Washington Watch: A well-oiled machine

Today there is another added dimension beyond Trump’s eagerness to sell the Riyadh royals anything their greedy heart’s desire: nuclear weapons.

Saudi army artillery fire shells towards Houthi positions from the Saudi border with Yemen April 13, 2015.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi army artillery fire shells towards Houthi positions from the Saudi border with Yemen April 13, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When Israel and its friends in Congress objected to the sale of AWACS early warning aircraft along with advanced capability and armaments for their F-15s to Saudi Arabia, the Reagan White House warned that if we didn’t sell it to them, the Soviet Union or someone else would.
That has been a recurring theme in just about every administration for more than 40 years in my experience working to block weapons sales that would threaten Israel’s qualitative edge.
With rare exceptions, it proved to be an empty threat for a lot of good reasons, and it remains so today as US President Donald Trump makes the same argument – although in his case it is packed with untruths about the size, content and extent of the planned sales. He is even trying to take credit for deals finalized in the Obama administration.
Over the years, virtually nothing was denied the Saudis, although they didn’t always get the top-of-the-line merchandise. Notably, the F-15s sold to Israel and some NATO allies had advanced avionics denied the kingdom for many years.
Today there is another added dimension beyond Trump’s eagerness to sell the Riyadh royals anything their greedy heart’s desire: nuclear weapons.
CROWN PRINCE Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, was instrumental in convincing Trump to pull out of the Iran nuclear accord. MBS, as the prince is known, said if the Iranians attempt to develop a nuclear weapon “we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been conducting secret talks with the kingdom about building a network of nuclear power plants, but the regime wants to produce its own fuel (though it is available elsewhere more cheaply), the New York Times reported. That raises concerns that the Saudis could divert the fuel from their centrifuges to weapons-grade uranium. Deepening concerns is the Saudis’ reported insistence that UN inspectors would not be given free access to its facilities – something required and observed in the Iran accord.
The Saudis had helped finance Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and could be expected to turn to Islamabad for help building their own nukes.
The administration has been very secretive about any nuclear discussions with the Saudis, and Trump’s affinity for the royals is raising fear that the kingdom could go nuclear with his complicity.
The administration is using the same argument as with weapons: if we don’t sell nuclear energy equipment to the Saudis, someone else will, according to the Times.
If the US-Saudi relationship under this administration had a theme song, it would come from Damn Yankees: “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets.”
Lola, in this case, is the 33-year-old crown prince who has forged a close relationship with the president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Published reports quote MBS boasting he has Kushner in his pocket. You’ll find Trump in there, too.
Before the Saudi kill squad had washed Jamal Khashoggi’s blood from their bone saw, the president was on the phone helping MBS craft a cover story about “rogue killers.”
The first word of the murder was raised by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist despot who hates the Saudis almost as much as he hates Israel. To try to get Erdogan to ease off on his attacks on MBS, Trump is reportedly considering extraditing Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999. Erdogan has accused him of multiple crimes and wants him returned to Turkey, where he’s likely to meet a fate similar to Khashoggi’s.
Trump is anxious to get beyond the Khashoggi case out of fear it could impact his arms deal of the century. There are several problems with that.
The stain of the murder is left on Trump’s hands, sparking international outrage. A few Republicans are bemoaning the human rights abuses, calling for sanctions against Saudi Arabia and even threatening Trump’s phantom massive arms sale to the kingdom.
However, it is doubtful Trump takes any of those seriously. The Democrats, however, can be expected to keep bringing it up after they take control of the House.
It is unthinkable that an American president would publicly take the word of a Saudi despot over that of his own intelligence community, yet that is just what Trump has done. The CIA told him is its convinced MBS ordered Khashoggi’s murder, but Trump dismissed that as mere “feelings” and bought MBS’s defense: “He denies it vehemently.”
The only wonder is why CIA director Gina Haspel hasn’t resigned in protest after her agency’s credibility was publicly trashed.
THE SIZE of the arms sales Trump boasts about is like everything else in his administration, long on hype and short on facts.
He has talked variously about $400 billion-plus in purchase of weapons, hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of investment around America. The Washington Post Fact Checker found that only about $28 billion of claimed arms deals have been signed, and all those under the Obama administrations. The Pentagon has spoken of $14.5 billion in new orders, but admits there’s nothing official yet.
Then there’s Trump’s warning, “If we don’t sell it to them, Russia or China will.” Don’t believe it.
We’ve heard that for decades. Yes, there have been some small exceptions, as when the Saudis secretly bought US-banned medium range missiles from China, which put them right in Israel’s cross hairs.
The Saudis want to buy the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the world’s most advanced. At the same time they’re talking of buying Russia’s S-400 air defense system. You can imagine how much the Russians would like to get their hands on the F-35, or just get a deep look inside. There’s no way the Pentagon would allow its top technology to be compromised, even if the president thought it would bring in a few billion more bucks.
Buying an F-15 or an F-35 isn’t like buying another Chevy, where any mechanic can fix it. There are the spare parts, ammunition, maintenance, training, infrastructure and more that could be immediately cut off. You don’t just switch out overnight. Even Trump could – or should – not tolerate exposing America’s top technology, tactics, hardware and other secrets to the Russians, Chinese or anyone else the Saudis would hire to replace Uncle Sam in providing those essential services.
The other part of the sale is American partnership. Other than in Trump’s unsophisticated, uninformed and unknowing mind, the Saudis do not have great leverage over the United States; quite the reverse. They have survived and thrived under America’s nuclear umbrella – and don’t forget how we rushed to rescue them when Saddam Hussein was knocking at their door and threatening to blow up their oil fields if he couldn’t grab them for himself.
For the transactional Trump, it is all about business. One murdered journalist or thousands of dead Yemini women and children aren’t that important when there’s profit to be had.
The Saudis are good customers, not just of the Pentagon and arms industry but of Trump himself. He has boasted “I make lots of money with them… They pay me millions and hundreds of millions” for his apartments, his hotels, his yacht. Since he became president, they’re flocking to stay at his hotels, even if others seem to be staying away.
When Trump boasts that his administration is “a well-oiled machine,” he’s not referring to the well-known chaos in the West Wing, but to Saudi oil.