Analysis & Opinions - New Yorker
Trump’s Utter Denial About Saudi Arabia and Its Crown Prince
Written by: Robin Wright
So much for American justice. In a statement both stunning and coldhearted, President Trump on Tuesday gave Saudi Arabia a pass on the grisly murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the name of U.S. national security. He blithely rejected a U.S. intelligence assessment as well as damning physical evidence provided by Turkey indicating that the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, authorized the Saudi dissident’s execution, in Istanbul, on October 2nd. The President of the United States sounded more like a defense attorney—or lobbyist—for the oil-rich kingdom than a protector of American values.
“It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in a two-page statement. He condemned the Khashoggi assassination as an “unacceptable and horrible crime,” but then said Saudi Arabia was too important a purchaser of U.S. weaponry, an exporter of oil, and an ally in “our very important fight against Iran” to take punitive action. “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country,” Trump said.
“Very simply,” he concluded, “it is called America First!”
The President’s statement was riddled with falsehoods and contradictions. He embraced the “vigorous” denials from King Salman and his tempestuous young heir, Prince Mohammed—even though several members of the fifteen-man hit squad that killed Khashoggi worked for the crown prince, who is known by his initials, M.B.S. Trump based his justification on what he claimed was the kingdom’s promise to invest or spend four hundred and fifty billion dollars, including a hundred and ten billion dollars in arms purchases, in the United States. Last month, however, Politifact concluded that Trump’s claim earned a “pants on fire” rating. “Orders on that scale don’t exist” and are only a “mirage,” it said. “There is no data behind the $450 billion, and the $110 billion is a blend of smaller deals in progress, old offers”—from the Obama era—“that have not come through, and speculative discussions that have yet to move forward.”
Saudi Arabia, in fact, has only followed through so far on fourteen and a half billion dollars in arms and aircraft, the State Department acknowledged last month. Other deals are merely vague memorandums of understanding that cover the next decade, not this year. On Tuesday, a new report by the Center for International Policy also called Trump’s claims “wildly exaggerated”—and noted that many of the jobs created from the arms sales are in Saudi Arabia, not the United States.
Washington is also far from dependent on Riyadh’s oil wealth. Rather, the Center for International Policy’s new report detailed the kingdom’s “extreme dependence” on the United States. With the U.S.-Saudi relationship under scrutiny after Khashoggi’s murder, “it’s important to remember that the United States has substantial leverage over Saudi behavior,” William Hartung, the director of the center’s Arms and Security Project, wrote. “The Saudi military depends on U.S. arms, spare parts and maintenance to carry out its brutal war in Yemen and could not prosecute that war for long without that support.”
The President’s comments, which flouted a C.I.A. assessment that M.B.S. likely ordered Khashoggi’s death, provoked scorn, dismay, and outrage from human-rights groups, politicians, and foreign-policy experts. Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, a global-security foundation, told me, “This is, without a doubt, the most uninformed, toady, poorly written, categorically untrue statement I have ever seen a President of the United States make. His statement has provoked such a strong, overwhelmingly negative reaction for good reason: it raises serious questions about the President’s fitness for office.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of the Middle East division of Human Rights Watch, told me that Trump’s statement “isn’t just immoral, it’s reckless and will come back to haunt and hurt U.S. interests.” She said the crown prince has proved to be “an impulsive, sadistic, unhinged leader” who has destabilized the region, most notably by launching the deadly war in Yemen, in 2015. “This only signals to tyrants around the world that it’s open season on journalists and critics, wherever they are, so long as they’re cozy with Trump.”
The former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book on efforts to halt genocide and other war crimes, tweeted that the President’s remarks were “an abomination that will define the ignorance, corruption, cruelty and recklessness of this presidency for generations to come.” The former nato Ambassador Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat who is now at Harvard’s Belfer Center, called Trump’s seven-paragraph statement “beyond embarrassing. It is shameful. He cites uncritically the MBS smear that Khashoggi was a traitor. He argues the U.S. can’t afford to alienate Riyadh due to oil+Iran. He is silent on our most important interest—Justice.”
The Post, which began publishing Khashoggi shortly after he went into exile, in mid-2017, ripped into the White House for betraying “long-established American values of respect for human rights.” In his own statement posted on Twitter, the newspaper’s publisher, Fred Ryan, said that the President is “placing personal relationships and commercial interests above American interests in his desire to continue to do business as usual with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.” He charged that Trump’s “surrender to this state-ordered murder” had only served to make the world even more dangerous.
In his statement, the President flatly regurgitated the monarchy’s nonsensical claim that Khashoggi was “an enemy of the state” with links to the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, Khashoggi supported the royal family right up until his death, as he often told me, as recently as August. His columns in the Post criticized the crown prince’s policies, particularly his aggression in Yemen, Lebanon, and Qatar and his repression at home. Khashoggi’s family and friends deny that he was active in the Brotherhood.
The President’s verdict was all the more striking because it came just two days after he acknowledged that U.S. officials had heard an audio recording of the execution. “It was very vicious. It was very violent. It was terrible,” Trump told Fox News, on Sunday. Yet, in a foreshadowing of his decision, the President said that he didn’t want to hear the tape. “No reason for me to hear the tape. It’s a suffering tape,” he said.
In yet another falsehood, the President tried to deflect attention on Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder by blaming Iran for regional tensions involving the kingdom. “The world is a very dangerous place!” he said, using one of a half-dozen exclamation points. He charged that Iran was “responsible for a bloody proxy war” against Saudi Arabia in Yemen. In fact, the war was launched by M.B.S. just two months after he became the kingdom’s defense minister, at the age of twenty-nine. Over the next two years, M.B.S. carried out a ruthless campaign in the royal court, ousted two other crown princes, and became his aging father’s heir.
In the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats are considering legislation that would block U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia unless there is an end to the war in Yemen, which is now suffering the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. “Trump is clearly very afraid of the prospect of the Senate delivering a serious rebuke to his policy by voting to end U.S. support for the Yemen war,” Senator Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, tweeted after the Trump statement. “But that is exactly what we will do when we vote on SJ Res 54 next week.” The South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham warned that the United States compromised its long-term national-security interests by looking “the other way when it comes to the brutal murder.” A bipartisan letter written by the top two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, of Tennessee, and Bob Menendez, of New Jersey, called on Trump to “make a determination” about whether the crown prince was indeed responsible.
Since taking office, Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have made Saudi Arabia the linchpin of three of the Administration’s five most important foreign-policy goals: pressuring Iran to change its policies across the Middle East, generating an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, and ending extremism in the age of isis and Al Qaeda. Experts have questioned the ability of the Saudis, or M.B.S., to actually achieve those goals.
Yet Trump, apparently, believes that his policies could be endangered if he spurns Prince Mohammed, who has amassed authoritarian powers. The Prince is now gaming his own rehabilitation, which Trump’s statement will help. The Saudi press recently reported that M.B.S. will represent the kingdom at the annual G20 summit of the world’s twenty most important economies, which is next week in Buenos Aires. Trump is expected to meet with the crown prince there.
As I read the President’s statement, I wondered what Khashoggi—a colleague and old friend who was educated in the United States, has three sons who are U.S. citizens, and went into exile in Washington because he believed it was the safest place on earth for him—would have thought. My bet is that he would have been appalled and saddened. But we’ll never know.
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