It would be wrong to assume that the crisis surrounding the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi affects Saudi Arabia alone.
The crisis, from the outset, has thrown US President Donald Trump into one of the most difficult dilemmas he has had to face since entering the White House.
For the first time, he finds himself having to confront that segment of the US public that makes up the core of his popularity base and which is now asking him to do what he cannot.
Trump, when he came to power, initiated a new mode of relations with Saudi Arabia, one based on publicised financial deals that have no strings attached in the form of the types of principles with which countries generally mask their national interests.
Trump has appeared on TV telling Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, with his customary crudeness, how many millions of dollars the prince just spent on an arms deal, adding, “that’s peanuts to you.” Just before the Khashoggi case erupted, Trump upped crude to vulgar when, in one of his televised speeches, he said that he had called up King Salman and said, “we protect Saudi Arabia. Would you say they’re rich. And I love the king, King Salman.
But I said ‘King — we’re protecting you — you might not be there for two weeks without us — you have to pay for your military.” Soon afterwards, he said that the Saudis “got trillions of dollars” but “we don’t get what we should be getting” from them in exchange for US protection without which “who knows what’s going to happen”.
If such remarks are stomach churning for their grotesqueness and a source of unprecedented levels of embarrassment for many Americans, themselves, what is alarming is that the US president has no idea of the truth about his country’s trade deals with Saudi Arabia.
How can it be that Trump is unaware of the well-known fact that his country does not spend a penny on the Saudi military and that the reverse is actually the case? The weapons that the US sends to Saudi Arabia are paid for up front and in full.
The US does not pay a single red cent for this. If Trump consulted US military ledgers, he would also know who paid the lion’s share of expenses for US forces in their war against Iraq.
In other words, if there is a party that is footing the military bills for someone else, it is Saudi Arabia, not the US. To this we should add that Saudi Arabia, naturally, is not a recipient of US aid. It has never been a recipient of US aid in any form.
But Trump decided that his country’s foreign relations should be based on a single principle: getting as much money out of others at the expense of facts and by means of lies.
He imagines that this will boost his popularity among the general American public to whom his way of handling state affairs conjures up fond memories of cowboy ethics as portrayed by the old Westerns they were raised on.
But Trump simultaneously speaks of Saudi Arabia, which he is extorting so blatantly, as a friend and “close ally” and, accordingly, he hastened to its defence.
But this article is not about an alleged crime, per se, which subject we will leave to another article. What concerns us here is how this crisis has turned into an inextricable dilemma for Trump.
At the beginning of this crisis, Trump asserted that the Saudi regime had nothing to do with it. King Salman told him personally that he knew nothing about the incident, which did not occur in Saudi Arabia but in Istanbul.
But Trump began to face increasing pressure from Congress, businessmen and the press. Congress wanted him to invoke the Magnitsky Act which calls on the US government to sanction human rights offenders, while a growing chorus of cries demanded a halt in US weapons sales to Riyadh.
As one watched this concerted mobilisation of public opinion in the US, one could not help but to wonder, what about those hundreds of cases of deliberate murder and mutilation of Palestinians systematically perpetrated by Israel? True, none of those victims wrote for The Washington Post, like Jamal Khashoggi, but they were innocent civilians defending their freedom and national rights, just as Khashoggi advocated the rights of his fellow citizens.
Trump resisted all pressures and, once again, defended that arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Pushing back against demands to cancel weapon sales to Saudi Arabia, he said that such a decision would be difficult to accept.
Last week, he said, “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country. They are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country.” Interestingly, in an article appearing on the front page of The New York Times, Jonathan D Caverley held that, in fact, the arms deals Trump concluded with Saudi Arabia were worth only around $20 billion and that this was only a small proportion of US arms exports.
He also said that these exports do not create that many job opportunities for Americans. He cited, as an example, Lockheed Martin’s recent $6 billion helicopter sale to Riyadh which, according to the company, would support only 450 jobs.
Trump dispatched his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to stave off pressures to impose sanctions on his “close ally”.
Upon his return from Riyadh, Pompeo asked for a few days more time. Will Trump, in the meantime, be able to hold on to that “base”, long accustomed to his impulsiveness and, indeed, recklessness, but which he is now asking to be patient and prudent?
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Trump in a corner