After a decisive vote the last week, the Senate is readying for debate on a bipartisan bill cutting off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s horrific war in Yemen. Thus begins the fight to eviscerate President Donald Trump’s corrupt bargain with the vicious and volatile Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
The immediate impetus for the Senate action was the grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives at the direction of MBS ― and Trump’s mendacious and morally repulsive embrace of the crown prince in the killing’s aftermath.
“The world is a very dangerous place!” Trump proclaimed, before proceeding to lie about the CIA’s findings that MBS directed the murder; obfuscate the compelling evidence marshaled to support the findings; spout Saudi slanders against Khashoggi; grossly inflate the worth of a phantom Saudi arms purchase; falsely claim that the Saudis could easily arm their Air Force elsewhere; and concoct a counterfactual dependence on Saudi oil.
Effectively, Trump licensed the murder of journalists and human rights advocates while further subcontracting U.S. policy in a combustible region to an unstable autocrat devoid of psychological or external constraints. The danger of this devil’s pact is enhanced by MBS’s apparent ability to mesmerize Trump, who personalizes foreign policy and gorges on flattery, and the president’s equally incompetent, unqualified and ethically challenged son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Both compound their infinite geopolitical ignorance by conflating governance with venality, making them ripe for a ruthless autocrat whose country is awash in cash.
Trump’s claim that “I have no financial interest in Saudi Arabia” deliberately evades the point. For decades, Saudis have had an interest in Trump, siphoning millions into his real estate properties and, as president, patronizing his resorts and hotels. One chapter in this relationship, wherein Saudi investors rescued Trump from bankruptcy, surely resonates with Kushner.
In 2006, the novice tycoon foolishly paid $1.8 billion ― virtually all borrowed ― for an overpriced office tower on Fifth Avenue in New York. Since then, Kushner has desperately tried to staunch the red ink by raising money from foreign investors ― including Saudis ― a prospect greatly enhanced once Trump’s White House victory created the prospect of global quid pro quos.
In one seamy episode shortly after the 2016 election, the Russian ambassador facilitated a meeting between Kushner ― suddenly a key advisor to America’s president-elect ― and the head of a Kremlin-controlled bank. Little wonder that, as the Washington Post reported, foreign governments concluded that Kushner could be easily manipulated because of “his complex business arrangements, financial difficulties and lack of foreign policy experience.”
In the combustible Middle East, this confluence of disabilities invites disaster. Yet Trump made Kushner America’s point person in the region. Swiftly, MBS sold himself to Trump and Kushner as an interlocutor for Middle East peace, a bulwark against extremism and, critically, a counterweight to Trump’s and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chosen regional bête noire, Iran.
Thus fortified, Trump moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, cut off aid to Palestinian refugees, and abandoned America’s efforts to maintain the regional balance between Saudi Arabia and Iran by abrogating the Iranian nuclear deal and increasing our support of Saudi operations in Yemen.
Whatever his personal and political motives, Trump’s unreasoning focus on Iran suffuses his ex-post facto complicity in MBS’s butchery of Khashoggi. By empowering MBS, Trump and Kushner claim, the U.S. can counteract the Iranian regime ― which Trump, parroting Netanyahu and GOP uber-hawks, theatrically portrays as the region’s most malign and threatening force. The result is a sequence of escalating misjudgments divorced from reality ― destabilizing the region while abridging America’s moral and geopolitical interests.
Beyond doubt, the Iranian regime is repressive, often brutal, and aggressive beyond its borders. Our relationship is poisoned by 60+ years of malignancy, beginning with America’s original sin: the 1953 CIA–backed coup against Iran’s democratically elected government. Thereafter came the taking of American hostages during Iran’s revolt against the Shah, a U.S. client; Iran’s creation of Hezbollah as a proxy; Hezbollah’s murder of Americans in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia; Iran’s abuse of U.S. citizens; and its odious vows to destroy Israel. But this history, however toxic, does not warrant blinkered policies.
A prime example is Trump’s exit from the Iran nuclear deal. However imperfect, the deal imposed a serious check on the threat to the region of a nuclear-armed Iran. By disowning the agreement, Trump transported a potential danger in 2030 to the all-too-problematic present.
America’s partners in the deal ― China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom ― opposed the U.S. departure and, in cooperation with Iran, continue to honor the agreement by circumventing Trump’s policy. Iran’s global trading partners seem willing to limit the impact of new American sanctions; the absence of an inspection regime enhances the danger of a nuclear breakout to which the sole response is war.
