Trump Saudi statement What the president’s words reveal
“Statement from President Donald J Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia” – the title of the White House release leaves little doubt about where he comes down on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
With the US Central Intelligence Agency reportedly poised to conclude that senior members of the Saudi Arabian government were responsible for Khashoggi’s death, Mr Trump’s move could be viewed as an attempt to pre-empt that finding and clearly indicate that a strong US-Saudi alliance will continue undeterred.
Each section of the exclamation-point-filled presidential statement (full transcript at foot of page) merits closer inspection.
The world is a very dangerous place!
Say what you want, the president knows how to write a good opening. In two lines, he offers a distillation of his foreign policy priorities – contrasting the supremacy of American interests with a dismal view of the rest of the world, where bad things often happen beyond US control.
Iran states openly, and with great force, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” Iran is considered “the world’s leading sponsor of terror”.
Mr Trump very quickly pivots in his statement to talking about Iran and the destabilising role he says the nation plays in the region. They are the ones who denounce the US in the harshest of terms; they are the ones who have killed “many Americans and other innocent people”; they are the ones who have supported Syria’s Bashar Assad kill his own citizens.
All this is the president’s initial effort to set up a stark contrast with Saudi Arabia and put the death of one man – Khashoggi – up against the deaths of thousands.
Trump backs Saudi Arabia despite murder
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave. They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance.
The Saudis have come under intense criticism for their involvement in the Yemeni civil war, including aerial bombardment that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. After condemning Iran, Mr Trump absolves the Saudis of responsibility for the humanitarian crisis that has ensued.
After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States.
One of the central tenets of Mr Trump’s “America first” foreign policy is that the US has paid an economic price by having been taken advantage of by the rest of the world. In this next paragraph, the president gets to the nuts and bolts of why he views close relations with the Saudis not just as an issue of national security but of domestic prosperity, as well.
Jamal Khashoggi’s murder
Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that – this is an unacceptable and horrible crime.
After contrasting Iran’s malevolence with Saudi Arabia’s noble intentions, and laying out what he sees as the economic and security benefits of US-Saudi relations, Mr Trump finally turns to the details of Khashoggi’s murder, which he describes as a “terrible” and “horrible” crime.
He says 17 Saudis are known to have been responsible, and they have been sanctioned, but after that he draws the line.
In a remarkable passage, he notes that the Saudis viewed Khashoggi as an “enemy of the state” and (erroneously) as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. While he says that didn’t influence his decision, he also doesn’t refute them – and the mere mention of these accusations directed against a permanent resident of the US by the president lends them some credence.
The Trump doctrine
I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America.
Mr Trump closes with what can be called the Trump Doctrine – that in a dangerous world, perceived humanitarian concerns must take a back seat to US economic and military security.
Congress, he says, may want to go “in a different direction” – much as it did by imposing additional sanctions on Russia against the president’s wishes in 2017. Mr Trump, however, sets very clear parameters for the kinds of measures he will “consider”.
The idea of prioritising pragmatic national interests – realpolitik, in the term coined by Ludwig von Rochau – is nothing new in US foreign policy, of course. From Richard Nixon’s China diplomacy to George HW Bush’s Gulf War, international relations is frequently an exercise in hard, often unpleasant choices.
Rarely, however, are the cold calculations laid out as bluntly as Mr Trump has done time and time again with his “America First” foreign policy.