Is it really putting “America first” to support Saudi Arabia?
President Donald Trump on Tuesday announced he would continue to stand with Saudi Arabia and its leadership, whether or not Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi — a resident of the United States.
As a major part of his justification for ignoring Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, Trump said in his astonishing statement that breaking with the kingdom would be injurious to “the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”
“Very simply it is called America First!” Trump said.
But is Saudi Arabia really necessary to American security, particularly in what Trump says is his fight to “fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world?”
“Both the arsonists and the firefighters”
Saudi Arabia has a mixed record on terrorism.
On the one hand, as Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2016, the Saudi government has been a “close partner of the United States on counterterrorism.” Indeed, Saudi Arabia is central to Trump’s plans to squeeze Iran, which the president describes as a the world’s main exporter of “violence, bloodshed and chaos.”
The Trump administration is looking to target Iran’s oil market, a scheme that depends on Saudi oil output to offset Tehran’s oil exports the U.S. is seeking to block.
The administration’s plan has been closely coordinated with the Saudis, the New York Times reported in October.
Trump himself lays bare that he sees the Saudi partnership as essential to his plans in Iran, beginning his bizarre, exclamation-laden statement Tuesday by describing the threat he says is posed by Tehran.
“The world is a very dangerous place!” he said.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been part of why the world is so dangerous.
Of the 19 terrorists who attacked the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government has been alleged to have played a supporting role in the attacks. Saudi Arabia has also been known to be a major source of funding for terrorist groups. What’s more, as Byman noted, the Saudi government’s backing of “an array of preachers and nongovernment organizations contributes to an overall climate of radicalization, making it far harder to counter violent extremism.”
The Saudis are, as Brookings’ William McCants told the Times in 2016, “both the arsonists and the firefighters” when it comes to terrorism.
Trump himself once seemed to acknowledge the dangers posed by Saudi Arabia.
Before he began casting Iran as the “world’s leading sponsor of terror,” he bestowed that dubious title on Saudi Arabia.
“It’s the world’s biggest funder of terrorism,” Trump wrote before running for president. “Saudi Arabia funnels our petrodollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.”
He continued to take a tough tone on Saudi Arabia as he ran for president, telling Chuck Todd in 2015 that the “primary reason we are with Saudi Arabia is because we need the oil.”
“Now, we don’t need the oil so much,” he said in the Meet the Press interview, suggesting that Saudi Arabia depends on the U.S. more than the U.S. depends on Saudi Arabia.
It’s not clear exactly what’s changed. Perhaps it’s his plans in Iran. Perhaps it’s his financial interests in Saudi Arabia, which he again falsely claimed did not exist in a typically unhinged press scrum as he left the White House Tuesday afternoon.
Whatever the case, Trump in his statement Tuesday implied that the U.S. could not stand up to the Saudi government without jeopardizing national and regional security.
Despite previously — in his own Trumpian way — noting some of Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations, he parroted the kingdom’s propaganda smearing Khashoggi as he excused the journalist’s grisly execution. In the case of Saudi Arabia’s brutal war in Yemen, he signaled in the statement that he is continuing to back the kingdom, dismissing Saudi responsibility for the humanitarian . Despite its history of funding terrorism, Trump suggested in the statement that investments in the U.S. economy Saudi Arabia may make are more important. And, despite previously maintaining that the U.S. no longer needs Saudi Arabia’s oil, he has bragged that the country lowering its prices was akin to a “big Tax Cut for America and the world.”
“Enjoy!” he tweeted Wednesday morning, praising the country as it faces outcry over the execution of an American resident.
“Thank you to Saudi Arabia,” Trump added Wednesday, “but let’s go lower!”