The US-Saudi alliance is longstanding, economically and geopolitically consequential, and it’s been thrown into chaos since the likely assassination of reporter Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident and US resident.
This is Donald Trump’s biggest diplomatic crisis as president. And based on extended remarks on the US-Saudi relationship Trump gave to a pair of Wall Street Journal reporters in an interview published Wednesday, he’s running the show completely ignorant of even the most basic facts.
Oftentimes it’s pretty clear that Trump is lying about something, but so much of what Trump says about the Saudis is different. It’s so incoherent that it must be coming from a place of genuine confusion or ignorance. On a whole range of subjects from the disposition of the Iranian military to the volume of Saudi investment in the United States to even something as basic as the number of hijackers involved in the 9/11 plot, Trump gets facts wrong often with no apparent motive and with no demonstrated desire or capacity to learn on his part.
Khashoggi’s likely murder is significant on its own terms. It is also more broadly an emblem of the serious concerns about the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan (a.k.a. MBS), whose elderly father has stepped away from day-to-day governance.
The ship of state is being steered by a man who has no idea what he’s doing and, frankly, it’s terrifying.
Trump is rambling and incoherent on Saudi Arabia and Iran
In a very strange discourse on the US-Saudi relationship as it pertains to Iran, Trump appears to be incapable of forming coherent sentences. That’s in part surely because the underlying idea he is trying to express — that Saudi Arabia does the United States some kind of favor by opposing Iran’s regional ambitions — is totally mistaken, as Trump himself seems to realize by the end of his meanderings in the Wall Street Journal.
If you look at what they’re doing, they’ve been a very good ally with respect to Iran and with respect to Israel. And it would be a—it would be an—it would be a very, very big change if we—you know, we have a very, very strong and positive thing going on in the Middle East for the first time in many years.
Iran is not the same country since I took away the—you know, the—you know, it’s a different country. When I first came here, let’s say the day before—I’ll say the day before I came in, Iran was looking good. They were going to take over everything: Syria, Yemen. They were going for—they were going to take over—who knows where it stopped.
And since I’ve been here and specifically since I did the move that I wanted to do—people asked me not and I gave them a little time, but ultimately they were wrong—but since I’ve taken—you know, I’ve terminated that deal, the Iran deal—the Iran nuclear deal, to be specific—since I terminated the deal, they’re not the same country.
I see it in many different ways. Their economy has crashed. Their currency has crashed. They’re having riots every week, big ones, in every city. They’re not the same country. They’re bringing back soldiers from places that would be unthinkable six months ago or a year ago.
There was a significant wave of protests in Iran this summer, but they most decidedly are not rioting every week. The pro-Iranian side of the Syrian Civil War was, indeed, on track for victory when Donald Trump took office, but since that time they have only moved closer to victory. Iran was never poised to take over Yemen, though there are charges that the Iranians have assisted the Houthi movement that is fighting Saudi-backed forces there. The upshot of that conflict is a huge humanitarian catastrophe that has not yet led to Houthi defeat.
But most important of all, in Yemen it’s the United States that is helping the Saudis counter what they perceive to be an Iranian-backed plot to increase its influence in the region.
The Saudis are not a “very good ally with respect to Iran” in the sense that they are helping us out with something. It’s the opposite. The US, first under President Barack Obama and then under Trump, has been helping the Saudis counter Iranian influence in Syria and Yemen.
And Trump did Saudi Arabia a favor by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and harming Iran’s economy. The downside risk is that this will end up re-unleashing an Iranian nuclear weapons program, thus harming some of America’s core interests.
This kind of persistent overestimating of how useful Saudi Arabia is to the United States seems to be the core of Trump’s thinking about the issue.
Trump wildly overstates the economic value of Saudi Arabia
Later, speaking of possibly imposing consequences on the Saudis for their crimes, Trump muses, “you have people that do not want to lose $450 billion worth of investment and you have others that think that we should. I disagree with them.”
If it were true that the Saudis had $450 billion worth of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the United States that would be a huge deal, more than 10 percent of the total FDI. Jeopardizing it would be something worth hesitating over. Indeed, if this were true, Saudi Arabia would be the No. 4 source of FDI for the United States, right after the UK, Canada, and Japan.
Back in the real world, however, the actual No. 4 is Germany with $406 billion followed by Ireland ($329 billion), France ($302 billion), Switzerland ($202 billion), and the Netherlands ($169 billion). Saudi Arabia’s FDI is a bit less than $13 billion, so the president was off by a factor of 35 or so.
He seems to have had in mind a vague commitment the Saudi crown prince made back in March when he said at a White House press availability, “And, as you know, Mr. President, from day one you’ve reached this office, we’ve planned to tackle 200 billion U.S. dollars for opportunities in the next four years, but it end up with 400 billion U.S. dollar for opportunities.”
What’s $50 billion between friends, after all? But more to the point, as Trump ended up conceding later in the interview this promised investment has not actually happened.
WSJ: How much of the deal has been done?
Mr. Trump: It’s—it gets done over a period of time.
WSJ: Do you know where you’re at?
Mr. Trump: No, but a lot of—a lot of the contracts were handed out that day. And there were letters of intent and different things. But, Michael, it’s a lot. Even if you took it and made it a lot less than that, it’s the largest order ever made.
Separately, Trump explained why he doesn’t want to reduce arms sales to Saudi Arabia: “They buy tremendous amounts of things from our country. It probably amounts to millions of jobs, you know, a million jobs. That’s a lot of jobs.”
That is a lot of jobs. Indeed, since there are fewer than 150 million jobs in the United States it would genuinely be surprising if that large a share of the American workforce was employed making military exports bound for Saudi Arabia.
But, of course, it’s not true. There are only 355,000 workers in the entire American defense industry, most of which is not making things to sell to Saudi Arabia.
In general, Trump not only has a lot of bad statistical information at his disposal, he is also entirely immune to the concept of updating his statements in light of new information — even in trivial situations.
Trump keeps miscounting 9/11 hijackers
On September 11, 2001, 19 people (of whom 15 were Saudi) hijacked four American jetliners. Two crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York, one crashed into the Pentagon, and one was brought down by heroic passengers over Pennsylvania.
Here’s Trump trying to answer a question about the Saudi role in this:
Mr. Trump: I mean, you had, what, 18 people and I think, 17—whatever it is. Only one didn’t. Well, I—that’s right. And I was always critical of President Bush for attacking Iraq. I said, Iraq did not knock down the World Trade Center. They came out of Saudi Arabia. And they went to—they went to Afghanistan. But out of the 15—
WSJ: Nineteen hijackers, 15 were Saudi nationals.
Mr. Trump: It was 19 and 18. Oh, was it 15? OK. Whatever. It was a vast—you know, so out of 19, 14 were Saudi.
WSJ: Fifteen, yeah.
Mr. Trump: Fifteen were Saudi.
WSJ: So what responsibility does Saudi Arabia have for maintaining this relationship?
Mr. Trump: And that’s what’s reported now, I assume. But I assume that’s been the number we’re hearing, 15—15 out of the 19, yeah. Say it again?
I don’t really even know what to say about this other than that it’s sort of disturbing that the president has so much trouble counting. The good news is that in this case the precise number doesn’t really matter. The bad news is that, in a broader sense, he completely misunderstands the overall nature of the relationship.
Trump suddenly reverses himself on the whole alliance
Having spent most of the interview massively overstating the economic value of the US-Saudi relationship, Trump eventually pivots and says that the whole thing is actually an enormous waste of money.
Mr. Trump: Oh, I think they have. I think they have—Well, they have a very big relationship to maintaining the relationship. Don’t forget, if it wasn’t for us, it could very well be that Saudi Arabia wouldn’t last very long. I’ve been saying that. I’ve asked in a very strong fashion—before this happened — I’ve asked Saudi Arabia to pay us a tremendous amount of money for defense.
We’re defending Saudi Arabia. They have—they’re a vastly wealthy country, and we’re defending them, and we’re not being reimbursed for our costs. A very small percentage is being reimbursed. And I’ve told them — and other countries—this is no secret. I’ve been saying this to a lot of people. But there are other countries that are very wealthy.
You know, it’s one thing if we’re defending somebody, a country that’s really being horribly harmed and—that’s one thing—and doesn’t have economic strength. But, you know, we defend countries that are immensely wealthy, and then don’t ask for anything—then don’t ask for anything. So that’s the story—we can’t have that.
It’s somewhere between naïve, dishonest, and ill-informed to think of the US military presence in the Gulf as an act of charity toward the Gulf Arab states. And it’s fairly ridiculous to think of American military deployments as a fee-for-service endeavor like we’re an empire trying to extract cash tribute from abroad.
The United States stations troops in the region because, rightly or wrongly, American policymakers have decided that doing so serves American interests. It’s not a gift to the Saudis.
But here is the point Trump has been missing throughout the whole rest of the interview: The Saudi government gains a lot from the US-Saudi relationship. It’s a very good deal for them. They are the ones who need to share a neighborhood with Iran, we are the ones who are the global military superpower. We have all the leverage, and are in a position to influence Saudi behavior.
But whether out of ignorance, corruption, or whatever else, Trump simply can’t see that clearly, and instead casts the situation as one in which the United States is dangerous dependent on Saudi largess for its economic stability.
The vision of a president making policy under pressure with this little understanding of what’s happening is frightening enough to be uncomfortable to think about. Instead, most coverage of the interview ended up focusing on less-ridiculous things Trump said elsewhere about the Fed and interest rates.
But it’s important to confront the reality of what’s happening here: a man tasked with making difficult decisions about complicated issues has no idea what’s going on.