With Saudi Oil Under Attack, Trump's Deference to It Returns to Fore

Peter Baker and David E. Sanger
President Donald Trump speaks to a Saudi delegation led by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman during a working breakfast on day two of the G-20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — After oil installations were blown up in Saudi Arabia over the weekend, President Donald Trump declared that the United States was “locked and loaded,” a phrase that seemed to suggest he was ready to strike back. But then he promised to wait for Saudi Arabia to tell him “under what terms we would proceed.”

His message on Twitter offered a remarkable insight into the deference Trump gives to the Saudi royal family and touched off a torrent of criticism from those who have long accused him of doing Riyadh’s bidding while sweeping Saudi violations of human rights and international norms under the rug.

It was hard to imagine him allowing NATO, or a European ally, such latitude to determine how the United States should respond. But for Trump, the Saudis have always been a special case, their economic import having often overwhelmed other considerations in his mind.

Whether, and how, to commit U.S. forces is one of the most critical decisions any U.S. president can make, but Trump’s comment gave the impression that he was outsourcing the decision. The fact that the other country was Saudi Arabia — a difficult ally that came under intense criticism for the killing and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident and Washington Post columnist — reinforced the long-standing criticism that the energy-rich kingdom buys U.S. support.

“What struck me about that tweet was not just that it’s obviously wrong to allow Saudi Arabia to dictate our foreign policy, but that the president doesn’t seem to be aware of how submissive it makes him look to say that,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a former assistant secretary of state.

“It is a big deal to attack oil fields,” Malinowski added. “It does affect more than just Saudi Arabia’s interests. But whatever we do, we have to do what’s best for us and we have to recognize that the Saudis have a profound bias.”

Trump told reporters Monday that he had not “promised” to protect the Saudis and that he would “sit down with the Saudis and work something out.” But he expressed caution, suggesting that for all of his bellicose language, he was not rushing toward a military conflict.

Asked whether Iran was behind the attack, Trump said, “It is looking that way.” But he stopped short of definitive confirmation. “That is being checked out right now,” he added.

Trump warned that the United States had fearsome military abilities and was prepared for war if necessary. “But with all that being said, we would certainly like to avoid it,” he added. “I know they would like to make a deal,” he said of the Iranians, whom he has been trying to draw into talks over their nuclear program. “At some point, it will work out.”

There is no evidence it will work out soon. The Iranian Foreign Ministry dismissed the notion on Monday that President Hassan Rouhani would meet Trump in New York next week when both are scheduled to attend the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. While Trump said in June that a meeting could happen without preconditions, and his own aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, repeated it last week, Trump called that “fake news” over the weekend and falsely blamed the news media for making it up.

The notion of the United States doing the bidding of the Saudis has a long and bristling history. Critics complained that Saudi Arabia effectively hired out the U.S. military to protect itself from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and reverse his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The Saudi government even forked over $16 billion to reimburse the United States for about a quarter of the cost of the war that followed in 1991 — along with Kuwait, the most of any country.

The resentment felt over the years by U.S. officials crossed the ideological spectrum, summed up pithily in a leaked 2010 cable by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The Saudis, Gates told the French foreign minister at the time, always want to “fight the Iranians to the last American.”

Among those who seemed to share the sentiment in the past was a New York businessman and television entertainer named Donald Trump. “Saudi Arabia should fight their own wars, which they won’t, or pay us an absolute fortune to protect them and their great wealth-$ trillion!” he tweeted in 2014.

Since taking office, Trump has made Saudi Arabia his closest ally in the Middle East other than Israel, and has strongly supported its multifront struggle with Iran for dominance in the region. He has also left little doubt about the primacy of money in the relationship, openly citing the value of arms contracts in explaining why he would not criticize the Saudi government for Khashoggi’s killing.

When two Saudi oil processing centers were hit by an aerial assault over the weekend, Trump spoke out quickly, much as any president might given the effect on world oil supplies.

“Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked,” Trump tweeted. “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

The statement was strange for many reasons. Pompeo had already named the Iranians as the culprits; Trump did not. But the seeming abdication of fact-finding and decision-making to the Saudis gave Democrats a moment to argue that the president was willing to let the Saudi monarchy make decisions for the United States.

“If the President wants to use military force, he needs Congress — not the Saudi royal family — to authorize it,” Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, the chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, wrote on Twitter.

Heather Hurlburt, a national security official under President Bill Clinton who is now at New America, a Washington-based research organization, said it would be perfectly normal for a president to consult an ally before taking action in such a circumstance.

“It’s not remotely normal for a president to talk publicly about that, to use language that sounds as if we aren’t making our own decisions about whether to use force — or trusting our own intelligence,” she said. “And it’s completely unprecedented with a country that is not a treaty ally.”

The White House declined to comment on Monday beyond Trump’s remarks, but some national security conservatives were willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt.

“Obviously, it’s difficult to know for sure what’s going through the president’s mind,” said John P. Hannah, a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington and a former national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.

But he said his guess was that Trump “wants the country most affected and threatened by the attack to step up publicly, pin responsibility squarely on Iran and put some real skin into the game by formally requesting that the U.S. and international community come to the defense of Saudi Arabia and global economy.”

That could help mobilize international opinion and perhaps forge a coalition against Iran, “rather than an excuse to do nothing,” Hannah added.

In his comments to reporters Monday, Trump seemed intent on avoiding the perception that he was taking direction from the Saudis. If there is any response to the strikes on the oil facilities, he said, then the Saudis would play a part themselves — if nothing else, by financing it. Which, of course, made it sound like the United States was willing to be, in effect, a mercenary force for the Saudis.

“The fact is the Saudis are going to have a lot of involvement in this if we decide to do something,” he said. “They’ll be very much involved. And that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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