President Donald Trump has long viewed foreign policy as a series of business deals, stripped of values and idealism. But his 633-word statement on Tuesday about the brutal killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi showed the extent to which he believes that raw, mercantilist calculations should guide the United States’ decisions about the Middle East and the wider world.
Trump made clear that he sees alliances as transactional, based on which foreign partners buy the most weapons. American jobs outweigh American values. And all countries act abhorrently, so an American president should never hold friends to different standards than enemies.
Tuesday’s message could become something of a blueprint for foreign leaders — a guide to how they might increase their standing in the eyes of the U.S. president as well as how far they can go in crushing domestic critics without raising U.S. ire.
It was also a revealing meditation on the role that Trump believes facts should play in political decision-making. The CIA concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia had ordered Khashoggi’s killing, U.S. officials said last week. But on Tuesday, the president dismissed not only that assessment but also the very process of seeking the truth, implying that it did not really matter anyway. (“Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump wrote of Crown Prince Mohammed.) Instead, the decisions of a president should be guided by what is best for the economy and the United States’ security.
Trump’s words dealt a blow to Turkey, a U.S. ally and fellow member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that has demanded that Saudi Arabia be punished for killing Khashoggi last month inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. But Trump’s message was warmly welcomed by other U.S. allies in the Middle East who value close ties with Washington but want to be left to rule as they wish.
“Trump will be viewed as a very courageous president who stuck to his guns and went against the Washington consensus,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist from the United Arab Emirates. “Big thank you, Mr. President, from this part of the world. This firm stance will never be forgotten by Riyadh and the other Arab Gulf capitals, and will be reciprocated handsomely on many issues.”
Tuesday’s statement also echoed the president’s past attempts to draw an equivalence between nations that use murder as a tool of power. During an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News weeks after taking office, Trump played down President Vladimir Putin’s history of ordering extrajudicial killings — comparing it to U.S. history and saying that the United States was better off in the long run being Russia’s friend rather than foe.
Similarly, Trump largely absolved Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for civilian casualties and the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen by pinning the blame for the war there on Iran. “The world is a very dangerous place!” the statement began.
It was a succinct summation of Trump’s view of the Middle East, where his top priorities remain protecting Israel, fighting terrorism and pushing back against Iran, which he considers the engine behind instability in Lebanon and the wars in Yemen and Syria.
Since Trump’s election, Saudi Arabia successfully pitched itself to Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, as the Middle Eastern ally with both the standing and the cash to help with all these issues.
“The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region,” Trump said.
In some parts of the statement, Trump went further than Saudi officials have in describing the relationship and the killing. Saudi Arabia still has no formal relations with Israel, despite Trump’s praise of Saudi Arabia as serving Israel’s interests. And Trump said that Saudi representatives had called Khashoggi “an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood,” an accusation that no Saudi official has leveled publicly. Prince Khalid bin Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed’s younger brother and the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., even called Khashoggi a “friend” after the dissident disappeared but before he was confirmed dead.
Hours after the White House released Trump’s statement, he added during a lengthy news conference on the South Lawn that Saudi Arabia’s stranglehold on global oil prices gave the kingdom enormous leverage over his decisions. Push Crown Prince Mohammed too far, he suggested, and Saudi Arabia could cut oil production — leading to oil prices of $150 a barrel.
The president’s critics on Capitol Hill reacted angrily, saying that Trump ceded American authority on human-rights issues to get more arms deals for defense companies.
“I’m pretty sure this statement is Saudi Arabia First, not America First,” Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., wrote on Twitter.
The Khashoggi statement could further strain American relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, which had already soured over trade issues, Turkey’s detention of an American pastor and the United States’ support for a Kurdish militia in Syria that Turkey considers a terrorist organization.
Around the world, reactions largely broke down between those who wish that the U.S. and its Western allies would stay out of how they run their countries and those who believe that the U.S. should show moral leadership and stand up for international norms.
“It is a terrible reminder of how precarious the leadership situation in the United States and Saudi Arabia is in terms of adhering to the rule of law and to common decency and ethics,” said Rami G. Khouri, a journalist in residence at the American University of Beirut and a senior fellow at the Kennedy School at Harvard University. “The message is that we are now in the era of strongmen or mafia rule that is gradually dominating the region.”