. Trump’s statement.

Let’s imagine Mr. Trump’s critics get their wish. A replacement crown prince who rose to power under pressure of sanctions would be severely weakened, if not entirely illegitimate. This would serve only to validate Al Qaeda’s anti-Saudi ideology, which depicts the royal family as American stooges. Would a compromised crown prince be a more reliable partner for the United States in stabilizing the Middle East?

In all likelihood, sanctions would simply embitter Prince Mohammed, who would respond by tacking toward Russia and China. The United States could console itself by celebrating its staunch commitment to principle, but its influence would diminish considerably.

Less likely but worth keeping in mind is the worst-case scenario. Prince Mohammed’s enemies, inside and outside the kingdom, are numerous, and American sanctions on him would put a target on his back. In a violent succession battle, what horrific forces would be unleashed? Outside actors, such as Iran and Russia, coveting control of the kingdom’s oil wealth and influence over the Islamic holy cities, would rush in. The United States would find itself embroiled in another civil war as in Syria.

In either scenario, Iran would rejoice. Critics of Mr. Trump’s Saudi policy are already demanding that the United States pressure the kingdom to end the war in Yemen without so much as mentioning the need to ensure that the country does not become another base, like Lebanon, for Iran.

The murder of Mr. Khashoggi was a brutal and grotesque act. The United States has registered its feelings loudly and clearly by putting sanctions on the 17 men who were directly involved in the killing. Punishing the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia will not bring justice for Mr. Khashoggi, nor will it make Saudi Arabia a more dependable ally. It will simply diminish the influence of the United States and embolden its enemies.

The biblical advice to be as “wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” offers sound counsel to anyone who seeks to see their principles influence the world. The advice of Mr. Trump’s critics is long on abstract morality but lacking in strategic wisdom.