In the entire chronicle of the United States’ diplomatic history, President Trump’s statement of November 20 on Standing with Saudi Arabia will remain as a unique document for its extraordinary frankness. It is one thing for outsiders to estimate the US foreign policies to be utterly self-centred, money-minded, unprincipled and bordering on the cynical. But it is an entirely different matter that the POTUS confirms it.
The stunning message coming out of Trump’s statement on Tuesday is that all that talk of American “exceptionalism” is plain baloney. Trump wants to move on. What Jamal Khashoggi?
Having said that, Trump’s statement is more or less on expected lines. In a single sentence, it can be paraphrased as follows: “The Arab sheikhs are gooses that lay the golden egg and we won’t kill them”.
But then, there are subplots, too. Most important, Trump scrupulously avoids defending the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. On the contrary, he does not rule out the possibility that the intelligence agencies who “continue to assess all information” pertaining to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi may even establish at some future date that “the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
Trump is either unsure himself or knows more than he’s willing to admit publicly. Significantly, Trump makes a distinction between King Salman and the Crown Prince. Trump then adds, “In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”
Trump also lists out Saudi Arabia’s importance to the US: its willingness to bankroll America’s fight against “Radical Islamic Terrorism”, its agreement to “spend and invest” US$450 billion in the American economy (including $110 billion on purchase of military equipment) and by being “very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels… ”
In effect, this has been a smart way of putting across to the Saudi leadership Trump’s expectations in the period ahead – without saying so in as many words. Quite obviously, this is a “win-win” for Trump.
On the one hand, he takes the moral high ground by condemning Khashoggi’s “terrible” murder and by ostentatiously distancing himself from the official Saudi stance on Khashoggi’s murder. That creates space for him to maneuver and fine tune his attitudes as time passes in what is essentially an evolving situation, keeping in mind the possibility that there could be more disclosures – above all, from Turkey.
At any rate, Trump point blank refuses to punish Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi affair or put US-Saudi relations in jeopardy. He justifies it by insisting that he is only safeguarding national interests and is championing “America First”. To be sure, Trump has the domestic constituency in mind and his political instincts tell him that the US Congress will not push the envelope and push him to act against Saudi Arabia.
Without doubt, Trump expects the Saudi regime to show reciprocity for such “generosity” by fulfilling his demands – generously funding the US’ military operations in the Greater Middle East, lavishly investing in America First, generating massive business for American arms vendors, and keeping oil production at high level to prevent prices from rising (which is important for the US economy.)
However, the terrible beauty of all this is that Trump is not contemplating the need of Saudis making any policy corrections. Even as regards the war in Yemen, he makes no demands.
But then, Trump also didn’t say a word to support the present Saudi leadership in the Khashoggi affair. Notably, his statement is at best ambivalent about the Crown Prince – “all options are on the table”, as the Americans would say.
Conceivably, Trump anticipates that the continuance of Mohammad bin Salman as the Crown Prince may become a sticking point – and that the jury is still out. Indeed, there is a lot of food for thought in Trump’s statement for the Saudi Crown Prince.
The big question is how Trump’s statement will be seen in the international opinion. For good or bad, it is going to be held as a benchmark by the US’ allies. Plainly put, Trump is signaling that he favors pushing the Khashoggi affair under the rug. Such brazen pragmatism is unlikely to pose a moral dilemma or shock the Western sensibility insofar as doublespeak and hypocrisy is not uncommon in western polices. Libya and Iraq are two glaring examples.
Having said that, US’ moral authority has suffered grievously. It has been severely damaged. And this would have negative repercussions for the US’ standing globally and in particular for Trump’s campaign against Iran. His fulminations against Iran in the statement carry no credibility.