Donald Trump has dug a moral hole through the middle of America’s foreign policy – and he’s not sorry at all.
The President’s reaction to the apparent murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul offers the clearest evidence yet of his turn away from a foreign policy rooted in universal human values.
The crisis is instead showcasing Trump’s radical form of “America First” realpolitik, his promise not to infringe other nations’ sovereignty with lectures on human rights and his trust in the word of autocrats.
In his unrepentant conduct of American foreign policy, Trump is lurching from a path taken by every president since World War II, who all believed to various degrees that American leadership was needed to create a world safe for democracy, open commerce and freedom.
And it will be seen around the world as an unmistakable sign that there is no cost for heinous behavior – after all, it happened days after a US-based journalist for a top American newspaper was apparently killed before his body was reportedly chopped up in an official Saudi government building.
Washington often failed to honor its values – in the carpet bombing of Cambodia, for instance, or its support for Arab dictators. And many in the Middle East saw post-9/11 foreign policy as deeply hypocritical.
But for 70 years, the United States has been a beacon for dissidents in totalitarian nations, acting as a guarantor of democracy and peace in Europe and Northeast Asia. It waged a Cold War to defeat Communism, enhancing its claims of benevolent foreign policy leadership.
It is that legacy of moral clarity that the Trump administration is burning in the mystery over what happened to Khashoggi.
Three days ago, Trump was promising “severe” punishments for Saudi Arabia after the journalist vanished, in an episode that flouts every conventional American principle on how governments should treat their people.
But now, the President has shifted his tone and is abetting the kingdom’s evolving narrative on Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Jarring footage meanwhile of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo beaming in photo-ops Tuesday alongside King Salman and ruthless son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, encapsulated a closing of ranks with Riyadh.
The President told The Associated Press that blaming Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s disappearance was another case of “guilty until proven innocent,” an echo of his rhetoric concerning the sexual assault allegation against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
It all looked like an administration more concerned with insulating its relationship with the Saudi royals, key players in its effort to squeeze Iran, than seeking answers about what happened to Khashoggi.
Buying the Saudi story
Pompeo’s spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the secretary of state had thanked the King for ordering “a thorough, transparent and timely investigation” into Khashoggi’s disappearance. While body language and official statements do not convey everything that goes on behind the scenes, Pompeo’s demeanor hardly suggested a rebuke was delivered.
His trip only compounded impressions created by Trump, who gave credence to shifting Saudi denials of involvement and acted as a PR agent for the king, on Monday, relaying his comment that “rogue killers” were to blame.
On Tuesday, Trump, who sources told CNN was frustrated with news coverage about the Khashoggi episode, bought into an explanation offered by the crown prince, who many experts believe knew what was in store for Khashoggi if he did not order his elimination himself.
“Just spoke with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate,” Trump tweeted. “Answers will be forthcoming shortly.”
Three sources familiar with the case say the Saudi mission to interrogate and possibly abduct Khashoggi was organized by a high-ranking officer with the main Saudi intelligence service. It’s unclear whether the crown prince authorized either contingency but CNN previously reported that the operation could not have happened without his direct knowledge.
Saudi response fits Trump’s view of sovereignty
The President’s handling of the Khashoggi case epitomizes the doctrine of individual national sovereignty he laid out at the UN General Assembly.
“Whatever those values may be and they have been in the past in terms of foreign policy, they are no longer important and he has made that very clear,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, co-author of a study of Trump’s foreign policy, “The Empty Throne,” published on Tuesday.
“His basic view is what you do is your problem as long as you leave us alone,” Daalder said, maintaining Trump was closer to China’s worldview in this context than a traditional American one.
Trump has left little doubt that in his deal-driven ideology is designed to leverage financial wealth and will not be deflected by human rights concerns.
“We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship,” Trump said during his first foreign trip – to Saudi Arabia – last year.
Then, in a revealing interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday, the President frankly said that he didn’t want to sanction Saudi Arabia because it could cost firms like Boeing and Raytheon billions in arms deals and cost jobs.
In the same interview, he indicated that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s repression would not disrupt their relationship – which he had previously compared to a love affair.
“Let it be an embrace. Let it be whatever it is to get the job done,” Trump said.
And he hinted that as long as Russian President Vladimir Putin did not kill his opponents on US soil, he would look the other way.
“I rely on them. It’s not in our country,” he said.
While Trump cozies up to autocrats and strongmen like Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Kim, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and MBS, he has insulted leaders of American allies. He has called journalists “the enemy of the people.”
Critics believe such rhetoric has offered license to repressive leaders in places like Turkey, Russia and the Philippines – not to mention MBS, whose recklessness has turned into a political embarrassment for the US.
Mona Charen, a conservative commentator, said on CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” that Trump had taken realism to extremes and that Khashoggi’s case was so “flagrant” it cried out for US moral leadership.
“The world is full of bad actors and sometimes you have to deal with them and that is the world we live in. But what isn’t acceptable is an attempt to whitewash what they are, an attempt to let them off the hook,” she said.
Trump views criticism of his approach as the naive complaints of a political establishment that led America into nearly two decades of foreign wars and disdained the voters that put him in office in 2016.
He thinks the United States has been a soft touch, letting its values get in the way of maximizing its power while savvier nations have taken advantage while getting fat on its generosity – see NATO.
Even in his own party, there are those who believe his abandonment of American core principles and global leadership is catastrophic.
“There isn’t enough money in the world to purchase back our credibility on human rights and the way nations should conduct themselves,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said in an interview on CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday.
What Trump does next will decide whether Washington is able to credibly criticize strongmen like Putin and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, he said.
“We can’t say anything about that if we allow Saudi Arabia to do it and all we do is a diplomatic slap on the wrist,” Rubio said.
A senior administration official told CNN’s Barbara Starr that the decision on what to do with the Saudis may be the “the most consequential” of Trump’s presidency, since it will dictate whether US military leaders and diplomats can maintain a moral high ground on human rights.
That’s unlikely to change Trump’s mind, since any rupture with the Saudis would endanger his effort to destabilize and pressure Iran.
He is relying on Saudi Arabia to release more oil onto the market to meet demand after pressuring allies to stop imports from Iran.
Riyadh, of course, has considerable influence on the state of the global economy and therefore Trump’s own prospects of re-election with its power to engineer spikes in global oil prices.
In the longer term, foreign policy traditionalists worry about what Trump’s ideological turn means for the American-led world order.
“The order in essence was based in trust. People had to trust the United States to ultimately do the right thing. You were willing to give it room to fail and to make mistakes but then to come back,” Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO, said.
“He has fundamentally broken that trust.”
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Tim Lister, Clarissa Ward, Elise Labott and Peter Bergen contributed to this report.