President Trump’s refusal to cancel arms sales to Saudi Arabia, in response to the disappearance and likely murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, is certainly cruel, cold, and callow—a dark parody of realpolitik foreign policy. But his rationale for doing so is also based on several false premises, and it reflects Trump’s stunning weakness as an international negotiator.
In a session with reporters Thursday afternoon, Trump was asked about calls by several senators to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Trump replied, “This took place in Turkey, and, to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen.” (Prompted by an aide, Trump noted that he is “a permanent resident.”) Trump then said, “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money coming into our country. I don’t like stopping an investment of $110 billion in the United States.”
The heartlessness of the remark needs no elaboration. The inaccuracies are worth pointing out. First, the abduction of Khashoggi did not take place “in Turkey,” but rather in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul—which, by law and practice, is considered Saudi territory.
Second, when Trump visited Saudi Arabia in May 2017, he boasted—as he did again at Thursday’s press event—that he’d signed $110 billion in arms sales contracts, but this was nowhere near true. Glenn Kessler, in the Washington Post, cites State Department data indicating that actual signed contracts for arms sales since that meeting amount to just $4 billion.
In 2017, acting on contracts signed before Trump was president, the Saudis spent about $10 billion on arms imports—$6 billion from the United States, $2.3 billion from Britain, and almost all of the rest from other European countries.
Finally, just saying what Trump said—implying that the Saudis held all the cards and he held none—no doubt sent a message to Saudi rulers that the president of the United States wasn’t going to hold them responsible, wasn’t going to take any severe action, and ultimately didn’t much care what happened. (This was likely the calculation before Khashoggi was nabbed; it is hard to imagine these rulers would have put this plan in motion if they thought the president would disapprove.)
After all, Trump claimed, the Saudis could go elsewhere for weapons—send billions of dollars to other countries—if Congress banned all deals. But this isn’t true, at least not in the short term. They need spare parts and ammunition for the American weapons already in their arsenals. Those items don’t cost much money, but if they were cut off, the Saudis’ brutal war in Yemen would grind to a halt—which is what many in Congress, and elsewhere, would like to see happen. It would take many months, even years, for the Saudis to establish new relations with another supplier and receive parts, training, and infrastructure.
But let’s say the Saudis could, and did, go elsewhere to buy weapons quickly. So what? As Trump pointed out, somewhat incongruously, in the same session with reporters, the U.S. economy is in good shape right now. That being the case, why place the mercantilist rush of a few billion dollars in arms contracts above U.S. interests and values?
At this point in the two countries’ long “special relationship,” the Saudis enjoy very little leverage. Bruce Riedel, a former career CIA analyst and now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said in an email Thursday evening that the Saudis are in no position to retaliate to an arms sales ban by, say, reducing oil exports—which could raise gas prices, something that Trump might fear in the weeks before midterms. The Saudis, Riedel said, “have serious cash flow problems with a war that costs them $50 billion a year.” The crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, “is shaking down his own businessmen because he needs the money.”
In comments to Foreign Policy magazine, Riedel stated that Crown Prince Mohammed’s bizarre and violent behavior in recent months “reflects the somewhat precarious nature” of his position in power: “His legitimacy is open, and his judgment is reckless.” He “continues to enjoy the protection of his father, and that’s what’s crucial.” But, Riedel concluded, “I would not be surprised if he were moved out of the line of succession or there was an assassination attempt.”
The crown prince has presented himself as a harbinger of Western-style reform, passing edicts that allow Saudi women to drive and attend sports events, among other social and cultural innovations. The Khashoggi incident hurls his reputation into grave doubt. Several Western businessmen and media sponsors have pulled out of an upcoming Davos-style conference, called the Future Investment Initiative, which the crown prince is sponsoring and where he’s scheduled to speak.
It is also an extreme embarrassment to Trump, not only because the royal family feted him with such shrewdness during his visit to Riyadh last year but also because Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, singled out Crown Prince Mohammed as the likely heir to the throne and cultivated a close friendship with him.
Finally, at his U.N. General Assembly speech in September, Trump himself hailed Saudi Arabia for its “bold new reforms” and cited it—along with India, Israel, and Poland—as a “very special” land, “shining brightly” in the “constellation of nations.”
To confront the very special rulers too brusquely on the Khashoggi incident, much less to accept a harsh verdict and to act on its implications, would to be confess mistaken judgment—and that is the one thing that Trump is least willing to do.