Just days after the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered on the orders of de facto Saudi leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MBS), President Donald Trump issued an official statement directly contradicting the CIA’s finding. Trump cast doubt on the CIA report, claiming that the US intelligence community was still investigating the matter. Additionally, the president justified his relatively tepid response to the report by citing Saudi Arabia’s crucial role in balancing against Iran in the Persian Gulf (especially in the Yemeni proxy war), its purported dedication to “leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism,” and its (disputed) agreement to contribute $450 billion to the American economy. The plainly-worded statement begins and ends with an affirmation of Trump’s brand of foreign policy: “America First!”
Trump’s candor is telling. As is often noted, the president’s bluntness—whether in tweets, official statements, or press conferences—gives us a window into the inner workings of his administration (or at least his own thought process). Numerous international relations experts have pondered whether Trump is a foreign policy realist (simply put, realist foreign policy exclusively seeks to further the national interest). Though Trump’s handling of the Khashoggi situation may demonstrate that he is more of a realist than his predecessors, it also shows that he is a decidedly clumsy one, and is hardly a master of realpolitik.
In releasing such a candid statement concerning his policy toward Saudi Arabia, the president has leant some credence to the Trump-as-realist argument. From a realist perspective, his reasoning makes enough sense: he sees Saudi Arabia as crucial to offshore balancing against Iran, as integral to countering violent extremism (CVE) efforts, and as a reliable economic partner for the United States (especially in the defense industry).
Realists will take issue with several aspects of Trump’s approach to Saudi Arabia, however. First, any student of realpolitik knows that one should always keep their cards close to their chest. Given the constant self-praise of his negotiating skills, it seems Trump would know the importance of maintaining a poker face, whether literally or rhetorically. Showing your hand is not an effective way to get what you want; it is, however, a great way to allow others to take advantage of you.
Additionally, Trump could issue a direct condemnation of bin Salman’s complicity in the Khashoggi murder without such censure having a significant material effect on Saudi-American relations. While it is plausible that, as Trump suggests, “Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries,” as they might receive the Saudis’ business, it is improbable that such a statement would yield this result; after all, Russian and Chinese defense technologies are (broadly speaking) not as advanced as their American counterparts. Indeed, realists believe that rhetoric and transnational institutions like the International Criminal Court (ICC) and United Nations (UN) are largely symbolic, only mattering when they are enforced by a sufficiently strong country or coalition.
Finally, Trump’s open contradiction of the CIA’s findings is problematic on a number of levels. This presents the American foreign policy community as divided amongst itself, and shows Trump’s own distrust of the intelligence community, with whom he is already on poor terms. To have the president publicly dismiss intelligence agencies’ conclusions is incredibly demoralizing for those analysts producing such intelligence reports.
While Trump is ostensibly haunted by fears of being led astray by the intelligence community like George W. Bush was prior to the invasion of Iraq, that situation was something of an anomaly. Besides, it would not be the first time that American policymakers openly acknowledged the validity of intelligence reports without taking substantive action; consider then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2004 pronouncement that the slaughter of non-Arabs in the Darfur region of South Sudan was genocide. According to international law, any country recognizing an ongoing genocide as such is obligated to make a reasonable effort to stop the killing, or that country is complicit in the genocide. Despite this fact, the United States did not take any substantive action to stop the Darfur Genocide after both Powell and Congress identified it as such. If the US could recognize genocide for what it was, without taking substantive action, how much more easily could Trump condemn MBS for ordering one man’s death, without pushing for ICC hearings or UN sanctions?
(NOTE: I am not holding up the American non-response to the Darfur Genocide as a moral example. Rather, I am noting how, from a realist perspective, such inaction makes sense [what danger does a genocide in South Sudan pose to US national security?], and how Trump would run little risk by publicly condemning the Crown Prince without taking concrete action against him.)
Additionally, Trump needs as many friends as he can get. Considering the chaos of the national security community and the political establishment during his administration (not to mention his conflicts with the FBI and other intelligence agencies), why risk alienating anyone? Given the US Senate’s recent actions, and statements by such Trump stalwarts as Senator Lindsey Graham (R–SC), it is clear that the president has entered dangerous territory.
Trump’s handling of the Khashoggi murder reflects some realist ideas, but is a rather clumsy embodiment of such principles. Of course, truly realist foreign policy is rarely seen in practice, but, given Trump’s lack of tact in handling his own intelligence community and his evasive statements giving US allies carte blanche (thereby encouraging what Barry Posen calls “reckless driving”), it is clear that the 45th president is far from being a realist.
It is no small irony that, in one of his rare moments of transparency, Trump has demonstrated that honesty may actually be the worst (foreign) policy.