Trump Dares Congress to Do What He Won’t on Saudi Arabia

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “The world is a very dangerous place!”

So begins President Donald Trump’s official statement on what he says is the unknowable culpability of Saudi Arabia’s crown prince for the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

It made for a strange moment. The Trump administration has never gone in for the grammar and fluency of past presidential proclamations, but even by its standards, this was something else — basically an extended tweet on White House stationary. And the first sentence was the most important.

If Trump publicly acknowledges the obvious — that, as the CIA has concluded, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for Khashoggi’s murder — then he would also be signaling an openness to undermining an important ally at a time when the U.S. needs it as a consumer of weapons, a producer of oil and a bulwark against Iran. “We may never know.” “The world is a very dangerous place.”

Not so long ago, most of Congress would have basically agreed with this approach. Democrats and Republicans were pleased last year to court the Saudi crown prince on his tour of America. They praised his domestic reforms. There were rough edges, the thinking went, but he was on our side.

It’s a familiar pattern. When it comes to America’s abuser allies, the crutch of realpolitik has propped up the foreign policies of past presidents for decades. Barack Obama’s administration wouldn’t call the military’s ouster of an elected president in Egypt a “coup” and he never cut off military aid to Egypt, even after its military slaughtered dozens of protestors in Cairo in 2013. George W. Bush tolerated many deceptions, crackdowns and double-dealing from Pakistan, even though Osama bin Laden himself was living in a compound down the road from its military academy. Ronald Reagan supported apartheid South Africa because it was on America’s side against international communism.

Trump’s case is slightly different because he can’t even get the realpolitik right. It’s true that Saudi Arabia could in theory choose to purchase its arms from China or Russia, as the president warns. But given its decades-long reliance on the U.S., that transition would take years — years the Saudis do not have in their current conflict with Iran. That’s the real reason the Saudi alliance is in the U.S. national interest. The kingdom’s enemies are America’s enemies. 

With that in mind, a better approach for Trump would have been to say nothing for now and focus behind the scenes on spurring more Saudi reforms and concessions. Under this scenario, Congress could have been a good foil. Trump could have privately demanded the Saudis release journalists and human-rights activists from prison and take more seriously a peace process in Yemen. If the Saudis balked, Trump could say he doesn’t know how much longer he can hold off Congress.

Now Congress has no incentive to wait. If Trump won’t hold the crown prince accountable, it will. The most serious bill to watch in this regard is the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act. That legislation would suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, mandate sanctions on all those responsible for the Khashoggi murder, prohibit midair refueling for Saudi planes in the Yemen war and require the State Department to report on war crimes committed in Yemen. Earlier this year, this kind of proposal would have gotten support only from the fringes of both parties. Now it’s mainstream.

For more than 70 years Republicans and Democrats have supported the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Even Obama sold the Saudis advanced weapons after negotiating the Iran nuclear deal. It was Obama who first authorized the midair refueling of Saudi planes for the Yemen war the Trump administration this month suspended.

A savvier president would have appreciated this history and tried to turn the Khashoggi crisis into an opportunity to change Saudi behavior. Instead, Trump has essentially dared Congress to act. In so doing, he has lost his leverage to shape the punishment for a heinous crime. Because of his abdication, America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is in a very dangerous place.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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