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President Trump's Approach To Saudi Arabia


President Trump has been openly dismissive of the CIA's conclusion that Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump has also repeatedly stated that, in any case, Saudi Arabia is just too important an ally in the region, especially in the U.S. confrontation with Iran. And the president says he doesn't want to risk losing billions in arms sales or cause turmoil in global oil markets. His comments reflect a larger Trump administration foreign policy that is distinctly transactional. In other words, we're OK with you as long as you help us.

David Reaboi finds some merit in that philosophy. He's senior vice president for strategic operations at the Security Studies Group, a conservative leaning think tank. And he joins us on the line. Welcome to the program.

DAVID REABOI: Thank you.

PFEIFFER: And, David, to make sure we're clear on where you stand - do you agree with President Trump that the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia as an ally for the pragmatic reasons that Trump cites?

REABOI: Of course. I think the president's statement was exactly right. In fact, it very much falls into line with the thousands of years of national security and foreign policy realism.

PFEIFFER: Does that mean that in order to have Saudi Arabia as an ally, the U.S. may have to excuse or overlook what the CIA at least believes was a Saudi-sanctioned murder?

REABOI: Well, first of all, we don't know exactly what the CIA has concluded because we only have leaks to The New York Times and The Washington Post. But it doesn't override the strategic interests of the United States.

PFEIFFER: A murder doesn't override?

REABOI: No. Why would it? I mean, the U.S.-Saudi relationship and U.S. policy in the Middle East writ large is bigger than one man. This was a terrible thing. And 17 members of the Saudi regime were punished, which is absolutely right and proper and proportional. And to upend a relationship that has been strong since the end of the Second World War in order to virtue signal about this terrible thing is, to me, crazy and completely overshoots the mark.

PFEIFFER: You know, you say virtue signal. And that takes us very quickly to some very high-minded things. I mean, if we're saying that - we're basically signaling that you can murder someone. But because we need you to buy our armaments, we're going to look the other way. Is that not dismissive?

REABOI: No. I don't think it's dismissive at all. A few short years ago, you had the Obama administration wanting to reach a deal with Iran. Now, Iran has a lot more blood on its hands than Saudi Arabia. And certainly, the funding and promotion and protection of the Assad regime is a lot worse than what happened to one man. So we have to balance all these things out.

PFEIFFER: Is part of your argument that Trump is simply saying out loud what we have done for years, even though we said one thing and did another?

REABOI: Yes. I think there's a lot to that. I think there is merit to that argument. I think there's also merit to the clarity that Donald Trump brings to this. Our foreign policy has always been transactional. And the more clear about that we can be, the better, I think, because we understand what is at stake.

PFEIFFER: What about people outside the country? What does that message send to countries where democracy and human rights are under attack or to our traditional U.S. allies who always thought we were a bulwark against that?

REABOI: Well, I think the people in the world will learn and will understand something very positive, which is that it pays to be an ally of the United States. And if you're not an ally of the United States, you have, quite properly, different rules that apply to you. Now, that's...

PFEIFFER: But does it embolden countries that have very little respect for human rights?

REABOI: No, no. I don't think so. I don't think so at all.

PFEIFFER: How could it not?

REABOI: How could it not?

PFEIFFER: How could it not embolden them and think that we can get away with doing things that are just atrocities, and the United States, as long as we are spending...

REABOI: Because...

PFEIFFER: ...Enough money there, won't speak up?

REABOI: Well, the cold, hard truth is that nations get away with a lot worse all the time. Look what's going on in China with the Uighurs. They are destroying their Muslim population. Now, is that something that is worse than the terrible, brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi?

PFEIFFER: And I think that's what...

REABOI: I think it is.

PFEIFFER: ...Makes this - I think this is what makes this issue so difficult is that with the position you take, then how does the United States protect and defend human rights around the world if it's essentially going to countenance what appears to have happened to this journalist?

REABOI: I'm not sure I understand the question. What do you mean by countenance? What is the correct way to respond? What is - I mean, is the correct way to respond to say, OK. We're going to now cut off our nose to spite our face. And we're going to now make the Saudi regime our enemy. I mean, what's the...

PFEIFFER: Could we at least put more pressure on the country, more pressure on the prince?

REABOI: Well, sure. I mean, I think there should be pressure on any authoritarian regime to liberalize. Absolutely. We have to be as encouraging as possible and show them that when they do things like allow women to drive, all that is to the good. Now, on the other hand, of course, we should be mindful that, yes, these are important allies. And you can't push them too far too fast.

PFEIFFER: What has made people so uncomfortable about this is that even if the reality is that there are these mercenary pragmatic aspects of the world that means we may have to tolerate some unsavory things that happen. Do we want to advertise it? Because it feels like that's what happened - an advertisement.

REABOI: I don't agree with the premise. I don't think it was really an advertisement at all. We had strong condemnation from the president. He was he was disgusted by it. And he wanted to make sure that the people responsible were punished.

PFEIFFER: Do you feel like morality factors into a situation like this?

REABOI: Of course.

PFEIFFER: And do you feel like President Trumps response was moral?

REABOI: I do. I do. I think not thinking of the bigger picture is immoral.

PFEIFFER: David Reaboi of the Security Studies Group, thanks for talking with us.

REABOI: It's my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.