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A Blank Check for Repression? A Saudi Leader Visits Washington

It’s a classic narrative: the foreign dignitary of a US ally visits Washington, the Pentagon and State Department are intent on selling him a large weapons package, a munitions maker seeks to capitalize on the visit, some senators resist and point to how US weapons are being used by that ally to kill civilians, and the administration answers that the US is not “a party” to the hostilities and must show good faith to the ally or risk losing its favor.

This is the Saudi Arabia story as its new leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, comes to Washington. His country, as I have reported more than a few times, is valued by the Trump administration for several reasons, none of them compelling: a “bulwark” against Iran’s Shiite regime, thus an unofficial partner to Israel in a nonexistent peace process; a major oil producer; a longtime customer for US weapons, in the billions of dollars (recall last year’s $110-billion arms package); the senior partner to the US in the bloody war in Yemen (an estimated 10,000 civilian casualties); and, perhaps most importantly these days, a good friend to private investors, starting with the Real-Estate-Agents-in-Chief, Donald Trump and Jared Kushner.

Now this Saudi leader, hailed as a modernizer and reformer in some media, expects a warm welcome—and the chance to purchase another $1 billion in weapons, including Raytheon Corporation’s precision-guided munitions. He will thus gain US endorsement to more efficiently carry out war crimes in Yemen, a country in collapse and in the midst of cholera and malnutrition epidemics. All this largesse to maintain US “influence” and help make the Middle East more “stable.”

Back in the day, the Obama administration came, belatedly to be sure, to the conclusion that constant support of the Saudis had been mistaken and should no longer be allowed to get in the way of other US interests. One of those was pursuing a nuclear agreement with Iran. (The full story is in Trita Parsi’s Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.) Under Trump, however, that direction has been reversed. Not only is Saudi Arabia very much in favor; it benefits from the administration’s determination early on to loosen restrictions on arms sales abroad in order to make US arms manufacturer’s more competitive.

Someday, a US administration will break the pattern of weaponizing friendships with authoritarian regimes in the name of maintaining influence. Such relationships are tainted from the start and never support professed US interests in peace and stability. Look today at US policy toward Egypt, Honduras, Israel, and the Philippines, for example. The US is those governments’ partner in the repression of human rights, the deaths of innocent people at the hands of US-made weapons, and the undermining of prospects for civil society.

To this point, the story is a familiar one in the annals of US foreign policy. But under Trump, there’s something more: let’s call it the imitation factor. Emboldened by Trump’s example, these same regimes, among others, are following his example and taking aim at undesirable people and institutions. They are imprisoning dissidents, cracking down on the press and opposition parties, intimidating lawyers, and kicking out immigrants. The imitation factor also works in reverse: note Trump’s envious comments about Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, both potentially in charge for their lifetimes; and his call for executing drug dealers, just as Rodrigo Duterte is doing in the Philippines.

Authoritarian leaders friendly to the US are now fully confident that the Trump administration will look the other way as they trample the rule of law. The Saudi crown prince is thus in good company.

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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