Trump Thinks He’s Helping the U.S.-Saudi Relationship. He’s Hurting It.

By avoiding a credible investigation into Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, dismissing CIA findings, and failing to take advantage of his negotiating leverage, the American president has imperiled the future of an important strategic alliance.

U.S. President Donald Trump joins dancers with swords at a welcome ceremony ahead of a banquet at the Murabba Palace in Riyadh on May 20, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump joins dancers with swords at a welcome ceremony ahead of a banquet at the Murabba Palace in Riyadh on May 20, 2017. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Rather than “standing with Saudi Arabia,” as U.S. President Donald Trump suggested he was doing in a bizarre Nov. 20 statement, the Trump administration may well have complicated the U.S.-Saudi relationship for years to come.

Trump contends that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have known about plans to murder the journalist Jamal Khashoggi—“maybe he did and maybe he didn’t”—but that the United States would stand by the kingdom because of a shared interest in confronting Iran, potential weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, and the need to ensure stable oil markets.

The president’s statement seemed designed to bring the Khashoggi matter to a close. It will likely do precisely the opposite for several reasons.

First, it is now clear that the Trump administration never had any real interest in pursuing the truth. After the story first broke, Trump could have pressed for a credible investigation to help assess what actually happened inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

Indeed, other U.S. allies have called for such investigations in the past. Israel, which has ample reason to be concerned about outside bodies passing judgement on its conduct, established a commission of Israeli judges, with respected international observers, to investigate the deaths of nine Turkish citizens during a 2010 flotilla to Gaza. The Israeli government did so to put an end to lingering questions about the naval operation against the Turkish flotilla.

By contrast, in this case, the Trump administration is content to let Saudi Arabia act as judge, jury, and—given the capital charges now filed against at least five defendants—possibly the executioner. The fact that Trump is in such a rush to move on, despite so many outstanding questions, will redouble demands by others—including leading Republican senators in the United States—for the truth.

Second, after failing to press for a credible investigation, Trump seems to have disregarded intelligence assessments prepared by his own officials about what happened and who was responsible. Late last week, the CIA concluded with a high degree of confidence that the crown prince ordered the killing. The president has downplayed the report and repeatedly declared that the world may never know all of the facts surrounding Khashoggi’s murder.

But that does not mean that the world knows nothing. Demands to see the full CIA assessment could linger over the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the same way that the unreleased 28 pages from the Joint House-Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on potential Saudi involvement in 9/11 did for 13 years, until they were eventually declassified. Rather than dismissing the CIA’s assessment, Trump could have used the agency’s findings to push for an impartial probe. His willingness to ignore the CIA will now lead to a new set of questions.

Third, instead of using his leverage in this situation to get a full accounting of what happened in Istanbul and address other issues in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the “Master of the Deal” gave this statement away for free.

Take the war in Yemen. After nearly two years in which the Trump administration abdicated any meaningful role in ending the worst humanitarian conflict in the world, it recently changed course, calling for a cease-fire in Yemen within 30 days and suspending midair refueling for the Saudi-led coalition. It did so at least in part because the White House increasingly realized that continuing the war is in neither U.S. nor Saudi interests.

So far, however, the response on the ground from Saudi Arabia has been an escalation near the Yemeni port of Hodeidah. While Washington should not trade away its concern for human rights, it could have used this crisis to promote policies it believes are correct anyway, like ending the war in Yemen. Instead, the conflict—one that is strengthening Iran’s position in the region—continues with no end in sight.

All this for what? In his statement, Trump cites a Saudi commitment to invest $450 billion in the United States, of which $110 billion are proposed weapons sales. As many observers have pointed out, these figures are spurious at best, and with newfound skepticism of Saudi policies, the likelihood of Congress approving major new weapons sales is questionable.

As for oil, the Saudis themselves know that allowing significantly higher prices—which many doubt they could engineer given U.S. shale production—would harm their own economy far more than the rest of the world by encouraging alternative energy sources and uses. And when it comes to Middle East peace, with the Palestinians boycotting the Trump administration, Israel about to go into election season, and conditions in Gaza as difficult as ever, the odds of progress on peace—with or without Saudi support—are about as low as they could be.

Most of all, Trump justifies his approach on the grounds that it is necessary to stabilize Saudi Arabia amid the broader contest with Iran. But this obscures the longer-term consequences of the administration’s approach. By appearing to whitewash the Khashoggi murder, Trump has helped ensure that it will remain an issue for years to come, both in terms of finding out what exactly happened and in determining the proper U.S. response.

The White House’s approach will also exacerbate the partisan divide on Saudi Arabia, with Democrats pushing for more transparency and accountability and at least some Republicans trying to defend Trump’s policy, while most others—apart from a few senators—duck for cover. Some will even question whether the Trump family’s business interests played a role in the administration’s response. With questions around succession in Saudi Arabia looming over the next few years, an increasingly partisan U.S. approach to the kingdom will not help stabilize that country or advance the common effort to manage the threat from Iran.

Instead of diplomacy by hasty statement, Trump should have heeded former Secretary of State James Baker’s advice from the U.S. response to the Tiananmen Square massacre. To find the truth, sanction as needed while emphasizing that Washington will keep channels of communications open.

Trump could have shown that the United States will uphold its values around the world by uncovering the truth and ensuring that these sorts of actions have real consequences, while at the same time affirming that the relationship with Saudi Arabia is important and that Washington will seek to preserve it in the interest of both countries. Such an approach may have involved more short-term challenges, as the Saudis may have resisted a fuller probe of Khashoggi’s death, but it would have stabilized the U.S.-Saudi relationship for the long term.

Now that the administration has failed to handle this crisis responsibly, Congress may decide it has to act. The bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. Bob Menendez (D) and Lindsey Graham (R), which would suspend all offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and mandate sanctions against anyone found to have responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder, is a start. But months of hearings, subpoenas, and legislative debates await. All the while, the important work that the United States and Saudi Arabia should be doing to end regional conflicts, fight terrorism, and promote long-term reform will not receive the attention or the support it needs.

Trump was right when he noted that the United States’ relationship is with the kingdom and, by implication, not with individual Saudi leaders. With his irresponsible statement, the president has done much damage to that cause.

Prem G. Kumar was senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the U.S. national security council from 2013-2015 and is now a principal with the Albright Stonebridge Group. This article reflects the personal views of the author.

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