Commentary: How Trump Should, but Probably Won't, Confront Saudi Arabia

A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Reuters/Osman Orsal

Originally published at Chicago Tribune

October 29, 2018

A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Reuters/Osman Orsal
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

The latest Saudi explanation of what happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi — that his murder was premeditated by his assailants — is no more acceptable an explanation than the earlier versions, that he died accidentally in a fistfight or that he left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul without leaving a trace. It defies belief that this operation wasn’t ordered at the highest level.

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But that’s not the point. The Saudis were never going to conduct the “complete, thorough and timely investigation,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for after meeting with Saudi leaders this month. Even President Donald Trump has now acknowledged as much, saying that “the cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups.” It marks a notable change in tone by the president who initially seemed more concerned with preserving his good personal relations with the Saudis than with getting to the bottom of what happened.

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But while the president’s tone may have changed, his policies toward Saudi Arabia have not. “In terms of what we ultimately do …,” President Trump said recently, “I’m going to leave it up to Congress.” Of course, Congress is not scheduled to return to session until the middle of next month, making the president’s plan more of an intentional delay on the bet that the outrage will blow over and less of an appeal for a firm bipartisan response. The delay is just the latest such bet by Trump. From the outset of his administration, the president has doubled down on the Saudi king and his young son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. After all, they represented the pillar of his Middle East strategy. Trump made Riyadh his first stop on his first overseas trip and assured the Saudis he would not lecture them on their human rights record and embraced their efforts to counter Iran. He stood by Prince Mohammed despite a string of reckless Saudi moves, including blockading Qatar, kidnapping the Lebanese prime minister, imprisoning hundreds of Saudi royals and businesspeople without due process, and cutting off relations with Canada over a critical tweet.

Little wonder, then, if the crown prince thought he might be able to get away with murder.

This terrible saga is but the latest proof of Trump’s abdication of America’s traditional global leadership. From day one, he has made a habit of cozying up to dictators and strongmen, accepting their denials, explanations and promises even when the U.S. intelligence community said all the evidence pointed the other way. Think Vladimir Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. Or Rodrigo Duterte’s insistence that the extrajudicial killing of thousands of Filipinos was necessary to win the drug war. Or Kim Jong Un’s promise to denuclearize. And now Prince Mohammed’s claim that Khashoggi’s death was an ordinary detention gone just a bit wrong.

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It wasn’t all that long ago that an American president, faced with such a horrendous abuse of power and gross violation of human rights, especially by a close partner, would have made clear his outrage and acted accordingly. Indeed, America’s traditional global leadership role — as leader of the free world — would have dictated a very different response than we have seen so far.

What might such leadership entail?

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  • First, Washington could turn to the United Nations Security Council and demand an international investigation, including the full cooperation of the Turkish and Saudi governments, to find out what happened to Khashoggi. Given the denials and obfuscations from Riyadh, no Saudi investigation can be considered conclusive.
  • Second, until such an investigation has been completed and those guilty are brought to justice, the United States should suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and convince its allies to do the same. The kingdom depends almost entirely upon U.S., British and French arms supplies, including for maintenance and training. That provides real leverage. The Saudis have too much invested in U.S. and Western weapons to quickly switch to Russian or Chinese substitutes.
  • Third, the time has come to pressure Riyadh to end its indiscriminate bombing and brutal war in Yemen. Prince Mohammed started this ill-fated military mission two years ago, ostensibly to prevent Iranian inroads onto the Arabian Peninsula. But the conflict has done little to blunt Iran while killing tens of thousands of Yemenis, wounding hundreds of thousands of others and leaving millions destitute, facing wide-scale famine and disease with no help in sight. Without U.S. intelligence and weapons supplies, the Saudi and United Arab Emirates bombing effort would quickly end.

Real leadership would begin with Washington reminding Riyadh that the U.S.-Saudi relationship isn’t one of equals. The White House holds most of the cards, and it is high time to use them. Doing anything less will embolden Prince Mohammed to continue his reckless behavior — and risk triggering an even greater crisis — while deeply damaging America’s credibility as a defender of human rights.

Ivo Daalder is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. James Lindsay is senior vice president at the Council of Foreign Relations. They are co-authors of “The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership.”

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