Trump and the assassination kingdom

December 4, 2018

Emma Wilde Botta explains why divisions are opening up at the top of the U.S. political establishment over the empire’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

IN A rare rebuke to the Trump administration that wants to stand by a fellow tyrant, the U.S. Senate passed a bill last week that would cut off U.S. support for the Saudi Arabia-led war in Yemen within 30 days if it becomes law.

The House would still have to pass the legislation, and the administration is threatening a veto, but this marks the first that the Senate has taken up a bill to withdraw military forces from an illegal war using the War Power Resolution Act.

That’s a sign of the intensifying pressures that are causing fractures in the bipartisan establishment following international outrage over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

For more than three years, senators have cared very little about Saudi Arabia’s carnage in Yemen, nor the kingdom’s repression of feminist activists or any number of other issues for that matter. U.S. political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, prefer that their allies commit human rights abuses discreetly and outside of the media spotlight. Murdering and dismembering a Washington Post columnist was a step too far.

Donald Trump celebrates U.S.-Saudi arms deals with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left)
Donald Trump celebrates U.S.-Saudi arms deals with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left)

Now, the revelations of the dirty truth about one of the U.S. government’s main partners-in-war-crimes is opening up opportunities to expose the whole deadly imperialist framework — and especially one of its latest atrocities, inflicted on the people of Yemen.

IT HAS now been almost two months since Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Turkey and disappeared. After weeks of denying involvement, Saudi Arabia finally admitted that the dissident journalist was killed in the building.

Yet Donald Trump continues to defend the Saudi royal family despite undeniable evidence confirming the widely held belief that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly referred to as MBS) ordered Khashoggi’s murder.

The CIA concluded earlier this month that MBS ordered the assassination, and Turkish police began searching for Khashoggi’s body in various villas, one of which belongs to a Saudi businessman with close ties to MBS.

The brazen murder of Khashoggi is only one crime on MBS’s long rap sheet. He is primarily responsible, since becoming crown prince, for directing Saudi Arabia’s devastating war on Yemen, which currently has left 13 million people at risk of starvation.

Saudi Arabia claims to be targeting the Houthis, the opposition group on the other side of Yemen’s civil war that controls the country’s capital and that is supposedly backed by Iran. But the indiscriminate violence of the U.S.-backed Saudi war has caused masses of civilian casualities.

The increasing bloodshed and social crisis prompted some international action: Finland, Denmark and Germany have suspended arms sales, for example. But the U.S. government has stuck by MBS’s side so far.

That could be changing in the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, which is becoming linked together with the Yemen war.

Last month, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker criticized the White House for acting like a “public relations firm” for MBS. The Trump administration further angered Republicans and Democrats alike by preventing CIA director Gina Haspel from briefing senators on the Khashoggi murder.

But Trump hasn’t backed down yet. In an extraordinary official statement last month, Trump first attacked Iran for being behind the Yemen war, and claimed that Saudi Arabia’s intervention was a fight against “radical Islamic terrorism.”

He then went on to claim that Saudi arms deals create hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs and warned that these economic opportunities would go to Russia and China if the U.S. backed out. He concluded his statement with: “America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!”

SOME SPECULATE that Trump is hesitant to criticize Saudi Arabia because of his longstanding infatuation with tyrants, or even because the interests of the Trump business empire are at stake.

But there are a trio of more conventional reasons why he has been unwilling to compromise the U.S.-Saudi alliance so far: oil, weapons and Iran.

As one of the largest oil producers in the world — it was surpassed this fall by none other than the U.S. — the Saudi kingdom controls politically vital resources that American imperialist strategy is organized around. The U.S. accounts for a whopping 61 percent of major arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and Trump doesn’t want to jeopardize these lucrative deals either.

Both these motives are connected to the third: After Israel, Saudi Arabia is the U.S.’s main ally in the region, and it plays a key role in opposing Iran — the empire’s main rival in the Middle East.

Thus, when Trump tweeted his thanks to Saudi Arabia for lowering oil prices to an all-year low, that was designed to stabilize the international oil market as Trump reimposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran’s oil sector.

Iran, the common enemy of Trump and Saudi Arabia, has also been the basis of the continuing alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently extended a hand to Gulf countries in an effort to initiate further trade relations, while cohering opposition to Iran.

For his part, MBS has positioned himself as a friend to Israel. In April, he chastised Palestinian leaders for refusing to accept the U.S. framework for a new “peace” plan, telling them to “shut up and stop complaining.” In return, Netanyahu has stood with the crown prince in the face of international condemnation over the Yemen war.

Last week, the U.S. stalled a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Yemen. The move to block the resolution contradicts statements from U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who called for a ceasefire last month.

Trump’s realpolitik with Saudi Arabia is nothing new. Cozying up to countries with a laundry list of human rights violations is a tradition in Washington, as long as the alliances benefit U.S. imperialism.

As left-wing writer Glenn Greenwald said:

Newspaper editorialists and think tank scholars pretend that the U.S. stands opposed to tyranny and despotism and feigns surprise each time U.S. officials lend their support, weaponry and praise to those same tyrants and despots.

Though the U.S. poses at “the world’s greatest democracy,” only intervening around the world for humanitarian purposes, its unsavory alliance with a repressive and savagely violent monarchy dispels those myths.

But the U.S.-Saudi relationship is being tested now. Khashoggi’s murder and the catastrophe in Yemen are becoming substantial problems for the U.S. empire. What comes next will depend on how the political conflicts in Washington and around the world play out at the top — but ending this deadly alliance once and for all will require more people standing up for justice.

Further Reading

From the archives