For Trump, Instinct After Florida Killings Is Simple: Protect Saudis

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It was hardly the first time Mr. Trump had shown such tendencies. After the brutal killing in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and a legal American resident, Mr. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo played down American intelligence findings that closely tied Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to the matter. The findings suggested he had connections to the members of the hit team sent to Turkey — and almost certainly played a role in ordering them to bring Mr. Khashoggi back to the country by force.

Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Pompeo’s initial promises to follow the evidence wherever it led dissipated. Over the past year, Mr. Pompeo has expressed deep annoyance whenever the topic is raised. The United States was awaiting the results of a Saudi investigation, he often said, as if he expected that to offer a full accounting. And he told members of Congress that no matter the truth of what unfolded, the relationship between the kingdom and Washington was too important to be held hostage to one vicious, ill-thought-out act.

No American assessment of what the Saudi leadership knew has ever been made public.

Before the shooting on Friday, the White House was already fighting efforts in Congress to cut military aid to the Saudis, a reflection of anger over the Khashoggi murder and continuing war in Yemen. But the Pensacola attack underlined the continuing instinct to protect the relationship.

“If Trump wants to convey condolences from Saudi King Salman, fine,” Mr. Miller wrote on Twitter after the shooting. “But you don’t do it on day — Americans are killed — untethered from a message of ironclad assurances from King to provide” whatever cooperation is necessary to understand the gunman and his motives. “Otherwise Trump sounds like what he has become — a Saudi apologist.’’

After Mr. Pompeo announced that he had spoken with the Saudi foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, about the shooting, Martin Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel and longtime Middle East negotiator, tweeted: “Isn’t it interesting how quick Trump and Pompeo are to broadcast Saudi government condolences for the murder of three Americans and how slow they were to criticize the Saudi government’s murder” of Mr. Khashoggi.

Still, the bond between the countries is weakening, as the erosion of support in Congress shows. A negotiation over providing nuclear technology to the Saudis, a huge push early in the administration, has stalled. The chances that the military support will remain at current levels appear slim.

“The U.S.-Saudi relationship is on life support,” Mr. Riedel said, noting that it would be in jeopardy if a Democrat were to win the 2020 election. “Even Joe Biden is calling the Kingdom a ‘pariah’ that needs to be punished,” he said, referring to the former vice president, who had for decades supported a strong relationship with the Saudis.

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