Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN National Security Analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President Bush. Follow her @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues President Trump needs to know to make informed decisions.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
Saudi Arabia: Crisis communications
As Saudi King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, know as MBS, and other Saudi officials are still denying any involvement in Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance, you should expect their global PR campaign to swing into full force.
Key themes of their campaign will include:
● Playing the field: MBS signaled during a recent Bloomberg interview that he has other countries to buy weapons from if US arms sales are curtailed, and you should expect the kingdom to float these other sources for weapons and investment. They think the idea that they could cost you business will deter you from punishing them.
● Playing Putin: Russian agents are suspected of trying to assassinate a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, in the United Kingdom, someone who Russian President Vladimir Putin probably perceives turned on him. Russia and the accused men have denied involvement in the attack. Similarly, the Saudis may have assassinated Khashoggi within the boundaries of another country, who was openly critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s regime, though they, too, have denied their involvement.
So, the King may have more in common with Putin than before and Putin may use this to try to get closer to the kingdom, at our expense. Putin blamed the UK for framing Russia for the attack on Skripal, so you can probably expect the kingdom to keep blaming someone else, like Qatar, a country the Saudis are at odds with.
● Playing you: The Saudis know that eventually you’ll probably see whatever evidence Turkey has regarding Khashoggi’s disappearance, but they think you don’t like admitting you are friends with the wrong crowd; you said you love North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but he hasn’t earnestly committed to denuclearization. You said our relationship with Putin is fine even though he still poses a threat to our elections and our democracy. Similarly, you visited Saudi Arabia as your first foreign trip and touted your relationship with the kingdom.
So, expect the Saudis to privately play up with you, how close you have become, especially compared to your predecessor, and the great strides you are making on countering Iran, which is a shared priority.
● Threatening behavior: In light of your comments about exacting “severe punishment” on whomever was involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance, and Congress’ potential move toward Magnitsky sanctions or curbing arms sales, Saudi Arabia will probably continue to message that it has leverage, and a lot of it. On Sunday, an unnamed Saudi official said in a statement given to the Saudi press agency that the country would retaliate against any action we take “with greater action.” Hours later, the Saudi embassy in Washington sought to clarify the country’s position, tweeting “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia extends it appreciation to all, including the US administration, for refraining from jumping to conclusions on the ongoing investigation.”
Saudi Arabia holds US debt and is deeply invested across US industries and in major US companies, so the kingdom has serious economic levers it could pull. The Saudis literally have their finger on the oil pump; they ramped up oil output because Iranian oil is coming offline, and they know that you are concerned with oil prices. So if they really wanted to hit back they could lower their oil output and claim the market doesn’t need as much.
Saudi Arabia could curtail our work to counter Iran and ISIS together, but that is less likely because the threat remains so high. Taking action with others will help mitigate Saudi Arabia’s direct response against it; it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will divest from all countries that criticize the kingdom or cut diplomatic ties with all of them, another possible response, completely.
UN ambassador: Judges tables
While you’re considering your next nominee for US ambassador to the United Nations, we are providing you with an assessment of how other UN members will be judging Ambassador Nikki Haley’s replacement. Naming a new ambassador could be an opportunity to reset perceptions of the United States at the United Nations.
● UN body shamer or body builder: Based on your own remarks about the United Nations, including your assessment that it has failed to live up to its potential, your peers will likely be focused on whether your nominee shares your view and has publicly shamed its deficiencies (like Ambassador John Bolton did before becoming ambassador to the UN). They will similarly take note of whether your nominee has spoken about building the body of the UN and making it stronger and more efficient.
● Multilateral or multilateral-ish: In light of your decision to cut US funding for international agencies like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and threatening to leave multilateral organizations like the World Trade Organization, several UN members are likely wondering if your next UN ambassador actually believes in multilateralism or whether he or she will only agree to engage to work with others who directly respond to US interests. Nominating someone like US Ambassador to the North Atlantic Trade Organization Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has worked in multilateral organizations before, could send a message to UN members that the United States is here to stay in multilateral institutions, even if we don’t always get our way.
● Giver or taker: You recently said that you would focus on providing US foreign assistance to our friends, and you’ve previously implied there would be consequences for countries that voted to condemn our decision to move our Israel embassy to Jerusalem. So your next ambassador will be faced with the perception that the United States views foreign assistance, including money it gives to the United Nations, as a way to buy friends in exchange for getting countries on our side. Naming an ambassador that has a strong record of work in developing countries would assuage perceptions about our ongoing use of assistance as a bribe, and many of those who desperately need our assistance may breathe a sigh of relief.
● Activist or isolationist: Because of your decision to lower the number of refugees allowed into the United States, cut stabilization funds for Syria, comment that illegal immigrants fleeing humanitarian disasters in Central America walk through Mexico like they’re walking through Central Park, and defend Kim Jong Un despite his horrifying human rights record, there is a perception by your peers that humanitarian issues are not high on your priority list.
Nominating an ambassador who has spent time advocating for human rights or who has spent time working to mitigate humanitarian disasters could signal to other UN members that you do care about these issues and think they’re a key part of both our national security as well as the UN’s mission to maintain international peace and security. Nominating someone who is disinterested in human rights or has previously made comments against minorities or specific genders could conversely send the message to your peers that we’re walking away from leading UN efforts on these issues.
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● Checking baggage to New York: Previous experience and any baggage associated with it will be assessed by UN members. Your withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, for example, and decision to nominate Kelly Knight Craft, who has family ties to the coal industry, signals that you will continue to isolate the United States from the global climate agenda. Conversely, appointing Nancy Brinker, who has been focused on fighting breast cancer, could tell your peers that combating health crises is important to you going forward, because they’ll assume the new ambassador will bring his or her past experiences (good and bad) to work.