On November 20, President Trump finally brought the controversy surrounding the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey to a close. In a statement laden with grammatical errors, Trump reaffirmed that Saudi Arabia would remain a “steadfast partner” of the United States, despite the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—an agency he oversees—having concluded just four days earlier that Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman had directly ordered the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi. Trump nonetheless cited business contracts, oil prices, and the “absolute security and safety of America” as reasons for his decision. He also cast doubt on the fact that the Crown Prince was responsible for the tragedy, saying we “may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder.”
If bin Salman was clearly culpable, why didn’t President Trump hold him accountable? It’s possible he saw a reflection of his own country’s controversy. When a government like Saudi Arabia comes up against anything that might be painted as media aggression or, as he would call it, “fake news,” it seems likely that Trump would side with the government. Combative question-asking and murder aren’t the same thing, but the president has proven himself to be both irrational and principled, and one of his principles is certainly that the media is “the enemy of the people.”
But there’s a more complex answer to why Trump took this approach, and although it’s not mutually exclusive with the first one, it better explains why the state diplomacy apparatus, through which his statement surely passed, would allow the release of such inflammatory words. Essentially, President Trump was likely briefed on the importance of U.S.-Saudi relations in the area and decided to prioritize that relationship over any humanitarian matter.
To understand our relationship with Saudi Arabia, you have to know the geopolitical norms in the region. Shia Muslim groups, most notably the Iranian government and Hezbollah (a powerful terrorist party in Lebanon and the West Bank), have historically held a great rivalry with Sunni Muslim groups, such as the governments of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Syria. During the maneuverings of the Cold War, the Sunni-Shia split mirrored that of the U.S. and U.S.S.R., and Americans ended up closely allied with Sunni nations—more out of political convenience than any governing principle. Since then, countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia have held extremely close diplomatic, economic, and military ties with the United States. For example, American nuclear bombs are still stationed across Turkey and pointed directly at Moscow should disaster strike.
These relationships are imperative for a few reasons. First, they provide some degree of stability in an extremely volatile region. American support is immensely valuable to regimes that rely on economic prosperity and strongman tactics to hold power, and the thinking goes that, recent controversy notwithstanding, these regimes are unlikely to take major action that would anger their American allies. Second, although American allies continue to engage in unsavory behavior (see: Khashoggi, Jamal), these transgressions likely pale in comparison to the humanitarian disasters that would occur were the U.S. to retract its influence.
In all likelihood, the vacuum caused by an American withdrawal from the region would quickly be filled by other opportunistic powers like China and Russia. We can already see what it looks like when Russia takes advantage of a political opportunity in Syria, where Russian President Putin has propped up Syrian President/authoritarian despot Bashar al Assad. China has signaled a willingness to make similar moves with its recent Belt and Road Initiative, which invests heavily in emerging nations that represent political opportunity for President Xi.
So how can we maintain our political influence while staying true to our humanitarian principles? With respect to the Khashoggi crisis, President Trump could not have brought the hammer down on the Saudi regime without harming American interests along the way. But he also should have done something to hold the Crown Prince accountable—something, at least, to set an example of intolerance against this lapse in humanitarianism. Instead, Trump’s weak response showed authoritarian regimes that the leader of the world’s alleged bulwark of democracy tolerates despotic acts. This won’t be the last time an American president is confronted with this dilemma; Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, has recently been consolidating power and cracking down on opposition.
When Erdoğan, or any other dictator, next challenges international democratic principles like the freedom of the press, the United States must prioritize caution and action in equal measures. Perhaps a blueprint can be found in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the “Iran Deal” that lifted economic sanctions only if Iran agreed to stop building nuclear weapons. A system like this, in which punishment only exists if governments don’t cooperate, combines the “carrot” and the “stick” of global diplomacy effectively. However, it’s hard to know how different governments would react to such a measure. In any case, it is crucial that humanitarianism is an instrument of American foreign policy just as much as oil or political posturing.