David A. Andelman, visiting scholar at the Center on National Security, wrote an op-ed for CNN about President Trump’s international diplomatic relations.
Donald J. Trump is not abiding by a central tenet of international diplomacy — choose your friends wisely, particularly in the Middle East.
For decades, American leaders have steered carefully between the Scylla and Charybdis of ancestral enemies — Saudi Arabia and Iran — in hopes of maintaining some vestige of peace, or at least the absence of outright war, in the region.
And yet now, as the two nations find themselves locked in a direct battle for total dominance in the Middle East, the US is choosing to favor Saudi Arabia. This choice makes America a clearer target of Iran and presents an even more imminent danger since it’s unlikely any compromise might be negotiated that could reduce the threat of an armed conflict.
From his first stop abroad as President last May, Trump seems to have thrown all caution to the wind by aligning with Saudi Arabia in this thoroughly toxic environment. Then, the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, charged with bringing peace to the Middle East, flew suddenly and unannounced to Riyadh last month to dine and converse late into the night with the powerful 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Days later, MBS, as he is known, shockingly ordered the arrest of 11 princes and scores of business leaders for “corruption” — a power play that seems to have gone unchallenged, either in Riyadh or Washington. Could MBS have gotten a tacit buy-in from Trump’s 36-year-old princeling, particularly since the two fathers — Trump and King Salman — talked by phone just hours after the mass arrests?
Regardless, the Trump administration is making a dangerous move. The kingdom will soon be ruled by a young, untested and clearly impulsive heir apparent. His interests seem to oscillate between himself, his immediate family and a broader agenda that could prove quite dangerous to such a volatile region.
Clearly, Saudi Arabia has seized on its own agenda. And without some strong pushback from a White House that is ill-inclined to question the royals’ priorities, Saudi priorities will inevitably become America’s as well. The Saudi agenda seems to be suppression of radical Islam within Saudi Arabia’s own borders, and increasingly abroad. Such activities only seem to be accelerating under the nation’s young Crown Prince and his father, who is increasingly turning a host of potentially dangerous initiatives over to his son. But it is far from clear if the Saudis have the kind of muscle or appetite to succeed.
Despite these risks, the US may be well on our way to backing the wrong horse in the world’s most volatile region. Trump has agreed to sell the Saudis $350 billion in American arms over the next decade. Against whom will these weapons be trained and how certain can we be that they will be deployed judiciously and not in the interests of settling some millennium-old score? The US may soon find out the answer to this frightening reality.