On Saudi Arabia, Trump Brings No Change

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Jordan’s King Abdullah as they meet in the Oval Office, June 25, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
On the Korean Peninsula, he does, changing America’s posture toward the totalitarian regime, to the dismay of our allies.

Sometimes you think about the cosmic roulette wheel. Or at least I do. Who could have predicted in 2013 that the next Republican president would almost certainly be unable to make a state visit to the United Kingdom but would meet with Kim Jong-un and refer to him as a man who “loves his people”? What were the odds?

Donald Trump promised change, and you can’t deny that change has come. At home, corporate taxes were slashed. Obamacare’s mandates have been altered beyond recognition. He quickly put Neil Gorsuch in a Supreme Court seat Obama had reserved for Merrick Garland. And of course, as we’ve seen this week, Trump is willing to change the patterns of enforcement at America’s border.

Abroad, he’s using authority long ceded by Congress to implement a series of trade measures against friend and rival alike. Canadian softwood lumber, steel — coming are levies on Chinese tech too.

Whereas Barack Obama leaned toward European allies, cooperating with them on his Iran deal and on his foreign-policy response in Libya, Donald Trump has gone the other way. Pointedly, Trump has demanded more from European allies, and dismissed them as freeloaders who let the United States defend them while they spend their budgets on more-generous welfare budgets.

The change even extends down to personal relationships. Obama is reported to have witnessed Angela Merkel cry a single tear. He mournfully noted that “she’s all alone” now that he has exited the world stage. Trump is reported to have tossed Merkel a Starburst candy at the G7 meeting and said, “Don’t say I never gave you anything.”

Almost everything in the above seemed like it went against the ingrained habits of the Beltway. I wouldn’t have bet on any of it happening. Yet it has. But there is one thing that Trump seems unable to alter: America’s embarrassing special relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Despite a very high-profile public-relations diplomacy tour by Muhammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia remains a troll state. It still funds mosques throughout the Islamic world, and deep in Christendom, that fuel Sunni radicalism. It is now openly contemplating pouring its wealth into the project of making Qatar, a neighboring country, into an island — by building one of the world’s largest canals where its land border with Qatar currently exists.

And our relationship with Saudi Arabia involves us in the moral enormity of its long fruitless war against Houthis in neighboring Yemen. Our operations in this theater — refueling Saudi planes, assistance with targeting for bombing runs, intelligence sharing, and some “boots on the ground” — make the United States a belligerent in the war, and party to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the Middle East. The Saudi war has induced and exacerbated one of the worst cholera outbreaks in modern history, and its blockade of Yemen has led to famine-like conditions in a country that must import its food. It is in Yemen, not the American southwest, that U.S. policy is causing the most human misery. And yet, because it is business as normal for American foreign policy, it has not merited even 1 percent of the attention or outrage dedicated to Trump’s various interventions in immigration or customs.

Given the way the Middle East has devoured every American presidency since Carter’s in scandal, quagmire, and morally ambiguous conflict, you’d think Trump, this agent of change, would look for new alternatives. He hasn’t.

This week the Saudi-led coalition is embarking on its most ambitious operation yet, trying to wrest control of Yemen’s most strategic port, in Hodeidah, from control by the Houthis. Some hope that by taking the port, the Saudi coalition can push the Houthis into some kind of peace talks and toward a political settlement. Though, given the horrors of this war, I would not be surprised if Saudi Arabia simply used the control it gains over this vital deep-water port to intensify and prolong its previous strategy of war by attrition.

And yet, the odds are overwhelming that Donald Trump will hand on the U.S. alliance structure in the Middle East — no matter how dysfunctional it becomes — just as he found it. U.S. alliances in Europe do not make us party to acts of war, or the spread of cholera. The traditional U.S. position in the Korean Peninsula pits us against a totalitarian regime and its Communist enabler, beside a democratic people. And yet, these are where Trump has decided to change America’s posture. Given the way this region has devoured every American presidency since Carter’s in scandal, quagmire, and morally ambiguous conflict, you’d think Trump, this agent of change, would look for new alternatives. He hasn’t. And like his predecessors, it will cost him something. I’d bet on that much.


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