In Saudi Statement, Trump Puts Money and Autocracy Over Democracy And Human Rights
It may be hard sometimes to put into perspective how awful a certain Trump action, statement, or policy is. Your correspondent generally prefers five categories (six if you count his good policies, few as they might be):
There is the misguided Trump action, one that may be aiming at a good outcome, but one whose methods far outweigh any benefit; for example, his insistence that NATO members pay their fair share isn’t a bad one, but straining key alliances over it is no way to get it done.
There are times when President Trump has said or done things that have simply been an embarrassment to his office; his continued refusal to visit an active combat zone comes to mind.
Then there is the blatant lying; this weekend’s raking situation is a notable recent example.
Then there is the corrupt Trump action; the litany of lawsuits, conflicts of interest, and investigations against the president speak for themselves.
And there are the far more sinister, tyrannical Trump actions, ones which not only mock the freedoms and values the president took an oath to protect, but yearn to undermine them. These are the actions that should most terrify anyone who believes those values are worth fighting for.
Today saw several such actions, one of which was Trump’s statement on America’s standing with Saudi Arabia. In it, the president of the United States- a country often called the leader of the free world- offered his overwhelming support for the regime of Saudi Arabia despite their murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an American journalist and permanent resident, citing mainly the billions of dollars he was promised on his trip there as well as Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth.
In doing so, Trump validated the most cynical criticisms of America: that it is a hyper-capitalist hegemon whose preaching of values human rights and democratic institutions is but a facade for its goal of economic domination.
Ever the businessman, Trump even put a price tag on the amount American values are worth: about $14 billion worth of military contracts, and some hot desert air in the form of empty promises from a power-hungry Saudi prince. (It’s also worth noting Trump’s business ties to Saudi Arabia. His personal interests have appeared to influence his foreign policy in the past.)
Dissecting The Many Trump’s In His Saudi Statement
There are actually several of the aforementioned Trump categories at play here, and it is worth unpacking them.
Let’s start with misguided Trump:
“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,”
Saudi Arabia has indeed been a key partner for the US in its fight against terrorism, Iran-sponsored or otherwise. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle would agree that responding to Mr. Khashoggi’s heinous murder would not be easy, and even that the sanctions on 17 Saudi officials were a good start. But there is much more that the US can and should do to deter a regime that not only condones the suppression of free speech but is responsible for a whole host of bloodshed elsewhere as well.
Then there is the lying, of course. He starts the statement off mentioning not Saudi Arabia, but Iran, in a blatant effort at “both-sides”-ing an issue that is pretty cut and dry. Iran, for all its bad actions, did not kill Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul and chop him to death with a bone saw. It was the Saudi government, a country that is sponsored by the US, and where brutal suppression of criticism of the ruling regime is not unheard of.
This is followed up by a now pretty well-debunked lie: that $110 billion dollars worth of military orders are on the line, and that any rebuke of the Saudis would not only jeopardize them but be a boon for Russia and China. This is nonsense on two fronts. First, just $14.5 billion has actually been approved. Second, Saudi Arabia is heavily dependent on US military kit, and so could not just switch to Russian or Chinese counterparts without massive costs. In short, it is the US who has leverage when it comes to military contracts, not Saudi Arabia. This has somehow eluded the “dealmaker-in-chief.”
Lie #3 lies at the heart of why the statement came out today:
“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!”
In fact, the CIA, just a few days before, concluded that Mr. Khashoggi’s murder was ordered by Crown Prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de-facto leader. Trump and national security adviser John Bolton had taken pains to prevent MBS, as he is known, from being linked to the murder.
Which brings us to the embarrassing part of Trump’s statement, which involves the lengths Trump has taken for the benefit of the Saudi crown prince. Most of the rest of the statement reads less like a presidential statement and more like one from MBS’ PR team:
“Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave.”
“..the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States…It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs…”
“King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.”
These are all empty promises, neither viable (Saudi Arabia is very invested in Yemen, war aside), likely (the $450 billion pledge is empty and baseless) or corroborated (see the CIA part above.) Rather than a head of state, Trump appears more to be a pliable supplicant to Saudi interests.
It should be noted that the US has made a history of supporting truly horrible people for their national interest. The Cold War era is riddled with brutal right-wing dictators in power because of American efforts to deter Communism, for example. Though not a justification for those actions, the calculus for doing so was always a perceived greater good.
This Brings Us To Trump, The Tyrant…
This phrase, in particular, shows a massive departure from the past realpolitik:
“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.”
Khashoggi’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood were blown out of proportion by pro-Saudi and right-wing outfits alike. Suffice to say, a man who had spent decades as a Saudi insider was hardly an “enemy of the state”, nor had those words been used directly by the Saudis to describe Khashoggi, as Trump seems to suggest.
They were, however, used by Trump to describe the press in the United States. And it is very telling that he would be eager to describe a journalist hacked to pieces in the same way he describes journalists, specifically those who question him.
It is this side of Trump that is most dangerous. Much like his Helsinki moment, Trump can hardly contain his eagerness for autocracy when involved with anyone who enjoys such a position. His excusing of human rights abuses, international aggression, or oppression of freedoms – be it for the likes of Russia, the Phillippines, Israel, or Saudi Arabia – is not a for a greater good. It is an end onto its own.
Indeed, Trump would much prefer the role of Saudi prince to American president. No political opposition to hamper his whims. No pesky legal institutions investigating his dealings. Everyone taking his word as law, lest they suffer the consequences.