[Vision2020] NY Times 9-16-19: Trump’s Deference to Saudis in Setting Terms for How U.S. Should Respond to Attacks Touches a Nerve
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Mon Sep 16 21:44:29 PDT 2019
Vision2020 Post: Ted Moffett
Deference to Saudis in Setting Terms for How U.S. Should Respond to Attacks
Touches a Nerve
By Peter Baker <https://www.nytimes.com/by/peter-baker> and David E. Sanger
Sept. 16, 2019
WASHINGTON — After oil installations were blown up in Saudi Arabia over the
weekend, President Trump declared that the United States was “locked and
loaded,” <https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1173368423381962752> a
phrase that seemed to suggest he was ready to strike back. But then he
promised to wait for Saudi Arabia to tell him “under what terms we would
His message on Twitter offered a remarkable insight into the deference Mr.
Trump gives to the Saudi royal family and touched off a torrent of
criticism from those who have long accused him of doing Riyadh’s bidding
while sweeping Saudi violations of human rights
international norms under the rug.
It was hard to imagine him allowing NATO, or a European ally, such latitude
to determine how the United States should respond. But for Mr. Trump, the
Saudis have always been a special case, their economic import having often
overwhelmed other considerations in his mind.
Whether, and how, to commit forces is one of the most critical decisions
any American president can make, but Mr. Trump’s comment gave the
impression that he was outsourcing the decision.
The fact that the other country was Saudi Arabia — a difficult ally that
came under intense criticism for the killing and dismemberment of Jamal
the dissident and Washington Post columnist — reinforced the longstanding
criticism that the energy-rich kingdom buys American support.
“What struck me about that tweet was not just that it’s obviously wrong to
allow Saudi Arabia to dictate our foreign policy, but that the president
doesn’t seem to be aware of how submissive it makes him look to say that,”
said Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey and a former
assistant secretary of state.
“It is a big deal to attack oil fields,” Mr. Malinowski added. “It does
affect more than just Saudi Arabia’s interests. But whatever we do, we have
to do what’s best for us and we have to recognize that the Saudis have a
Mr. Trump told reporters on Monday that he had not “promised” to protect
the Saudis and that he would “sit down with the Saudis and work something
out.” But he expressed caution, suggesting that for all of his bellicose
language, he was not rushing toward a military conflict.
Asked whether Iran was behind the attack, Mr. Trump said, “It is looking
that way.” But he stopped short of definitive confirmation. “That is being
checked out right now,” he added.
Mr. Trump warned that the United States had fearsome military abilities and
was prepared for war if necessary.
“But with all that being said, we would certainly like to avoid it,” he
added. “I know they would like to make a deal,” he said of the Iranians,
whom he has been trying to draw into talks over their nuclear program. “At
some point, it will work out.”
There is no evidence it will work out soon. The Iranian Foreign Ministry
dismissed the notion on Monday that President Hassan Rouhani would meet Mr.
Trump in New York next week when both are scheduled to attend the opening
of the United Nations General Assembly. While Mr. Trump said in June that a
meeting could happen without preconditions, and his own aides, including
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin,
repeated it last week, Mr. Trump called that “fake news”
<https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1173371482812162048> over the
weekend and falsely blamed the news media for making it up.
The notion of the United States doing the bidding of the Saudis has a long,
bristling history. Critics complained that Saudi Arabia effectively hired
out the American military to protect itself from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and
reverse his invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
The Saudi government even forked over $16 billion to reimburse the United
States for about a quarter of the cost of the war that followed in 1991 —
along with Kuwait, the most of any country.
The resentment felt over the years by American officials crossed the
ideological spectrum, summed up pithily in a leaked 2010 cable by Defense
Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served under Presidents George W. Bush and
The Saudis, Mr. Gates told the French foreign minister at the time, always
want to “fight the Iranians to the last American.”
Among those who seemed to share the sentiment in the past was a New York
businessman and television entertainer named Donald J. Trump.
“Saudi Arabia should fight their own wars, which they won’t, or pay us an
absolute fortune to protect them and their great wealth-$ trillion!” he
tweeted in 2014
Since taking office, Mr. Trump has made Saudi Arabia his closest ally in
the Middle East other than Israel, and has strongly supported its
multifront struggle with Iran for dominance in the region. He has also left
little doubt about the primacy of money in the relationship, openly citing
the value of arms contracts in explaining why he would not criticize the
Saudi government for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing.
When two Saudi oil processing centers were hit
an aerial assault over the weekend, Mr. Trump spoke out quickly, much as
any president might given the effect on world oil supplies.
“Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked,” Mr. Trump tweeted
<https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1173368423381962752>. “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
The statement was strange for many reasons. Mr. Pompeo had already named
the Iranians as the culprits; Mr. Trump did not. But the seeming abdication
of fact-finding and decision-making to the Saudis gave Democrats a moment
to argue that the president was willing to let the Saudi monarchy make
decisions for the United States.
"If the President wants to use military force, he needs Congress, not the
Saudi royal family, to authorize it,” Representative David Cicilline of
Rhode Island, the chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications
Committee, wrote on Twitter
Heather Hurlburt, a national security official under President Bill Clinton
who is now at New America, a Washington-based research organization, said
it would be perfectly normal for a president to consult an ally before
taking action in such a circumstance.
“It’s not remotely normal for a president to talk publicly about that, to
use language that sounds as if we aren’t making our own decisions about
whether to use force — or trusting our own intelligence,” she said. “And
it’s completely unprecedented with a country that is not a treaty ally.”
The White House declined to comment on Monday beyond Mr. Trump’s remarks,
but some national security conservatives were willing to give the president
the benefit of the doubt.
“Obviously, it’s difficult to know for sure what’s going through the
president’s mind,” said John P. Hannah, a senior counselor at the
Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington and a former national
security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.
But he said that his guess was that Mr. Trump “wants the country most
affected and threatened by the attack to step up publicly, pin
responsibility squarely on Iran and put some real skin into the game by
formally requesting that the U.S. and international community come to the
defense of Saudi Arabia and the global economy.”
That could help mobilize international opinion and perhaps forge a
coalition against Iran, “rather than an excuse to do nothing,” Mr. Hannah
In his comments to reporters on Monday, Mr. Trump seemed intent on avoiding
the perception that he was taking direction from the Saudis. If there is
any response to the strikes on the oil facilities, he said, then the Saudis
would play a part themselves — if nothing else, by financing it.
Which, of course, made it sound as if the United States was willing to be,
in effect, a mercenary force for the Saudis.
“The fact is the Saudis are going to have a lot of involvement in this if
we decide to do something,” he said. “They’ll be very much involved. And
that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”
Michael Crowley contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 16, 2019, Section A,
Page 10 of the New York edition with the headline: With Oil Under Attack,
Trump’s Deference to Saudis Returns to the Fore
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