This is a brief note and is in no way a defense of the Saudis. But I think we can see another common pattern between our relationship with the Saudis and the Russians. In both cases, because President Trump is not only resistant to taking action against Saudi Arabia but apparently under some kind of corrupt influence by Saudis there is a tendency to propose more and more extreme responses. This is a manageable but dangerous tendency we should all be mindful of, with both countries.
In the case of the Saudis, let’s start with what is obvious. The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia ordered the assassination of a critical journalist in another country, a NATO member state. The victim was a US permanent resident. The de facto ruler is not only the de facto ruler but the Trump family’s golden boy. There is a good chance that President Trump’s friendliness to dictators and hostility to the press made MBS more confident he could get away with this killing.
But this would be a serious challenge for any President. The Saudis remain a massive producer of oil and, at least it is widely believed, they are the major player with sufficient excess capacity to allow them to manage the stability of global oil prices. You may wish we were no longer using oil. But today we are and our economy and the global economy remains vulnerable, though much less so than in previous decades, to oil price shocks. We also have a complex and deeply embedded security relationship with them, one that goes back more than 70 years and has been particularly close for 30 years.
I’m not saying we have to be the Saudis friends. There are lots of reasons to be skeptical of the relationship. I am very skeptical of the relationship. This was at least one part of the Obama administration’s policy – diminishing our absolute and focused reliance on the Saudis. But this is still not a relationship we can easily end or at least end quickly. It is a very challenging situation.
But President Trump seems clearly not to be reacting to or resistant because of these embedded geopolitical realities, as unlovely as they may be. It seems much more personal. Like it does with Russia. So it’s very hard to have a real discussion about how to react to this situation, balancing these embedded security and economic ties not only with the outrageousness of the behavior but also with the fact that Saudi Arabia is currently under the management of an impulsive and erratic player who may endanger both the Saudi state and the US.
It is one of the many challenges the country faces under a fundamental corrupt President whose corruption is most clear in relation to other states.