Trump’s infatuation with Saudi Arabia is bad for US interests

President Donald Trump is contemptuous of many U.S. allies, from Canada to Germany, but he is exceedingly – and puzzlingly – solicitous toward Saudi Arabia.

His affection for Riyadh was on display Wednesday when the administration refused to allow CIA Director Gina Haspel to testify before the Senate about her agency‘s “high confidence” judgment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In her place went Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis. They had to tap-dance around the inconvenient truth that there is no way that a Saudi goon squad that included members of the crown prince‘s personal security detail could possibly have murdered a high-profile journalist in a Saudi consulate without the crown prince‘s express approval. Senators were predictably and rightly unimpressed.

Mattis disingenuously said: “We have no smoking gun.” But you don‘t need a tape of the crown prince saying “Kill Khashoggi” to conclude that the operation was indeed his handiwork. I have great respect for Mattis. So I am saddened to see him catering to the president with this deliberately deceptive – if technically accurate – statement.

Pompeo went even further in an outrageously unconvincing Wall Street Journal op-ed that reads as if it were dictated by the crown prince‘s high-priced public relations agents (which, for all we know, it might have been). Pompeo began on a partisan, not diplomatic, note by writing: “The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on.” This is a curious way to describe genuine and deserved outrage over the dismemberment of someone who was not just a “Saudi national” but also a U.S. resident and a contributor to a U.S. newspaper.

The next paragraph contained this questionable assertion: “The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East.” That has been true historically but is not now the case under the direction of a crown prince who has kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon, held hundreds of the kingdom‘s richest men hostage, launched an unwinnable war in Yemen, and blockaded Qatar. Investors wouldn‘t be fleeing the kingdom if it were as stable as Pompeo suggests.

Pompeo claims that “Saudi Arabia is working to secure Iraq‘s fragile democracy,” which, if true, would be a first – Saudi Arabia spent most of the post-Saddam Hussein period backing Sunni sectarians who undermined the prospects of Iraq‘s nascent democracy. Pompeo further boasts of Riyadh‘s “ties with Israel,” without mentioning that those ties have not produced a breakthrough for peace as the administration had hoped.

Pompeo is right that the Saudis have “contributed millions of dollars to the U.S.-led effort to fight Islamic State and other terrorist organizations,” that their oil production is important for “global energy security,” and that Saudis recognize “the immense threat the Islamic Republic of Iran poses to the world.” Where he is wrong is to imply that the Saudis are doing any of this as a favor to us or that they would stop doing so if we were to hold the crown prince to account for his alleged crimes. The Saudis pump oil because that‘s how they can buy yachts and Learjets, and they oppose the Islamic State and Iran because those entities are a threat to their opulent existence.

Pompeo moves from unconvincing to farcical when he writes: “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has invested billions to relieve suffering in Yemen.” The Saudi bombing campaign has contributed to what the United Nations describes as the world‘s worst humanitarian crisis, with 8 million people on the brink of starvation. The crown prince‘s blundering intervention is creating chaos and suffering that benefits both Iran and Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (the group‘s Yemen branch). That‘s why the Senate sent an important signal on Wednesday by voting, over administration protests, to advance a bill that would cut off U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen.

Pompeo‘s uncritical parroting of pro-Saudi talking points is no more convincing than his boss‘s continual claims that the Saudis are buying $110 billion of U.S. arms – a wildly inflated figure that, according to ABC News, was deliberately falsified by Jared Kushner.

So what’s really behind the administration’s tilt toward the crown prince? Is it simply the president’s susceptibility to dictatorial flattery? His financial interests? His former attorney, Michael Cohen, just admitted that Trump was pursuing a business deal in Russia during the 2016 campaign – is there a similar deal in Saudi Arabia? (In 2015, Trump said : “I get along great with all of them; they buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much!”) The relationship between the two crown princes – Kushner and Mohammed? Or something else? That is a riddle that the Democratic-controlled House can try to unravel next year.

Whatever the case, it’s obvious that Trump’s infatuation with the crown prince isn’t serving U.S. interests. No one is suggesting that the United States jettison the Saudi alliance. But remember who has the upper hand here. As Trump himself said not long ago, the king wouldn’t last “two weeks” without the military protection the United States provides. It is a mystery why the United States, which should be the master in this relationship, acts as the servant of the Saudis.

Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.”

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