If bin Salman is not sanctioned, despite the fact that he is a U.S. ally, it will set a terrible example for people who love justice, democracy and freedom.
We all know about the shameful episode. Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. A CIA report points to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (a friend of the U.S. president) as the intellectual author of the crime. Donald Trump has staunchly defended him. And, emphatically defying any precedent, he has asserted his position.
My point is that Trump is an atypical president: distrustful of all institutions, unhinged, incautious, impulsive. He does not follow protocol; he berates friends and allies. And in the case of Khashoggi, he has said openly (and contrary to what the national interest and American public opinion demand) that he will not condemn, much less sanction, the Saudi Arabian prince, an important ally of Washington, because if he condemns him, that would cause the Saudi regime to seek support from China or Russia. Is this strategic position valid?
The point is that the entire American establishment is demanding sanctions and strong condemnation of the Saudi regime. And among those who advocate such a position are congressmen and senators, from both parties, as well as former government officials, lobbyists, journalists and influential people.
It’s not that Trump has turned a blind eye. He declared clearly in a tweet that the CIA had not concluded anything about who killed Khashoggi. Trump also confirmed that he spoke with Prince Mohammad, the alleged mastermind, and the prince assured him that he had nothing to do with the murder of the journalist.
Last year, Washington sold $2.5 billion in armaments to the Riyadh regime. This is equivalent to 61 percent of the total number of weapons purchased by the Saudis. And the peninsular power not only bought from the United States; it also bought from 10 other countries in Europe, Asia, North America and Africa.
In addition, Saudi Arabia is a strong adversary of the Tehran regime. And even if it is not a supporter of Israel (Washington's greatest ally in the Middle East), it has managed to prudently accommodate the West without any clumsy confrontation with Israel. And it tolerates Turkey (an ally that is now, by circumstance, distant from the U.S.). However, the Turkish government is demanding sanctions against the Saudis.
Trump was clear. He will not impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia. This reveals the following: 1) He cares more about questionable allies than proper allies, even though we know that the former are unacceptable; 2) For Washington, pecuniary interests prevail. According to Trump, democratic values, human rights and liberties are all relative; and 3) The relationship between Washington and Riyadh is fragile. If there were strong sanctions, Riyadh would bolt into the open and extended arms of Moscow or Beijing, currently America’s biggest adversaries.
What should take precedence?
Former public official Leon Panetta, in an interview with Christiane Amanpour of CNN, said that if Washington does not impose sanctions on the Saudi regime, it will be sending the wrong message to the world: that any ally can violate human rights, and nothing will happen.*
The Italian political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli was the first to tell us that there are two types of morality: private and public (specifically, that of state affairs). The Latvian philosopher Isaiah Berlin argued that in politics, two or more values may conflict. Is this the case for Washington?
Returning to the atypicality of the American president – he who praises dictators but disbelieves friends and allies – this would not happen with his European counterparts. It would not be possible for Emmanuel Macron to doubt the reports of the French security agency (La Sûrete Nationale), nor do we see Prime Minister Theresa May distrusting the MI6, much less Vladimir Putin questioning reports from the KGB.** But Trump distrusts magistrates, judges, congressmen, governors, mayors, Republicans and journalists.
Is Trump right, knowing that he cannot lose, in Washington’s view, a very important ally in the troubled Middle East?
Obviously, Trump is showing his business background. Businessmen mostly (but not always) react more promptly to material interests. Profit, risk little, make money.
Does President Trump believe that American interests revolve only around profits and money? Does his idea of leadership in Washington rest on his own power or in the values that the United States has proclaimed and advocated since 1776? What best sustains the political leadership of a power?
If bin Salman is not sanctioned, despite the fact he is a U.S. ally, it will set a terrible example for people who love justice, democracy and freedom.
*Editor’s note: Leon Panetta served as secretary of defense, director of the CIA, White House chief of staff, director of the Office of Management and Budget under previous administrations and as a representative from California.
**Editor’s note: The KGB was the main security agency for the Soviet Union until its breakup in 1991. It subsequently split into the Federal Security Service and the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation.