Donald Trump may be positioning himself, and by extension the American people, yet again, on the wrong side of another profound moral divide -- defending an utterly criminal regime in the Middle East to which he plighted his troth from the earliest days of his presidency -- the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
When an urgent issue presented itself in 2017, Trump chose the wrong side of argument over the events in Charlottesville. This time, the subject of his sympathies, it seems, is not neo-Nazis in America, but the regime of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In the past 24 hours, reports have emerged that a government hit squad, said to have been dispatched directly by bin Salman, first in line to the Saudi throne, seized, interrogated, tortured, then killed and, using a bone saw, dismembered the body of a journalist. Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, was one of the regime's leading critics.
A central question now is just how far Trump may be prepared to go in defense of the kind of rabid values the Saudis now seem to have embraced. But even more important for American interests, at home and abroad, are the potential consequences.
Unlike Charlottesville, this time Trump may have his hand forced by a horrified Congress, apparently united in bipartisan agreement.
Thursday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Republican Bob Corker, and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez, delivered to the White House a formal letter, triggering provisions of the Global Magnitsky Act, which gives the President 120 days to decide whether to impose sanctions on any person or any country found to have been involved in any extra-judicial kidnapping, murder or egregious violation of internationally-recognized human rights.
The Magnitsky Act, passed in 2012, was originally aimed at Russia, in retaliation for the alleged murder in prison of attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who'd been defending the interests of exiled investor William Browder, an implacable foe of Vladimir Putin. It singled out 18 individuals, banning them from travel to the United States or dealings with any American banks.
Four years later, the act was broadened to allow the President to sanction any violator of human rights anywhere in the world.
For some time, Trump has been prepared to overlook a host of questionable initiatives by bin Salman -- vast Saudi human rights violations in the Yemeni civil war, provoked and pursued by Riyadh with the backing of the United States; an outrageous boycott of Qatar, which neighboring countries, led by Saudi Arabia, accused of funding terrorism; and the imprisonment and extortion of a number of wealthy Saudis, including opposition members of the royal family.
The immediate goal of Trump's blinkered attitude throughout, which the President cited earlier this week, was to preserve contracts for purchase of American arms worth more than $100 billion.
"They're spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs ... for this country," Trump told reporters Thursday. "I don't like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States, because you know what they're going to do? They're going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China or someplace else."
Of course, what Trump did not point out is that the crown prince, known as MBS, not to mention his family and fellow members of the royal family, far prefer to come to the United States, or Paris, London or Geneva, which would be likely to slap on similar bans, than to Moscow or Beijing to shop and, for some, drink the alcohol that is banned at home.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has been keenly aware of the need to shore up and arm Saudi Arabia -- Iran's principal foe in the Middle East -- portraying Iran as the leading sponsor of terrorism in the region.
The Saudis have also been the leading supporter, alongside Israel, of Trump's widely condemned decision to withdraw from President Obama's prized nuclear agreement with Iran.
Meanwhile, a close personal relationship has developed between MBS and Jared Kushner, the President's son-in-law and lead Middle East peace negotiator.
All this has led to growing charges of the involvement of Trump and Kushner family interests in Saudi Arabia.
But with Khashoggi possibly abducted or dead, Trump may no longer be able to turn a blind eye to Saudi's moral failings. Congress may well force Trump into measures that could hold vast consequences. The cost of labeling Saudi Arabia and its crown prince pariahs could be a high one.
Saudi Arabia as a nation and an economy are better insulated from the impact of sanctions than Russia. Still, both are heavily dependent on oil revenues, so sanctions against the sale of Saudi oil could affect that nation's economy more deeply than Russia, which is also heavily dependent on oil. But with just 32 million people to worry about versus Russia's 144 million, and with vast sovereign wealth funds to cushion any impact, the Saudis could presumably hold out far longer than Russia.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia, as the tentpole nation of the OPEC oil cartel, could lead to a retaliation that risks hitting America's economy hard. Restricting the sale of Saudi oil would only lead to higher oil prices, layered on top of a trade war with China, rising interest rates fueled by a ballooning budget deficit on the back of a sweeping tax cut and a plunging stock market right before the midterm elections.
I first met Khashoggi more than a decade ago, in the offices in Riyadh of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the wealthiest investor in Saudi Arabia, who has hardly seen eye to eye with MBS and this side of the royal family.
At the time, Khashoggi told me he was exploring creation of a new satellite news channel to present a more Saudi-focused view of the region. Years later, Alwaleed was arrested and charged with corruption, along with 10 other princes and scores of other government officials. Khashoggi, closely tied to Alwaleed, and a bitter critic of MBS and his methods, fled into self-imposed exile in the United States.
Now, President Trump will need to plumb how deeply his affection and conjoined interests with the Saudi royal family go. The consequences of failing to act swiftly and decisively in this case will be only one more confirmation that President Trump and the United States are no longer any sort of model for democracy or freedom anywhere in the world and will only give comfort to the forces of darkness and extremism that are so broadly on the rise.
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