by Jeet Heer edited by O Society September 19, 2019
Donald Trump ran under the slogan of “America First,” which is a noxious expression of nationalism but at least shows the virtue of clarity. His actual foreign policy is much murkier, in no small part because his global business holdings make it quite plausible his own personal financial interests govern his agenda. Trump himself often lends credence to these suspicions by talking about foreign policy as if it were a business enterprise, and not a particularly legal one either.
“You will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center. Because they have papers in there that are very secret, you may find it’s the Saudis, okay? But you will find out.”
~ Donald Trump campaign rally Bluffton, SC 2/17/16
Trump’s model of foreign policy isn’t the classic realist one of seeking a balance of power or even the imperialist goal of military hegemony but something closer to a pure Mafia protection racket, with weaker states getting American military aid if they keep the coffers full. When he was still a private citizen, Trump outlined his philosophy in a 2014: “Saudi Arabia should fight their own wars, which they won’t, or pay us an absolute fortune to protect them and their great wealth-$ trillion!”
As president, Trump is able to act out his ideal publicly, and the result is, if not trillions in revenue, some sort of shady connection between Saudi money and American foreign policy.
Who blew up the World Trade Center? It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents.”
~ Donald Trump Fox News Feb 17, 2016
On Saturday, after reports oil refineries in Saudi Arabia were bombed by missiles from an unknown source, Trump said, “Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked. There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!” Subsequently, the Trump administration suggested, without offering convincing evidence, the attack was sponsored by Iran.
The idea Saudi Arabia, which is not even a treaty ally of the United States, would set the terms for military retaliation is bizarre. Suddenly “America First” gives way to “Saudi Arabia First.”
Trump elucidated his thinking on Monday when, before starting a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he talked to reporters at the White House. “They’ve been a great ally,” Trump enthused. “Saudi Arabia pays cash. They’ve helped us out from the standpoint of jobs and all of the other things.” On Tuesday, Jonathan Karl of ABC News asked the president if Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be expected to handle its own defense. Trump replied, “The Saudis are going to have a lot of involvement in this if we decide to do something…and that includes payment and they understand that fully.”
Trump’s claim Saudi Arabia “actually helped us” is ambiguous: Does “us” refer to the United States or to Trump personally?
Saudi officials are ostentatious patrons of Trump’s businesses: “The manager of Trump’s hotel in New York credited a timely stay by members of the Saudi Crown Prince’s entourage (though not the prince himself) with lifting revenue there by 13 percent in one quarter last year. Lobbying disclosures show Saudi lobbyists spent $260,000 at Trump’s hotel in DC back in December 2016 during the transition. Separately, the Kingdom itself spent $190,273 at Trump’s hotel in early 2017.”
This leaves aside Trump’s actual businesses in the Middle East, such as a golf resort he owns in Dubai. In truth, Trump’s business dealings are so global and lacking transparency the extent of his ties to the Saudi royal family is unknowable.
Saudi Arabia is the nexus between Trump’s personal corruption and his flailing, incoherent foreign policy. Trump’s response to the latest Middle Eastern crisis is a divided one because he “is caught between a political imperative to confront Iran—pleasing hawkish Republican supporters and allies Israel and Saudi Arabia—and his own political instincts against foreign intervention and toward cutting a deal.”
The uncertainty is whether his desire to please Saudi Arabia, Israel, and hawkish Republicans will override his preference, shown in previous foreign policy disputes, to avoid crossing the line between bluster and open conflict.
Trump’s push to make the American army a mercenary force in the pay of the Saudi royal family comes at a time when public opinion in America becomes more critical of the US/Saudi relationship. Yemen is engulfed in the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophe thanks to a Saudi-led and American-armed war. This war, like all America’s larger interventions in the Middle East, has little popular support.
In April, both the House and Senate passed a resolution for the United States to withdraw its support of Saudi Arabia in the Yemen war. Trump vetoed this resolution, a move of questionable constitutional legality. After all, if only Congress has the power to declare war, then Trump has no right to veto such a war resolution. Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic contends Trump could be impeached just for refusing to heed this congressional resolution.
Impeachment, on this or any other ground, is something congressional Democratic leaders have little appetite for. However, even if impeachment is off the table, investigation is still well within the power and purview of Congress. Given Trump’s repeated statements Saudi lucre is a good reason for supporting the oil-rich monarchy, Congress has an obligation to ask questions, such as:
Is American foreign policy driven by crass financial goals?
And how much does Trump’s own personal business dealings with the Saudi royal family shape his policies?
The problem, here as elsewhere in the Trump administration, comes down to congressional oversight. Congressional Republicans continue to serve as Trump’s de facto defense team, while congressional Democrats just don’t have the guts to openly confront the president.