This comprehensive failure exemplifies a misbegotten Middle Eastern strategy rooted in misperception and moored to allies with agendas of their own ― including MBS and Netanyahu.
Both wanted America to curb the Iranian nuclear program on their behalf, not through diplomacy but threats ― or U.S. military action against Iran. Both deployed inflammatory rhetoric to advance this dangerous aim: Netanyahu conjured “striking similarities” between Iran and Nazi Germany; MBS’s brother, the Saudi ambassador the U.S., characterized the Iran agreement as “appeasement” comparable to Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler. Together they wagged Trump’s dog by comparing him to Churchill.
Here’s America’s “reward” in exchange for backing their self-serving regional blueprint: a more incendiary region. Netanyahu expanded West Bank settlements; supported a law making non-Jews second-class citizens; and pressured NGOs and media that criticized his policies. MBS launched a destabilizing blockade of Qatar; kidnapped Lebanon’s pro-U.S. prime minister before forcing him to resign; dropped American bombs on civilians in Yemen; imprisoned numerous human rights advocates, including women ― then murdered Khashoggi.
No matter, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. condescendingly counseled, America must not “throw out the prince with the bathwater” ― or, more aptly, the body parts.
Enough. For America to pick the Saudis over Iran ― let alone to empower MBS’s adventurism at our expense ― misreads reality. Saudi Arabia germinated Al Qaeda; Iran poses no direct threat to the United States, and its threat to Israel is containable. Compared to the Saudis, Iran’s military expenditures are small.
Otherwise, there is little to differentiate the two. Both have massive petroleum reserves. Both are despotic; both destabilize their neighbors. Iran supports terrorism against Israel; Saudi Arabia has spawned terrorism against America. Iran abets the slaughterhouse in Syria; Saudi Arabia creates its own in Yemen. To cast Iran as uniquely dangerous contravenes reality and undermines our interests.
Consider the horrors we underwrite in Yemen ― captured by photographs of skeletal babies. Militarily, the Saudi’s have failed: their opposition waxes; Iran’s influence grows; the chaos nurtures Al Qaeda. With U.S. support the Saudis indiscriminately slaughter civilians, even as their bombardment and blockade perpetuate a famine which has killed 85,000 children under five years of age and threatens half of Yemen’s 28 million people.
“For America to facilitate a Saudi bomb, spurring proliferation in the region, would be criminally stupid. Yet Trump may do just that.”
Peace talks cannot ― and will not ― end this mass humanitarian disaster soon enough. The United States must force the issue by terminating its support for a rolling war crime. But Trump won’t. Combining the strategically and morally obtuse, his secretary of state complained that Khashoggi’s murder “has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on,” and that “degrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S. and its allies.”
Really? What about enabling Saudi Arabia to develop nuclear weapons?
MBS is negotiating with the Trump administration to acquire designs for nuclear power plants ― while insisting that Saudi Arabia develop its own fuel. The fear that such a development would lead to nuclear proliferation is precisely what motivated the nuclear agreement with Iran ― which, because they deemed it insufficient, the Saudis and Israelis belligerently denounced. Ironically, MBS now cites a prospective Iranian bomb as the reason for developing his own.
So why should America be sanguine about a nuclear-armed MBS? It can’t ― it would be criminally stupid for America to facilitate a Saudi bomb, spurring proliferation in the region. Yet Trump may do just that.
Presently, only Congress can strive to stabilize the region and protect America’s moral and strategic interests ― by separating our relationship with Saudi Arabia from recklessly protecting its reckless crown prince. Trump may veto legislation; he can’t stop investigations. On Tuesday the Senate demonstrated its power; having compelled CIA Director Gina Haspel to brief them on the Khashoggi murder, six senators ― Republicans and Democrats ― stated unequivocally that MBS had ordered this atrocity.
The first priority is legislation ending our support of Saudi operations in Yemen by invoking the War Powers Act. Next is investigating war crimes by both sides.
Thereafter Congress ― likely, the House ― should publicly scour MBS’s role in Khashoggi’s murder; his egregious violations of human rights at home; and his attempts to kill or kidnap dissidents abroad. Until these investigations are completed, lawmakers should try to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia ― and frustrate its potential acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Finally, Congress should spotlight whether our empowerment of MBS damages America’s interests ― including our commitment to human rights and fighting extremism. Inevitably, this includes investigating any financial ties between the Saudis, Trump and Kushner.
The shocking has become the obvious: To give Trump the benefit of the doubt and assume that his first loyalty is to his oath of office ― or to America’s national security ― endangers America itself.
Richard North Patterson is a New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.