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“America First! The world is a very dangerous place!” President Donald J. Trump’s opening of his statement on “Standing with Saudi Arabia” (November 20) was eccentric; the ensuing 600-odd words—indubitably his own—appeared to give Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“MbS”) an unqualified and outrageous carte blanche, seven weeks after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. There may be more than meets the eye, however.
A disclaimer first. With my decades long, sometimes passionate, amply documented record of loathing all things Saudi, I do not rejoice at what looks like the President telling a nasty man in charge of a nasty country that he is free to go on acting like a murderous thug that he is. What I sense, however, is that Trump-the-Transactionalist senses an opportunity to grab and hold MbS by his short and curlies, while telling an incredulous world that the Prince is still a good boy intent on reforms like women driving, Saudi Vision 2030, and all that.
The opening of Trump’s statement was replete with visceral Iranophobia:
“The country of Iran . . . is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more . . . The Iranians have killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East. Iran states openly, and with great force, ‘Death to America!’ and ‘Death to Israel!’ Iran is considered the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”
Most of this is nonsense:
Iran’s proven terrorist culpability is way behind that of Saudi Arabia’s.
Viewed in this light, Trump’s statement is pretty horrid. In reality, however, he knows that the Saudi military’s inaptitude and chaotic planning of airstrikes has killed thousands of civilians. He has therefore signalled increasing impatience by cutting off aerial refueling flights for Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen. My bet is that he will use his enormous influence as MbS’s only important friend left in the Western world—and the one who counts more than all others together—to tell the Prince to cut his losses and end the war.
That still leaves open the possibility that Yemen will be used as an auxiliary casus belli with Iran. If instigated, it would turn into a fiasco far bloodier and costly than the one in Iraq. In addition it would be certain to destroy the Trump presidency. That war would not serve any rationally defined American interest. That it would accelerate the decline and perhaps mark the final twilight of the American empire is not a comforting enough thought. But keeping a chastised MbS on a tight leash would at least reduce the danger that he instigates that war with a false flag operation of his own.
The focus of the second part of Trump’s address was on Saudi Arabia’s importance to the U.S. economy:
“After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States… $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors . . . If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!”
The commentariat was horrified. Critics argued that “Trump effectively put a price tag on Khashoggi’s life, signaling to dictators everywhere that they can get away with murder, literally, as long as they say they’ll give America enough cash.” According to the New York Times, “This is a prime example of Mr. Trump’s brutally transactional foreign policy. He is supporting Saudi Arabia because he thinks it is critical for the United States’ defense industry . . . ” This assessment has been replicated a thousand times.
It is more nuanced than that. Trump knows that Saudi Arabia is wavering on its many promises made during his May 2017 visit. He is reminding MbS of last year’s chits, and in addition flouting a specific figure which had never been formally agreed upon by Riyadh. In an October 20 exchange with reporters on America’s response to the Khashoggi murder, he mentioned that figure for the first time: “With all that being said though, we have $450 billion, $110 billion of which is a military order, but this is equipment and various things ordered from Saudi Arabia, $450 billion.”
Furthermore, even the $110 billion in defense sales “is not even remotely solid,” according to U.S. Naval War College professor Jonathan Caverley. “The State Department only counts $14.5 billion in implemented sales from this deal, and even that sum is suspect,” Caverley says. The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which oversees foreign military sales, computed its summary of sales to Saudi Arabia under Trump to just a little over $2 billion.
Repeated insistence on $450/$110 billion looks like Trump actually telling MbS what precisely it will cost him and his treasury if he wants to continue enjoying American support. If he does not play along, Trump may yet release the juiciest parts of the CIA report on Khashoggi, allow a fully-fledged Congressional enquiry to proceed unhindered, and start delaying weapons deliveries. Of course Trump is well aware that Saudi military hardware is incompatible with whatever Russia and China have on offer. His rhetoric is “brutally transactional” indeed, but he is not pandering to MbS. Blackmailing him, more likely.
Finally getting to Khashoggi, Trump duly referred to Saudi claims that “he was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood,” but went on to declare that “my decision is in no way based on that—this is an unacceptable and horrible crime.” Interestingly, his sanctions targeting the members of the muderous team who traveled to Turkey included Saud al-Qahtani, a top adviser to Prince Mohammed, but not Ahmed al-Assiri, ex-chief of the Saudi intelligence service, who MbS’s minions claim had masterminded the plot to kill Khashoggi.
Then came the most interesting part: “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!” Trump’s critics concluded blandly that he is “waiting for the kind of evidence shown on television: a recording of the crown prince giving the order or a confession of one of the kill team members. But enough evidence has emerged for CIA officials to conclude that Prince Mohammed gave the order, according to current and former officials.”
To a trained ear, however, the phrase “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” leaves the door wide open for all sorts of twists and turns in the weeks, months, and even years to come—if MbS ever tries again to become too much of his own man. The Bedouin has tried—in the barbaric tradition of his homeland—to aim way above his station, and failed. Now he’ll pay the price by becoming Trump’s obedient poodle; or else he will risk all manner of unpleasantness if it is determined that “he did it,” after all. On balance this may be wiser than replacing him with a senile geriatric.
Trump knows the score and sees the opportunity. He does not give a hoot that the assorted bien-pensants, deep-staters and Sorosites are shocked, shocked, at his Saudi-related “cynicism.” None of them have ever had any problem celebrating the Albanian organ-trafficking murderers who run today’s ethnically-cleansed Kosovo, or Chechen child-killers, or the assorted riff-raff in charge of various outposts of postmodern democracy in Tirana, Kiev, Sarajevo, Tbilisi, Skopje, Pretoria, etc.
MbS, the SOB we know and control, may still be preferable to a puritanically Muslim regime which would likely come to power after the downfall of the House of Saud.
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