The Middle East, like the rest of the world, is a “very dangerous place!” according to President Trump. The Saudis, with America’s tacit help, made it so.
President Trump’s bizarre statement giving Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MbS) a pass on his involvement in journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder raises a number of serious issues that Trump has cavalierly dismissed. Beyond the lame rationale he has offered in defense of MbS, the president is undermining America’s long-term interests in the region and is putting the lives of American citizens – civilians, diplomats and military – in that part of the world at risk.
By attributing such lofty “transactional” doctrines as the realpolitik and liberal order paradigm to the statement is to presume that the president had studied the realities of the Middle East, the history and dynamics of American-Saudi relations over the years, the Saudi role in preaching a radical version of Sunni Islam in the past half century, or the emergence of the international order since World War II. The piece failed to show any such analytic depth or informed expertise. Instead, it was no more than an Iran-bashing ode to Arab dictators, including MbS. It takes the president’s dystopian view of the world to another level.
Trump’s statement has reduced the American-Saudi strategic partnership, which for decades has been based on states regardless of who is in power in either country, to specific persons – Trump on the American side and MbS on the Saudi side. Saudi kings have guarded the relationship because it served the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia, not any one leader. The partnership has devolved into a series of pronouncements driven by the whims and predilections of two people, Trump and MbS.
Since the beginning of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and the president’s refusal to criticize Putin, people have asked, “What does Putin have on Trump?” With the recent pro-Saudi statement, one might legitimately ask, “What does MbS have on Trump?”
Two other dangers loom over the horizon because of Trump’s pro-MbS posture. He has undercut the veracity and effectiveness of the U.S. intelligence community and has given a green light to dictators to persecute their opponents at will without accountability. Like the military, American intelligence has been at the front lines in the defense of this country and its citizens. The stars engraved on the main lobby wall at CIA headquarters testify to the ultimate sacrifice that CIA officers have made over the years.
The intelligence community does not make a “high confidence” judgment lightly. Such a judgment must be based on first-hand information, including intercepts of phone calls, messages and personal conversations. Determining the degree of confidence is based on the facts in question, the source of such facts, and the access and knowledge of the source. If the recent media leak about MbS’ culpability is accurate, then the CIA judgment that he approved the murder in advance is correct.
It’s sad that the president of the United States, the primary “consumer” of U.S. intelligence, has rejected the CIA’s judgment. CIA analysts do not deal with “feelings,” as the president has claimed, but with corroborated evidence. Equally disturbing is Trump’s message to the world that he doesn’t trust his own intelligence community. How can intelligence officers function under such a cloud of high-level suspicion? Isn’t this the best Thanksgiving gift that Trump is giving to America’s adversaries, including the Saudi autocrat?
Just because the world is a dangerous place, the United States should not disengage from it. To do so is an abandonment of the democratic values it stands for. The world doesn’t respect the United States solely because of its military might. The sooner the United States realizes that its “spectacular ally” MbS has contributed to making the Middle East more dangerous, the sooner Washington will begin to look for solutions. Trump’s statement giving MbS a pass on murdering Khashoggi is a step in the wrong direction.
Emile Nakhleh is a retired senior intelligence service office and was awarded the Director’s Medal while at CIA. A longer version of this article was originally published on LobeLog.