Read: The U.S.-Saudi relationship is out of control.
The CIA recently leaked its own assessment, which stated that MbS ordered the Khashoggi operation. This leak was calculated to ensure that Trump’s semiliterate valentine to MbS would be maximally awkward, a love letter to a killer. Trump’s statement concedes that Khashoggi’s killing was “an unacceptable and horrible crime.” He adds that “our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” This sentence is the ultimate transformation of the American government into a form of reality television. The CIA reports—you decide! Trump neglected only to tell readers how to register their votes.
But, again, the decision was rigged from the beginning. Trump’s alliance with Saudi Arabia long predated his awareness of who Khashoggi was, and the death of a single dissident was never going to freeze into hibernation a romance that was forever spring. Although the murder was indefensible, the relationship (Trump argues) is not. To have an alliance with Saudi Arabia against all forms of Islamism, he suggests, is worth the life of a dissident or two.
And here is the brutal truth behind this amoral love affair: MbS has done what America has asked. Fourteen years have passed since Michael Moore’s risible film Fahrenheit 9/11—long enough to erase America’s collective memory of the complaint against Saudi Arabia that formed the crooked spine of that pseudodocumentary. Saudi Arabia contributed 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11; it encouraged jihadism while professing to be an American ally; it distorted American politics by wielding influence over the Bush family and the various corporate slaves to its oil industry.*
Read: Trump’s evangelical advisers hear from the Saudi crown prince on Khashoggi.
MbS, and his much-vaunted reforms of Saudi Arabia, are the response to these complaints. He has repressed, rather brutally, anyone with connections to Islamists—including Khashoggi, who never concealed his sympathy for what might be called “soft Islamism.” (The Saudis have accused him of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood; he pointedly refused to deny the accusation, while maintaining, reasonably, that freedom of conscience would allow him to be a Brother if he wished.) MbS has acknowledged that hydrocarbon feudalism is not a viable form of government for Saudi Arabia in perpetuity. He has laid off criticism of Israel. Crucially, he has undertaken massive economic and political change, precisely along the lines that were the basis of a liberal critique of Saudi Arabia a decade ago. That the implementation of this critique has occasionally taken a homicidal form may have seemed to MbS incidental.
MbS has seemed wounded by the speed with which Western powers have dropped him—even after he has incarnated their fondest hopes for the modernization (and de-Islamization) of the kingdom. He has alluded to a willingness to seek the friendship of China or Russia, if accession to every demand of the United States is not enough to maintain their relationship. But with Trump’s Tuesday statement, he knows that the relationship is a safe one. “If you want a friend in Washington,” goes the adage, “get a dog.” With Trump’s statement we see that the genus Homo can be a more constant and loyal friend than one found in any kennel.
* This article originally misstated the number of 9/11 hijackers from Saudi Arabia.