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Trump Is Right To Be Cautious With The Saudis On Kashoggi


This summer I had the opportunity to spend a week at the Army War College for its National Security Seminar. There I learned alongside the officer and diplomatic corps students, mainly colonels preparing for major commands, about the threats facing our country and the tools we have to fight those threats. Early on the instructors explained that while most soldiers are trained, these soldiers were there to be educated, and he went on to explain the difference.

One trains to a standard, so that when faced with a situation they can recognize it and react in a prescribed way. The other is educated so that one may face a situation with no prescribed reaction, one that may never have even occurred before, and decide how to proceed, often choosing between only bad and less bad options. President Trump finds himself in just such a situation in regard to the apparent killing of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, allegedly by the Saudis in the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

What everyone agrees on is that if Kashoggi was murdered in the way described by the Turks and much of the media, it is an atrocity. Setting aside even the allegations of torture and dismemberment, the use of a consulate to commit murder is a severe violation of the norms that enable diplomacy. If the Saudis did this, there have to be consequences, and the United States must in some way punish the behavior.

That said, Trump’s patience with Saudi Arabia makes sense. While there are calls for him to more forcefully condemn the act, we don’t know exactly what the act was, yet. And there is no reason not to wait for more information before establishing an American position. If we do find that the Saudis and most importantly crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman knew about or ordered the killing? Then Trump will have to, as he has promised, take some kind of action.

A central plank of the education that officers receive at the War College is a paradigm called DIME. It is an acronym that lists the levers of power that the United States can employ to exert our will on other nations. It stands for Diplomacy, Information, Military, and Economic. Under these four headings exist every option that our government has to punish Saudi Arabia. It is useful to look at each, as the Trump administration will no doubt be doing, to see which, if any, would prove most effective.

The least likely lever to pull would be military. We aren’t going to attack Saudi Arabia or discontinue important military cooperation with them. There are perhaps small measures that could be used, but generally speaking there will be no military response. Likewise, the information lever, which is most easily understood as propaganda, probably has little use here. We could use informational capabilities to bolster opponents of the Saudi regime, but since our mission isn’t regime change (unless maybe you are Lindsey Graham), that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The most obvious lever to pull is the economic one, and we have heard bipartisan voices in Congress calling for just this. Sanctions could be placed on the Saudis and arms deals could be scrapped. But the president has made clear that he is reticent to do these things because he fears that such actions will hurt the American economy. This is a perfectly reasonable fear.

Congress has a lot of latitude in punishing Saudi Arabia through economic measures, but it must consider how much it is willing to harm American economic and foreign policy interests, because as the president has made clear, if we won’t sell the Saudis arms, the Russians and Chinese will, which is bad on various levels, not the least of which is that it promotes Saudi engagement with our global adversaries.

This leaves the diplomatic lever of power. The White House has to convince Congress, especially Republicans like Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, that our diplomatic corps has sticks that can punish the Saudis and make clear nothing like this can happen again, without exacting a punishing economic response. This may prove to be a tough sell.

One easy way to send a very public message would be to cancel Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s appearance at an up coming summit in Saudi Arabia. Several prominent corporations have already backed out, and Mnuchin’s snub would send a message without doing broad harm to economic interests. This move might not be enough to stop Congress from acting, but it may be that a little good cop, bad cop can be effective here.

If Trump snubs the Saudis on Mnuchin’s visit, and points to Rubio, saying if you keep doing this kind of stuff I can’t protect you and Congress will punish you no matter what I say, that could be effective. The Saudis know that our relationship with them in anti-terrorism, regional stability, Middle East peace, and oil production are absolutely essential, but they must also know they have to abide by certain standards to maintain that relationship.

For the United States to blow up that relationship over this murder, as gruesome and abhorrent as it is alleged to be, would be a mistake. But Trump has to find a way to send a crystal clear message to Saudi Arabia and the crown prince that we will not condone or tolerate actions such as Kashoggi’s killing. This is a very difficult balance to find.

Trump’s apparent lack of outrage should not be mistaken for an unwillingness to challenge the Saudis. In fact, previous presidents trained in the norms of diplomacy would have come out guns blazing in attacking the Saudis, likely without doing very much to actually punish them. That is the prescribed reaction to this kind of incident.

But Trump’s education in deal making is leading him in a different direction. He does not feign shock at the fact that U.S. partners engage in some shady tactics. He does not make grand speeches about the United States being the moral center of the world, a notion more popular in America than anywhere else. Instead, he takes the world as he finds it, flaws and all.

Trump’s job right now is to convince Congress and America that he can grab the Saudis by the shoulders, shake them, tell them this has to stop, and make them listen. That’s a tall order, but so far his measured approach has left all options on the table, and he deserves some room to operate.