Richard Sokolsky and Aaron David Miller marvel at the Trump administration’s subordination to U.S. interests to those of Saudi Arabia:
In our 65-plus years of combined experience working inside and outside the State Department on U.S. Middle East policy, we have never seen anything like the Trump administration’s willingness to prostitute U.S. interests to Saudi Arabia—a country that increasingly pursues policies at home and abroad that undermine American values and interests.
Indeed, amid all its failures, the most successful Saudi foreign policy initiative in recent memory is the successful capturing and bamboozling of Donald Trump.
How to explain the Trump administration’s abnormal and unseemly attachment to Saudi Arabia? Why the suck-up and, more important, exactly what is America getting in return?
Previous administrations have certainly done their share of sucking up to the Saudis, but Sokolsky and Miller are correct that Trump has done even more of it than usual with absolutely nothing to show for it. Trump seems unusually fond of authoritarian rulers in general, and he has been especially enthusiastic about America’s despotic Middle East clients. One reason for this is the misguided desire to have “no daylight” with those client states. The faulty conventional wisdom in Washington was that Obama neglected U.S. clients in the region, and the Saudis and Emiratis promoted this idea to anyone who would listen. Those same governments cultivated ties with Trump and his family early on, and they shared his hostility to Iran and Obama. For his part, Trump was determined to cater to the governments that Obama supposedly snubbed, and the result has been to bind his administration to the Saudis, the UAE, and Israel more closely than with any other governments in the world. Trump’s willingness to pander to these clients is all the more striking because our interests and theirs are diverging from each other more than ever before.
Trump’s exceptionally tight embrace of the Saudis is an important reminder that Trump’s foreign policy has little or nothing to do with putting American interests first. If it were putting American interests first, the Trump administration would have no part in the war on Yemen. It would be distancing itself from the Saudis and the UAE instead of cozying up to them. It would be willing to offer criticism of those governments when they acted against U.S. interests. In practice, Trump has done the opposite of all these things.
Trump puts keeping “no daylight” with client states ahead of securing American interests. This is a valuable cautionary tale of what happens when an administration makes a point of having “no daylight” with so-called “allies.” Maintaining “no daylight” with these reckless authoritarian regimes has meant increasing support for the war on Yemen, refusing to criticize the coalition for its numerous crimes there, arming them to the teeth, and indulging them in their petty feud with Qatar. Having “no daylight” with other states necessarily requires sacrificing American interests to keep the illusion of agreement going.
Sokolsky and Miller’s recommendations are mostly good ones and I have made several of them before. They make one statement that needs to be addressed briefly. They write:
What kills us more than anything is that we know what to expect from America’s enemies—they will diddle us at every turn—but we don’t expect that behavior from our supposed allies.
One thing to learn from the current state of the U.S.-Saudi relationship is that the Saudis are not really our allies at all. We ought to stop calling them that and stop treating them as if they were. The Saudis are self-interested clients that seek to extract the most favors and support from Washington they can at the lowest cost to them. Whenever the clients don’t get their way, they will whine about being abandoned in order to get enough people in Washington to argue that the U.S. needs to give them what they desire. The key to changing the U.S.-Saudi relationship for the better is to stop indulging them, because giving them what they ask for just encourages more of the same.