Does Trump or Does MBS Really Hold the Cards?

Does Trump or Does MBS Really Hold the Cards?


Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

In light of the apparent murder of the Washington based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, there is much discussion now concerning the nature of the relationships between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. in general and between President Trump and the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in particular. The focus has been on whether the special relationship between the President–as well as his son-in-law–and the Crown Prince was largely one based on personal interests rather than national or geo-political considerations.

At its core there is a serious question as to whether U.S. foreign policy in the Trump era has any fundamental ideological basis or whether President Trump is conducting foreign affairs strictly based on personal self-interest. Washington’s response to the disappearance of Khashoggi is only the latest manifestation of this phenomenon.

For the Trump Administration, human rights and the rights of individuals both at home and abroad have taken a back seat. Khashoggi’s assassination is the latest abuse which the Administration has sought to dismiss. In international affairs Trump has adopted an approach whereby he will determine what is an abuse and his Administration is not interested in any universal determination.  Multi-lateral and international dialogues are without value for the President.  For him, it is predominantly economic determinants that are the crucial force fixing U.S. foreign policy.

Operationally, there remain large numbers of key State Department positions in Washington and abroad which are still vacant. Just this week a question was asked at a State Department briefing regarding who was handling American affairs in Riyadh and Ankara as well as the regional positions in Foggy Bottom. The spokesperson came up emptyhanded and admitted that they were in the hands of career diplomats. While this may not necessarily be operationally ineffective, it continues to indicate the absence of senior, high-level appointments almost two years into an Administration.

U.S. foreign policy today is being made largely by individuals who—from the President down—have no background on the issues, are not acquainted with the actors, largely do not understand other cultures, or have little familiarity with history. (Mike Pompeo and John Bolton may be two exceptions, although it remains unclear how much influence they have.) Trump has conducted foreign affairs as merely a new phase of his business life. His actions on the international stage are not governed by traditional rules and norms, but by business considerations.  Trump is acting as Charlie Wilson declared in his confirmation hearings in 1953, that he always understood that “…what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice-versa.” Wilson moved from being President and CEO of General Motors to become Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense. Trump has moved from the New York real estate world and taken policy making to an ever more personal level.

Trump and Kushner both had personal interests in dealing with Saudi Arabia.  These might well have included, global financing, arms sales, and even some assistance in dealing with Iran or the Palestinians. Unrecognized by the President, the Saudis held most of the cards and options; meanwhile, the President devoured all the Arab pomp and circumstance.

The danger for the U.S. is that President Trump truly believes he is smarter and cannier than any other political figure—at home or abroad. He is convinced he has outfoxed Vladimir Putin, Xi-Jinping, Kim Jong-un, Bashar al-Assad, Hassan Rouhani, as well as Mohammed bin-Salman; to say nothing of America’s allies. Now in Riyadh the President may need to confront his delusional self-image, regardless of the consequences or whom he blames.


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