Trump Paves The Way For Ambiguous Outcome In Apparent State-Sponsored Murder Of Saudi Journalist
The President told reporters he’s spoken with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and has sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Kingdom posthaste to try to get some answers on what happened to journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi when he went into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and never came out.
Trump says the King gave him “not only a denial, but a very firm denial”, and Trump suggested it could’ve been “rouge killers, who knows”? Here’s that clip (click on the photo to watch):
And on 60 Minutes this week, Trump told Leslie Stahl:
“There’s a lot at stake. And maybe especially so because this man was a reporter. There’s something — you’ll be surprised to hear me say that. There’s something really terrible and disgusting about that, if that were the case. So we’re gonna have to see. We’re going to get to the bottom of it and there will be severe punishment.”
Which is really kind of a remarkable statement. Not so much because he’s previously characterized reporters as the “enemy of the people”, (in the same interview when Stahl asks Trump: “Do you have any regrets?”; his answer is “I regret that the press treats me so badly”), but because implicit in Trump’s statement is the idea that maybe other types of assassinations are less terrible and disgusting, perhaps of political rivals, you know, kind of like Russia does.
Let’s put that aside for a second. Trump’s major claim for not dealing too harshly with the Saudis is that they’re committed to buying $110-billion in U.S. military equipment and if the U.S. shuts them out of that through sanctions, they’ll just give all that business to Russia or China.
First of all, that claim is pretty far-fetched. Saudi Arabia is by far the biggest buyer of military equipment from the U.S., and it’s upped that commitment considerably under Trump, so it would be really hard to suddenly switch over to another supplier. Yes, Russia builds a missile defense system competitive to the one Saudi Arabia has been cleared to buy but has not yet bough from the U.S. And Russia has passed the U.S. as the world’s biggest arms dealer. But Russia has close political and economic ties to Iran and is a major supplier of arms to Iran, which is Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemy in the region. (Yes, it’s not unheard of for one country to supply both sides in an armed conflict, but usually not on this scale.)
In addition, Trump’s criticism that Saudi Arabia is not paying for it’s own defense and the U.S. is footing a lot of the bill is borderline ludicrous: because the Saudis are paying, through the purchase of billions of dollars of arms from the U.S. Unlike in Europe, or South Korea or Japan, where the U.S. maintains and pays for a massive military presence, the U.S. military does not have many troops in Saudi Arabia. Most were withdrawn over a decade ago.
In fact, a lot of what the Saudis spend money on is parts and maintenance for the U.S. military equipment it already owns. And even if sanctions were placed on the Kingdom banning purchases of new equipment, there’s a good chance this likely would be exempted.
So the U.S. has a lot more leverage here than Trump’s making it sound like, and the threat to U.S. arms manufacturers is far less imminent than he’d like Americans to believe.
His reluctance to consider blocking the sale of military equipment really has less to do with competitors in the global arms market, and more to do with potential harm to his biggest jobs program: firing up the military industrial complex through vastly expanded arms sales overseas.
There’s another issue here too: oil. Trump knows that one of the sure fire ways of angering voters is higher gas prices at the pump. Since Trump’s come into office the average retail price of a gallon of regular gas has gone up more than 50% to about $2.90 according to the AAA. Which stands to reason with a booming economy.
Trump thought he’d gotten King Salman to cut him a favor, with the Saudis agreeing to keep supply up and prices low, as Trump killed the Iran deal and put sanctions back on, which threatened to squeeze global supply and push prices up. The President Tweeted triumphantly back in June:
As the world’s largest oil producer and one of the top refiners, Saudi Arabia counters by saying it doesn’t “directly influence prices” (even though it does). And all it can do — and is doing — is ensure that “the markets are adequately supplied”.
Trump’s has since expressed his displeasure with that approach from the Saudis, Tweeting last month:
Trump is walking a bit of a tightrope here too: U.S. oil production shot up in recent years, and oil prices can’t fall too low or it hurts the profitability and growth of domestic oil producers.
But Saudi Arabia could cause some havoc in oil prices if Trump makes some dramatic move or actually really follows through with the “severe punishment” he promises if Saudi Arabia is found culpable. But oil supply is not something Trump’s talking directly about right now, probably because it’s an obvious area of weakness. And is a point of leverage for the Saudis. Still, Trump could flip that leverage to his side by backing off on the threat of dramatic sanctions if the Saudis agree to work with him on getting oil prices down. But that’s only possible if the Saudi ruling family’s role in Khashoggi’s apparent assassination remains murky.
Which is why, as we said at the top, it seems the outcome the President would prefer at this point is an ambiguous one. That way the U.S. could put some sanctions on the Saudis for a while, without risking those U.S. jobs-boosting arms sales or an ever-important steady supply of oil.