President Trump today announced that, notwithstanding the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, “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.” The essence of Trump’s explanation for the decision is contained in the first sentence: “The world is a dangerous place!”
Elaborating on this obvious but oft-neglected truth, Trump cited our interest in working with Saudi Arabia to combat Iran and terrorism. He also pointed to our economic interest in not blowing up relations with the Saudis — e.g., by canceling large contracts. He explained that “if we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business.” In addition, Trump noted Saudi Arabia’s role as the second largest oil producing nation in the world.
As to Saudi responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder, Trump professed agnosticism, not very persuasively:
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.
But the key point, according to Trump, is that “our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” That’s a bit facile, I think. When dealing with a dictatorship like Saudi Arabia, the relationship is always with the ruling dictator, not just with the nation he rules.
One can pick at portions of Trump’s statement, but I agree with his decision. Authoritarian regimes all over the world kill dissidents and/or activists with rival factions. Russia has killed some. That didn’t stop Obama-Clinton from “resetting” relations with Putin and making concessions to him. Nor should it have done, if Putin could have been trusted to reciprocate.
He couldn’t be, but the Saudis under Mohammad bin Salman can. Indeed, as Trump says, they have.
Under these circumstances, it would not be wise to blow up a valuable geopolitical relationship over the murder of one member of an out-of-power Saudi faction. Not in a world as dangerous as ours.