After several weeks of equivocation regarding its position vis-à-vis the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the White House just released a formal statement on behalf of President Donald J. Trump essentially depicting the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) as a “great ally” and absolving Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) from any responsibility for the crime. The statement issued on November 20, 2018, claims that the Trump Administration does not condone the “terrible” crime against Khashoggi and insists that Washington has already “sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body.” In other words, the administration made its intention quite clear that it does not intend to take any additional action to censure, sanction, or punish MbS for the heinous crime in question.
The statement was shocking for various reasons. First and foremost, it contradicted the recent assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which concluded that MbS had ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. It is quite extraordinary for the president of the United States to publicly discard a formal assessment by the US intelligence community, particularly two days after asking American intelligence services to proceed with a new assessment of the Khashoggi affair. It is clear to any objective observer that Trump was seeking to preempt the CIA from issuing its updated assessment or, even worse, trying to subvert the statement because he did not approve of its content—even though he personally requested it. What indeed is obvious is that the US president sided with a foreign country—Saudi Arabia—against his own intelligence agency.
This represents a rare slap in the face of US intelligence in modern American history. It also leaves American intelligence agencies out in the cold by a president who has disdain for all government institutions and the personnel who serve them. On November 16, these agencies––most prominently the CIA––directly linked MbS to Khashoggi’s killing. Still, in his decision about such a grave matter, the president exonerated the one person whom no one in the kingdom dares to ignore when making any decisions. In that, Trump’s reasoning was no different than when, on July 16, he gave a pass to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, who denied Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election. With the chief executive—the president of the United States—disbelieving them, it is hard to see how American intelligence agencies can be of assistance in the future for this or subsequent administrations.
What also adds to the proverbial stink of ignoring the work of intelligence analysts is the unabashed defense of Trump’s statement by none other than the former director of the CIA, current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Acting as a defender of the president instead of protector of America’s reputation around the world, Pompeo affirmed the United States’ “long, historic commitment” to Saudi Arabia “that is absolutely vital to Americans’ national security.” It appears that the diplomacy and soft power that had been bedrocks of American foreign policy––of which Pompeo is a steward––have been replaced by a cold calculation that oil and guns must always trump morals and common decency. It is indeed hard to see how in the future the secretary will be able, with a straight face, to criticize Egypt’s, China’s, or Russia’s human rights abuses, chastise Philippine authorities for extrajudicial killings, or warn Myanmar’s military against ethnic cleansing. What is not hard to see is the top US diplomat’s complete abdication of his responsibility to uphold what passes for American ideals––or at least a pretense that they exist––in the service of a transactional president with no qualms about throwing his own people under the bus.
Second, the Trump statement tends to conflate the alliance between Washington and Riyadh with the person of the Saudi crown prince. For better or worse, Saudi Arabia is an ally of the United States, a fact borne by seven decades of a relationship based on mutual interests. However, this relationship is not, and has never been, personalized or bound to a single person on the American or the Saudi side. One could argue that KSA, to a certain extent, is too big to drop or punish for various economic, political, and strategic reasons, but the same logic does not apply to individuals—Mohammed bin Salman or any other Saudi leader.
Third, the presidential statement is based on contradictory and exaggerated notions that President Trump seems determined to continue articulating to the detriment of his personal credibility and that of the presidency. Once again, he highlights the importance of KSA to Washington based on Saudi commitments in 2017 to spend and or invest $450 billion in the United States. The amount is certainly significant; however, it has not materialized, nor does it appear to be available for such purposes soon. So, the president is once again jeopardizing the credibility of the United States by basing his argument on an imaginary transaction that, in practice, has no value.
Fourth, Trump brags in his statement, as he has done repeatedly in the past, about the $110 billion spent by Saudi Arabia on the purchase of US military equipment. Undoubtedly, the kingdom is a major arms client, but that does not negate other considerations in formulating US foreign policy, including adherence to US and international law and basic principles of human rights and ethics. Furthermore, from a global power perspective, cutting or withholding US arms from close allies does not necessarily translate into direct gains for Russia and China or any other competitor in terms of arms sales. It takes decades for countries to shift from American to Russian or Chinese weapon systems and vice versa. It is the ultimate moral bankruptcy for a country that claims leadership of the democratic world to opt to support arms sales over adherence to principles of human rights and international law. To justify the Trump Administration’s statement, it is an easy moral copout to hide behind what Secretary Pompeo said, that “It’s a mean, nasty world out there – the Middle East in particular.”
Fifth, Trump appears to undermine his own logic by essentially issuing this presidential pardon to Mohammed bin Salman in the absence of definitive evidence to justify it. The president reiterated that, “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump concluded, “We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.” If that is indeed the case, US national interests would have been better served by withholding such futile statements of denial and disclaimer until Saudi, Turkish, and US investigations and assessments are completed.