President Donald Trump’s statement siding with Saudi Arabia on the issue of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi sent shockwaves through American media and Washington, D.C., raising questions about America’s commitment to holding accountable regimes that commit human-rights atrocities.
The president’s statement — which he personally dictated, according to news accounts — was perhaps the best window yet into Mr. Trump’s transactional worldview. A businessman, who promised to operate government like a business, used business deals to justify his position. On this, there should be no shock. To be sure, many Americans voted for precisely this kind of thinking in which economic realism trumps abstract idealism.
But a different communications route was available to the president that would have preserved his desire to stand with the House of Saud and its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman while acknowledging the broader geopolitical equities in the region.
Speaking in a public conversation with this columnist at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center on Nov. 16, I asked Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer how his government could trust the Saudi regime following its blatant, ham-handed lying about Khashoggi’s killing. Dermer made three points that President Trump should have borrowed to justify our government’s position.
First, Mr. Dermer said that the United States must communicate that actions like this “cannot happen with impunity.” The president’s statement fell short of such condemnation, as Mr. Trump again cast doubt on his own government’s intelligence community in its assessment that the crown prince “personally ordered” Khashoggi’s murder. While there is probably not enough time in the lame-duck session of Congress for a free-standing sanctions bill, the legislative branch can pick up the ball in January and send a clear, bipartisan message (the way it has done on Russian sanctions) that murdering journalists won’t be tolerated by the American people.
Second, Mr. Dermer said the United States “must be careful” not to “undermine” its relationship with Saudi Arabia over this incident, as horrific as it was. Dermer said that could lead to a destabilization of the Middle East, which has implications for ongoing efforts to contain the evil regime in Iran. There are behind-the-scenes conversations among American, Saudi and Israeli officials about the forthcoming peace plan from Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and how the three allies will work together to combat Iran’s influence and bring peace to the Middle East.
Finally, Mr. Dermer said he still believes Crown Prince Mohammed can be a force for modernizing Saudi Arabia and praised his statements on Iran, in which he likened Iran’s supreme leader to Hitler.
Ambassador Dermer’s three-part statement is a reasonable position for the American government: human-rights atrocities won’t be tolerated, but we must accept the world as it is and do everything possible to circumvent the Iranian regime and bring peace to the Middle East. Handling Saudi Arabia this way would have helped Mr. Trump avoid the appearance of placing a price tag on Mr. Khashoggi’s life and would not have signaled to the world’s dictators that America will look the other way if you buy enough airplanes or pump enough oil.
The disappointment felt by American journalists over Mr. Trump’s words exceeds that of the average American, to whom Mr. Khashoggi was not a household name. And the outrage exhibited by the American left rings hollow when you consider its deafening silence as President Barack Obama dithered while Syrian dictator Bashar Assad murdered thousands of women and children with chemical weapons.
Those who are outraged today over the killing of one man — and it is outrage-worthy — should ask themselves if they felt that same emotion when Obama failed to enforce his Syrian red line. And if they did not, perhaps they should admit their anger with Mr. Trump is driven as much by their hatred for him generally as their views on America’s moral leadership.
While it is not typically advisable to put all your eggs in one basket, Mr. Trump has done just that with the Saudis as he works to contain Iran and make deals that benefit American workers and consumers. The trouble with the Middle East is that there aren’t too many baskets in which to put eggs, and the president has chosen the most willing partner — imperfect as the Saudis are — to help America achieve its larger objectives.
Let us pray the Saudis don’t let the president down, and that turning a blind eye to Mr. Khashoggi’s murder is ultimately worth the price.
SCOTT JENNINGS is a native of Dawson Springs. He is a CNN Contributor, Partner at RunSwitch Public Relations and a Resident Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @ScottJenningsKY on Twitter. This column first appeared in the Courier Journal.