It is altogether good that the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has become a rallying point for press freedom and freedom itself. As U.S. Congressman Christopher Shays has said, the issue is a referendum on “whether or not America stands for anything anymore.” In the United States, a thriving press predates and props up our democracy. Supporting a journalist speaking truth against a tyrannical king would seem like an instinctual position for an American President to take. Not so for Mr. Trump, whose concern for business has hindered him from properly condemning Khashoggi’s murder. The President has called the killing a “bad concept, poorly executed,” as if the suppression of free speech by murder were merely a botched subplot of one of his reality shows.
But in adopting Realpolitik in relations with the House of Saud, the President is not unusual. He’s just more clumsy about it than his predecessors in the Oval Office.
Though the Houthis, a Yemeni ethnic group, were providing us with intelligence against al-Qaeda (founded by a Bin Laden, a Saudi, lest we forget), President Obama chose to back the Saudi-supported Yemeni government in their war against the Houthis. This is in keeping with the last 70-years of U.S. support for the monarchs of Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Trump has indeed chosen an awkward moment not to speak out swiftly and decisively in defense of democracy, and his sloppiness is eroding America’s soft power. But while his predecessors would have been quicker to condemn, you can be sure they would have still preserved the alliance we have with the Saudi Kingdom and the many benefits it brings us. Mr. Shays’s referendum rightly applies to more than Trump’s record alone, a fact which the rising partisanship around the midterms will obscure.
What business is Mr. Trump defending? His own real estate interests for sure, but also those of other real estate developers, who are rushing in to help the Saudi economy diversify as oil prices fall and as the oil reserves under the Kingdom’s deserts dwindle. The Saudis are still a major player in the global energy market, but they are no longer the world’s largest energy producer, and nobody knows how long they can continue to produce the amount of oil they are currently pumping out.