Back in 2006 and 2007, and again in 2011, I wrote about how I view American Exceptionalism. One of the things I focused on was the alliance America made with Saudi Arabia and how it made sense in the context of lessons learned from World War II, particularly around the centrality of oil supplies for any future confrontation with Stalin’s Soviet Union in the European theater. I didn’t see then, and I still do not see now that America was motivated by imperialism or greed or disrespect for Muslim culture and human rights when it decided to help develop the kingdom’s energy supplies. Having said that, things developed as they developed, and in retrospect our relationship with the House of Saud has been a deal with the devil.
We have always had justifiable reasons for wanting access to the oil fields there, and we still have good reasons for wanting a cooperative relationship with the Saudi government. But we can’t deny that the relationship has corrupted us and that is has corrupted them. It seems inevitable that we’d eventually reach a point where the American people and even Congress would question whether the relationship could continue.
It might seem inexplicable that President Trump is refusing to let Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s assassination order against Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi interfere with U.S.-Saudi relations, but it’s really just a naked version of what’s been going on all along. It’s less that Trump is a true outlier than that he doesn’t know how to sugarcoat things.
I actually agree with Trump in the limited sense that we ought not decide whether to support the prince’s war in Yemen or whether to sell the kingdom billions of dollars in arms based on the Khashoggi case. Where we differ is that I don’t think we should have been doing those things in the first place. Yet, at the same time, I also know that we don’t have great choices and that the president is expressing a real concern when he says “I really hope that people aren’t going to suggest that we should not take hundreds of billions of dollars [in arm sales] that they’re going to siphon off to Russia and to China.”
Having Saudi Arabia in our corner has always been, from the very beginning, just as much about denying access to oil and regional bases to our adversaries as it has been about gaining those things for ourselves. We’ve lived with the downsides of this arrangement for decades now, including the 9/11 attacks and all the tragedy that resulted from that, and it seems bizarre that the murder of a single journalist would, by itself, cause a complete reevaluation of our Middle East foreign policy.
We should have embarked on that reevaluation long ago and for different reasons.
Needless to say, I can’t endorse Trump’s behavior here. Even if he were right on the merits, he’s incapable of making the case. And that he is once again ignoring the assessments of his own intelligence agencies to defend the actions of a brutal despot is one more piece of evidence that there’s something deeply wrong with our president that needs to be explained.