Trump's Saudi embrace was always complicated

President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner are learning that hyper-personalized family diplomacy and throwing ...

Posted: Oct 12, 2018 12:27 PM
Updated: Oct 12, 2018 12:27 PM

President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner are learning that hyper-personalized family diplomacy and throwing in their lot with foreign strongmen can come at a damaging political price.

The disappearance and possible murder of the US-based dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is primarily a searing individual tragedy wrapped in an international criminal mystery.

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It also has profound geopolitical consequences in a torn region bristling with tensions.

But the saga is resonating so broadly in Washington because of what it reveals about the idiosyncratic and gut-level calls that drive the Trump administration's approach to wielding US power.

The saga, which has embarrassed Trump and exposed him to rising political heat, underlines the risk he and his son-in-law and Middle East fixer took in anchoring US foreign policy to the Saudi regime and the erratic and ruthless Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as he is known.

Their approach, launched as the Saudis dazzled Trump with a sumptuous sword dancing welcome on his first trip abroad last year, was already under fire in Congress, owing to thousands of civilian deaths in the Saudi air war in Yemen.

But it took the fate of a journalist who works for The Washington Post -- which is headquartered a 10-minute walk from the White House -- to turn the issue from an easily ignored foreign policy debate into a political crisis that reaches into the Oval Office.

It has meant repeated awkward moments for the President, at a time when he's been chatty with reporters because he thinks he's on a roll, and is raising the possibility Congress may step in to try to force him to punish the Saudis, in a challenge to the White House's power to dictate foreign policy.

"What happened is a terrible thing, assuming that happened. I mean, maybe we'll be pleasantly surprised, but somehow I tend to doubt it," Trump said Wednesday when asked about Khashoggi, who Saudi Arabia has denied assassinating.

But Trump also made clear that even if the Saudis are to blame, the episode should not derail a critical US commercial and defense alliance in which he has sunk immense political capital and that is critical to his ambitions of squeezing Iran in a new confrontational policy.

"I don't like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States, because you know what they're going to do, they're going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China," Trump said.

Embrace of strongmen

Trump's embrace of the Saudis is consistent with his admiration for strong, often undemocratic leaders around the world. It reflects an approach to foreign policy that is largely reliant on extracting economic leverage and deals for the United States.

But recent events are raising the possibility that Kushner has stumbled out of his depth in the treacherous jungle of Middle Eastern power politics and the question of whether he has shackled the US to an uncontrollable, reckless force in MBS.

The administration may also have to answer whether its positioning and rhetoric -- including Trump's claims that reporters are the "enemy of the people" -- have given its autocratic allies license to pursue even more flagrant policies.

The President's statements showed how he often downplays US values, including human rights and the rule of law, that have traditionally helped shape American foreign policy. So it's possible that even the death of a reporter who worked for a US newspaper and the subsequent global outrage will fail to change his mind.

After all, Trump has in the past not been deterred from sitting down with foreign autocrats even though they were accused, like the Saudis, of mounting assassination missions on the soil of American allies.

He met Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland, after the Russian President's spies were accused of attempting to kill a Russian defector and his daughter in Britain with a nerve agent.

And Trump met Kim Jong Un in Singapore just over a year after North Korean agents were accused of murdering Kim's half brother in a Malaysian airport with another highly toxic nerve agent.

Still, the controversy over what the Saudis are suspected of doing to Khashoggi is exposing the domestic political vulnerabilities of Trump's approach.

"The Trump administration has basically subordinated our policy in the Gulf to MBS, and now I think we are seeing the cost of that decision," said Max Boot, a CNN national security commentator.

Had US-Saudi policy been handled in a traditional way, with the details left to lower-level diplomats, it would have been easier to flip questions to the State Department and to insulate the White House from political pressure.

But Kushner is family, and his channel to the Saudi royals makes it impossible for Trump to put distance between himself and the source of the controversy, MBS.

Indeed, the Saudi crown prince reached out to Kushner directly this week when the storm over Khashoggi's treatment blew up, a person familiar with the call told CNN's Kevin Liptak.

But in what could be interpreted as a sign of concern over Kushner's management of his foreign policy portfolio, national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo joined the call.

By revealing that the US is working with the Turks and the Saudis to find out what happened to Khashoggi, the White House appears to be hoping the political world will begin to look elsewhere before much longer.

But Kushner's secretive role -- which is not subject to the scrutiny and accountability that would be the case if he were a Senate-confirmed official -- has critics worried about what is going on behind the scenes.

Nayyera Haq, who was a senior White House official in the Obama administration, said she was worried about past phone calls between Kushner and MBS.

"I surmise, given their close crown prince to crown prince relationship, that it was more likely about how do they cover for each other and help each other out than it was about using US power to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for any of its human rights violations," she told CNN's Jake Tapper.

Getting away with murder?

The prospect that the White House could effectively let the Saudis get away with murder is sparking swiftly rising concern on Capitol Hill, including among Republicans.

There appears to be a significant risk that the White House could find itself jammed on Saudi policy, given that Congress has to sign off on arms deals, for instance, and could impose sanctions on the kingdom.

"What we are monitoring for is: Is this the moment when the Saudis have gone too far?" said Ryan Bohl, a Middle East and North Africa expert at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm.

While the administration is insisting that it doesn't know what happened to Khashoggi, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker was clear.

"My instincts say that there is no question the Saudi government did this and my instincts say that they murdered him," the Tennessee Republican told CNN's Manu Raju.

"It will hugely undermine that relationship, at least with Congress, and the administration will have to pay attention to that," he said.

Sen. John Thune, a member of the GOP leadership from South Dakota, warned that "these kinds of activities are going to affect our relationship with them, no question."

And one of Trump's most vocal supporters, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, has already said there will be "hell to pay" should investigations prove the Saudis killed the journalist.

Should Congress enforce action against the Saudis, it would be a rare occasion when the administration's approach to foreign policy has been challenged by Congress. A previous time was when lawmakers forced the President to impose sanctions on Russia.

So it's possible that the fate of Khashoggi marks another pivot point and the administration will pay a tangible domestic political price for its controversial approach to the Saudis.

"It's really after the midterms that we are looking to see is this Congress about to establish a new bipartisan consensus in which there are unacceptable ways for the executive to conduct itself in foreign policy," Bohl said.

"We are looking not just within the Saudi (issue) but we are also looking in places like tariffs, the way that trade is negotiated," he added. "Will that new bipartisan consensus emerge out of this?"

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