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Taking the Saudis at ‘Their Word’ and Other Failures

The administration's credulity when it comes to Riyadh's promises and statements is itself discrediting.
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Trump’s fourth National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, appeared on Face the Nation yesterday, and he made a number of troubling statements that reflect some of the biggest flaws with the administration’s foreign policy. When he was asked about the Pensacola attack and the shooter’s possible terrorist ties, he said this:

So, my point is it looks like terrorism. We’ll have to see what the FBI investigation shows, what his motivations were. The Saudis have promised full cooperation with the investigation. We’re going to take them at their word [bold mine-DL].

Why would our government take the Saudis at their word? The Saudi government has spent the last several years routinely lying about their responsibility for war crimes in Yemen. They have funneled U.S.-made weapons to militias and designated terrorists as part of their war effort in direct violation of the agreements they made with the U.S. They lied for weeks about what Saudi agents had done to Jamal Khashoggi, and they have spent more than a year denying the crown prince’s obvious role in that murder. The Saudi government has given the U.S. promises and assurances in the past that proved to be worthless. Why is this time any different? No one can seriously take the Saudi government at their word at this point, so it is significant that this is the administration’s position. The administration’s credulity when it comes to Riyadh’s promises and statements is itself discrediting.

O’Brien’s answers on North Korea were no better. He continues to recite the talking point that Kim committed to denuclearization at Singapore:

We were able to convince Kim Jong Un to- to come to a- a summit. At that summit, Kim Jong Un promised to denuclearize North Korea. And we expect him to live up to the promise he made at the summit in Singapore. And- and we hope he’ll do so.

The Trump administration’s expectations remain completely disconnected from reality. Kim made no such promise at Singapore or anywhere else. The conceit that Kim made a promise to denuclearize requires ignoring the text of the Singapore statement itself. It is disturbing that the president and top administration officials keep spreading this falsehood and seem to believe it themselves, and it is frustrating that they are never called out for it. It is unreasonable to expect another government to fulfill a promise that it never made. Insisting that the other party in a negotiation agreed to something that everyone knows they didn’t agree to is bound to be taken as proof that our government has been acting in bad faith all along.

At the close of the interview, O’Brien reiterates the administration’s preposterous demands for Iran:

We’d like to sit down and talk to them. But the sanctions and the maximum pressure are not going to be let up until Iran abandons its nuclear program and abandons its malign activities in the region.

This is the bankruptcy of the “maximum pressure” campaign in a nutshell. There is the usual feigned interest in talking combined with the extreme and completely unrealistic demand for surrender, and if Iran refuses to surrender it will continue to be strangled with economic warfare. O’Brien’s statement shows that the administration’s Iran policy remains as inflexible and destructive as ever.

If one were looking for some sign that a post-Bolton Trump administration had improved its foreign policy, this O’Brien interview is extremely discouraging.

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