Is Trump Right On Saudi Arabia? Is MBS Our SOB?
In his statement of November 20, reprinted in the Wall Street Journal the following day, the president made it clear that while he does admit that the leadership of Saudi Arabia might have been involved with the murder and dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he will not penalize Saudi Arabia by interfering with oil imports from or military materiel exports to the Kingdom. In essence, Mr. Trump thinks the transactional relationship more valuable to American business interests and to our foreign policy (and that of Israel) than would be punishment of the Saudi leadership. Mr. Trump will not derail the business agreements in solidarity with some human rights agenda.
Is he right?
First, while there may or may not be actual evidence of the crime as the Turks claim they have provided to the U.S., proving involvement of the Crown Prince (Mohammed bin Salman, MBS) was always going to be a hard lift. The C.I.A. is presuming that nothing of this magnitude involving the Saudis could occur without the knowledge and prior agreement of MBS, yet there really is unlikely to be actual proof of this.
Second, Mr. Trump is right. Saudi Arabia is the main counterweight to Iranian aggression in the region, the Sunni yin to the Shia yang. Saudi Arabia has started to grow closer to Israel, a great new trend that might benefit the entire region. Saudi Arabia still supplies America with oil and it certainly is one helluva customer when it comes to military hardware. America gains a great deal from its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Mr. Trump was no fool making the Kingdom his first foreign stop after taking office.
Finally, there’s the inevitable question. Can the United States be that selective in choosing the governments with which it will deal? Many of our partners have less than glorious human rights records. In fact, if you go back a few hundred years (or any day in Chicago), the human rights record of America is pretty spotty, too. Maybe Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to deal with a country whose record on slavery is a bit checkered at best.
It is reasonable for the United States to be outraged at what the Saudi leadership might have condoned in the murder of a journalist hostile to its philosophy. It is equally plausible that the United States should protest—quietly—in the halls of power in Saudi Arabia and insist that such behavior cease. But, Mr. Trump is making a valid point when he refuses to cut off our business with the Kingdom because of what its leadership might have done to one journalist. It’s reprehensible, but cutting off our nose despite our face is equally unacceptable and Mr. Trump is right to refuse to do so.
One of the jobs of the President of the United States is to deal with the bad guys of the world. MBS is a bad guy. He is still repressive. He still locks people up for no reason. He still tolerates the madrasas of the religious fanatics in Saudi Arabia. He has made a surrogate war in Yemen against Iran with many Yemenis paying a horrible price. But, though “he may be a son of a bitch, he’s our son of a bitch” and we may have to live with that for the good of America.
As much as it pains me to say it, I think Trump is right on this one. BUT—as Tom Friedman points out in the NY Times on November 21 (link below), we should have received something in return for the concession to let MBS off the hook (e.g., end the war in Yemen) and we should begin long-term planning to get the country free of foreign oil by 2025. Then maybe we would need fewer SOBs everywhere.