- - Thursday, November 29, 2018

Early in his administration, President Donald Trump engaged Saudi Arabia demonstratively. He reasoned that Saudi Arabia was a Middle East linchpin in addressing Iranian aggression, metastatic terrorism and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Accordingly, during his May 2017 visit, he declared his willingness to provide Saudi Arabia with $100 billion in modern weapons. It was a gesture welcomed by the Saudis, even as Mr. Trump called them and other Arab sheikdoms into account for their ineffectiveness in combating terrorism, bending them toward effective action.

Soon thereafter, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) visited the United States and immediately signaled Israel’s right to exist while criticizing the Palestinians for not doing more to negotiate peace with the Jewish state. Coupled with the crown prince’s indefatigable opposition to Iran — a sentiment Mr. Trump shares — and his willingness to advance women’s rights in the kingdom, it seemed Saudi Arabia was responding positively to U.S. expectations for enlightened leadership.

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Then came the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, butchered to death in October inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey. It was a brutal and grotesque reminder of what happens in totalitarian governments, even those who may appear to be benevolent dictatorships willing to work with the United States to combat a hegemonic Iran and terror.

The Khashoggi savagery jolted the U.S.-Saudi rapprochement necessitated by a degraded relationship during the feckless Obama years. It put the president in a very awkward place with Congress now calling for a suspension of arms sales. Having embarked on a renewed association with Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration was now confronted with a dilemma; in the Middle East you must carefully distinguish your friends from your allies. Our friends eschew brutality, blood feuds, and assassination of political enemies. Unfortunately, our allies might not.

In the parlance of national strategy, we frequently refer to our “friends and allies” interchangeably as we associate with others to secure our vital national interests. The terms are not synonymous. During World War II, Russia was our ally in defeating Nazi Germany. It was never our friend because it never shared our values.

Likewise, Saudi Arabia is not America’s friend. It does not share our Judeo-Christian worldview, nor are does it adhere to our proclivity to enlightened egalitarianism, constitutional governance, freedom of the press, or religious tolerance. Saudi Arabia is disassociated from those values. Yet, it is an important ally in confronting problems that threaten our national security interests in the Middle East.

President Trump’s insistence that we not foreclose on that relationship, the slaughter of Mr. Khashoggi notwithstanding, is a reminder that charting a path of peace in the Middle East is not for the faint-hearted. He is wise to understand that occasionally the United States may be compelled to have — in pursuing peace — fellow travelers who do not share our values, yet are willing to help achieve mutual objectives.

The Khashoggi slaying provides the United States with a strategic caravanserai of sorts, giving us pause to reassess and recalibrate our emerging relationship with Saudi Arabia, a totalitarian state, and to see the regime for what it is and what it isn’t.

President Trump is correct to see it as an important ally, one needed to confront Iran and terrorism while possibly charting a productive resolution to the Arab-Israeli crisis. Yet he must also understand that there is a malodorous quality to dealing with Middle East rulers and their circumambient satraps.

They no more see us as friends than we should them. They have a realpolitik view of the United States as a necessary companion in a caravan headed toward mutually beneficial goals. No more or less. Further complicating the relationship is the fact that Saudi Arabia is given to domestic repression, tyrannical behavior, and egregious violations of human rights.

This is their unenlightened condition. But it is not our condition and we must make clear to them — in the most sobering manner — that we expect much more, even of our fellow sojourners. Saudi Arabia has not earned our trust with the Khashoggi killing, rather our disapprobation. We must be pellucid on this.

In the weeks to come, Congress will press the president to revoke the arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The Khashoggi legacy will be central in that discussion. The president will be hard-pressed to defend his loyalty to Saudi Arabia while the stench of Khashoggi’s murder lingers. He would be wise to take the initiative and make clear to Congress and the American people that cancelling or holding arms sales in abeyance will not change Saudi human rights behavior.

That requires intense public scrutiny for accountability and pressure to reform, a goal he should pledge to pursue relentlessly. President Trump must argue that bending — not breaking — our relationship with Saudi Arabia is in our national interest. And in the process, we will sustain an ally while candidly bending them toward our values.

• L. Scott Lingamfelter is a retired US Army colonel, combat veteran, and Middle East Foreign Area Officer. He also served in the Virginia General Assembly.

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