Trump's shameful deference to Saudi Arabia
His muted response to the Pensacola attack should sound alarm bells
It is not always President Trump's fault when bad things happen. Somehow, though, he often makes them worse.
So it is with America's relationship with the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Trump is not the first American president to show undue deference to the kingdom's monarchy — the Bush family, in particular, had an unusually tight relationship with the House of Saud. But it was still unseemly over the weekend to watch the president act as Saudi Arabia's virtual press agent in the wake of last week's deadly gun attack in Pensacola by a Saudi air force pilot. The pilot, stationed at an American naval air base for training, killed three Americans, and the attack is now being investigated as an act of terrorism.
The president's response was oddly — even offensively — muted.
"They are devastated in Saudi Arabia," Trump told reporters Saturday. "And the king will be involved in taking care of families and loved ones. He feels very strongly. He's very, very devastated by what happened and what took place."
The New York Times called out what Trump failed to promise: "What was missing was any assurance that the Saudis would aid in the investigation, help identify the suspect's motives, or answer the many questions about the vetting process for a coveted slot at one of the country's premier schools for training allied officers."
There is one other unanswered question: Why is the U.S. still so intertwined with Saudi Arabia's government?
The answer used to be simple: oil. Saudi Arabia is one of the great oil-producing nations; America is among the world's leaders in petroleum consumption. That has left the United States vulnerable at times — though memories of the 1970s gas embargo that resulted in long lines at the pump have mostly faded — and, in turn, has pushed American presidents to vow to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.
In 1974, President Nixon pledged, "At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need."
By 1981, though, America's foreign oil consumption had increased. President Reagan promised that would change. "While conservation is worthy in itself, the best answer is to try to make us independent of outside sources to the greatest extent possible for our energy." That didn't work out either.
All told, eight presidents in a row promised to end U.S. dependence on foreign oil. None ever did. Under President Obama, the trend began to reverse — aided, admittedly, by the reduced demand for energy during the Great Recession. Last year, for the first time on record, the U.S. exported more oil than it imported.
That's great. But one benefit of reduced dependence on foreign oil was supposed to be a loosening of political ties with the countries that produce that oil. The 1973 embargo, after all, was aimed at countries — including the United States — that supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
America is more free from foreign oil than it has been in living memory. Yet the ties with Saudi Arabia remain.
One reason is that the United States supports Saudi Arabia as a regional counterweight to Iran's ambitions. It is not clear why, though. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran are dictatorial theocracies that treat women as second-class citizens, interfere with their neighbors — the U.S. supports Saudi Arabia's morally disastrous war in Yemen — and generally spread suffering while doing so. Saudi Arabia is somewhat less hostile to Israel, which is always a policy concern for U.S. politicians, but otherwise there is no reason one country deserves our support and the other does not. Objectively speaking, both countries are what foreign policy analysts would call "bad actors."
The Saudis don't seem to be improving, either. It's been just a year since the gruesome assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The country continues to crack down on dissent. Tens of thousands of children have died in the Yemen war.
On the other hand, Trump has a fondness for dictators. He loves that Saudi Arabia buys U.S. weapons. And he came to office determined to undo Obama's agreement to put a lid on Iran's nuclear program. Still, none of this justifies an alliance with Saudi Arabia; the relationship may persist more out of habit than any fresh strategic thinking.
The good news is that both parties in Congress seem willing to rethink the relationship. The House and Senate voted earlier this year to end U.S. military assistance for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen. Trump vetoed the bill. The Pensacola attack, though, may create new pressure. Even Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Florida Republican who is normally a staunch ally of Trump, said the attack "has to inform on our ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia."
Trump's behavior is not encouraging. If recent history is any guide, the status quo will prevail. But it is difficult to find any virtue in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. It is time to seek a new approach.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.