Shadow Government

Trump’s Blank Check Diplomacy is Remaking the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

The U.S. president wants to sweep discussion of the kingdom's involvement in Jamal Khashoggi’s killing under the rug.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman meet in the White House on March 20.(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman meet in the White House on March 20.(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

dWeeks after the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and reported murder in Istanbul, the Saudi government’s cover story has failed to answer basic questions, despite mounting evidence that Saudi operatives killed him. U.S. President Donald Trump has signaled that he would resist re-thinking U.S. policy on Saudi Arabia and move on.

But we shouldn’t move on.

How the Trump administration has responded to what happened in Istanbul raises four big questions about Trump’s overall foreign policy.

Do Trump’s family business dealings affect his policy decisions on Saudi Arabia?

Is Trump on the take, and does that affect what he says and does? These are fair questions looming over his entire foreign policy.

Remember, we haven’t seen his tax returns in full. So we have no way of knowing how he profited from some of the business dealings with the Saudis, which he has bragged about. As a presidential candidate, he said: “Saudi Arabia … I get along great with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.” He has accrued a long list of potential conflicts of interest when it comes to Riyadh, and his company continues to profit from business deals with the kingdom.

Another reason for a red flag here: Trump in some ways runs his White House like a Middle East dictator would—putting family members in powerful government positions while keeping others in the family business, filling jobs with generals, blurring lines of authority, and attacking the press.

If the United States gets a new Congress next year that is more watchdog than the current Trump legislative lap dog, we may be able to learn more about how these potential conflicts of interests influence his decisions on national security policy.

Does Trump’s emphasis on arms sales and Washington’s military ties to Riyadh come at the expense of diplomacy?

Even as distressing news broke about what happened to Khashoggi, Trump, despite warning of “severe punishment” if the kingdom turned out to be responsible for the disappearance, issued a red line: He wasn’t going to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia. This raises a bigger question about the militarization of Trump’s foreign-policy approach worldwide.

More than a decade after the talk of using “smart power,” and President Barack Obama’s attempts to put diplomacy and development on a higher footing achieving mixed results, Trump has completely reversed the trend: He cut and gutted diplomacy, increased military spending, and moved to increase arms sales worldwide.

Saudi Arabia is attempting to alter its economic model in major ways, at least on paper, and this offers an opportunity for the United States to deploy tools other than weapons deals to shape and influence the country’s policies at home and abroad and incentivize real change. Appointing an ambassador to Riyadh nearly two years into the administration would be a good start—it won’t fix the U.S.-Saudi relationship, but it would help balance out an incomplete and reckless military-centric approach. But flooding the region with more weapons is unlikely to resolve deeper issues in Saudi Arabia and beyond.

Has Trump’s overreliance on Saudi Arabia destabilized the Middle East?

All roads in Trump’s Middle East policy run through Riyadh. Saudi Arabia was the first place he visited overseas as president, and his agenda for the region places Saudi Arabia at its center, whether it comes to countering Iran, counterterrorism, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This posture is in part linked to his broader national security and defense strategies—at least the ones that exist on paper—that emphasize the United States’ global competitors: China and Russia. This means leaning more heavily on regional partners such as Saudi Arabia. In this sense, Trump’s approach to the Middle East has some similarities to the Obama administration’s desire to work “by, with, and through” partners. Both Trump and Obama wanted to avoid the mistake made by the George W. Bush administration of bearing such great costs in places like Iraq without getting significant returns or support from actors in the region.

But one fundamental difference between Trump and his predecessor is that he has placed a heavy bet on building a Saudi-centered, Arab NATO-type alliance to counter Iran in the region; in contrast, the Obama administration largely tried to stay focused on the anti-Islamic State fight.

The blank check Trump has offered to Saudi Arabia seems to have fostered moral hazard and made America dependent on Saudi Arabia when the reverse is truer—the war in Yemen continues with no end in sight, as does the Saudi-led blockade against Qatar, while the country builds up its worrisome human rights record inside its borders, as documented in a report released by the U.S. State Department this year (which, for some reason, didn’t receive the vitriolic response from Saudi Arabia that Canada’s statements on the same topic did).

Upon taking office, Trump approached an already fragile Middle East like a wrecking ball and squandered U.S. leverage that could have been used to shape the actions of key partners such as Saudi Arabia. Looking ahead to 2019, the region may be in for even tougher times as a result.

Will the U.S. reaction to Khashoggi’s disappearance encourage autocrats to become more brazen in efforts to silence critics?

Khashoggi’s slaying is part of a global trend that already existed before Trump took office but appears to have accelerated: authoritarian states, including China and Russia, publicly and shamelessly kidnapping, detaining, and murdering critics and journalists. As Max Boot writes, Trump’s staid reaction has given every despot on the planet a license to kill. This could accelerate the current trend of declining freedom in the world.

Over the past three years, during the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia saw an increase in uncertainty and unpredictability internally. Some of this is a consequence of a generational shift of leadership under an absolute monarchy. At the same time, the kingdom has operated with a more aggressive foreign policy than ever before. These changes come at a time when U.S. national security priorities are shifting in the world.

Much of the current debate on the U.S.-Saudi relationship focuses on tactical issues, such as whether to continue certain aspects of security cooperation. These are important questions that demand responses—but the way Trump has dealt with the kingdom since taking office, and how he has responded to this latest incident, raises even larger concerns about his overall foreign-policy approach.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security. @Katulis

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