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Last week, Saudi Arabia almost certainly murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Asked about the apparent murder last night on Fox News, President Trump expressed the requisite disapproval he musters for events that do not anger him in any visceral way but which he is expected to condemn (“It would not be a positive. I would not be happy at all”). But when asked if the United States should retaliate by withholding future arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Trump immediately pumped the brakes.
“Well, I think that would be hurting us,” he said. “We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before. Part of that is what we’re doing with our defense systems, and everybody’s wanting ’em, and frankly I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”
Speaking with reporters in the Oval Office, Trump reiterated this position. After a pro forma statement that of course murdering journalists is bad, he repeatedly insisted he would never tolerate a reduction in arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In Trump’s telling, the Saudis have all the leverage, and could easily switch over to Russian or Chinese weapons, so the United States is lucky to be chosen for the honor of arming the kingdom.
Normally these kinds of foreign policy questions come down to morality versus foreign policy interest. The case for punishing Saudi Arabia is that it is threatening liberal values and global freedom. There might be a realpolitik case for maintaining the alliance. But Trump is not arguing on the basis of either values or foreign policy interests. He’s saying we need the money from the arms sales. (Note, also, that Trump argues we can’t afford to lose the arms sales because the economy is doing well, a rationale that would work even better if the economy was doing poorly.)
So Trump’s case against punishing Saudi Arabia for murdering a journalist is that we can’t afford to reduce the profits our defense companies make from selling them weapons. And of course this is perfectly consistent with Trump’s conviction that American foreign policy should be run almost literally like a mafia family, using our strength to collect protection money from friends and running smash-and-grab operations to steal resources from weaker countries. The theory of American policy that Noam Chomsky intended as an indictment is Trump’s idea of a moral touchstone.
This post has been updated throughout.