US President Donald Trump, right, shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the White House on March 20 in Washington DC. Photo: AFP/ Mandel Ngan
Then-US president Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the White House on March 20, 2018. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

US President Donald Trump lies, we all know that. He lies copiously and then doubles down on his lies. But just as often he simply does a lot of stupid things and then justifies them with a lot of silly arguments. His border wall will keep out Mexican rapists. A travel ban will prevent Muslim terrorists from invading. Picking a fight with European NATO allies will strengthen the trans-Atlantic alliance.

The current whopper he is telling lately is that upsetting US-Saudi ties over the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi could jeopardize lucrative arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Here are the facts. The Central Intelligence Agency has determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman – who is basically running the country and who goes by the moniker MBS – personally ordered Khashoggi’s murder. He was killed by people personally working for and loyal to MBS, in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, and they even brought a bone saw along.

Trump’s equivocations

Of course, all this collides with Trump’s cognitive dissonance. It’s not that he doesn’t believe that MBS ordered the killing, it’s that he doesn’t want to believe it. Saudi Arabia is just too important to him (and after all, the Saudis were so nice to him when he visited last year, even giving him a sword!) that he basically covers his ears and hums loudly every time someone brings up the subject.

First, he tries to shoot the messenger. The CIA report isn’t the final report, he says. Or else he throws mud on everything, arguing that the unknowns are so great that we’ll probably never be sure what is true and what is not.

In his recent interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News, for instance, when asked about whether he believes that MBS was complicit in the murder, Trump’s answer was predictable: “I don’t know. You know, who can really know … will anybody really know?”

Third, Trump simply parrots the accused’s denial, because it satisfies Trump’s desired beliefs. He does this frequently regarding alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, repeating President Vladimir Putin’s denials of interfering as if that were proof. Again, Trump told Chris Wallace that MBS has “many people now that say he had no knowledge” of the plot to murder Khashoggi, and that’s good enough for Trump.

It’s all about the bucks

But even after all these silly arguments and prevarications are stripped away, with Saudi Arabia there is still one more card that Trump likes to play: arms sales. If the US punishes the Saudis too much, he argues, they might not buy the billions of dollars’ worth of weapons that the US wants to sell them.

And Trump has a ready figure to bandy about: US$110 billion in arms sales, recent or planned, to Saudi Arabia. And that, he argues, translates into jobs, jobs, jobs. At one time, he put the number as high as 1 million jobs.

And in the end, he maintains, the US cannot alienate the Saudis so much that they take their business elsewhere. He told reporters in October: “I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States. You know what they are going to do? They’re going to take that money and spend it in Russia or China or someplace else.”

Unpacking the BS

OK, let’s unpack this argument. The biggest lie is the $110 billion number. William Hartung at the Center for International Policy has an upcoming study on US arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In looking at 42 recent sales agreements with the Saudis, the most he could come up with is $14.5 billion in actual deals. Many arms-sales agreements are more indications of interest or future intent, but not real contracts; many agreements are never consummated.

Even when Trump met with MBS in March and hauled out a poster with all the major arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the most he could get to was $19 billion.

Trump’s claims about jobs creation is just as exaggerated. According to Hartung, “Saudi arms sales support at most tens of thousands of jobs in the United States.”

Saudi Arabia needs the US

When it comes to armaments, Saudi Arabia needs the US more than the US needs the Saudis. Saudi Arabia is a critical customer, but the US has sold billions of dollars’ worth of more arms to other countries around the world. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), US arms transfers over the past five years were up 25% over the previous five (2013-17 vs 2008-12). This was good for first place among all arms exporters, taking more than one-third of the global arms market.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is dependent on the US for over 60% of arms purchases, according to SIPRI. Yes, it could theoretically buy Russian or even Chinese weaponry, but they would be incompatible with its US systems, particularly when it comes to things like command and control, data links, etc.

Moreover, non-US weapons would require massive new investments in military infrastructure, particularly maintenance and repair depots. And since Saudi Arabia usually outsources these services, that could mean importing thousands of Russians or Chinese to do the job.

All this would take decades to achieve, anyway, and it’s unlikely that the Saudis would like to risk its relationship with its key ally, especially when its leadership has so obviously committed a great crime. Trump, despite all his silly arguments, has more leverage than he cares to admit.

Richard A Bitzinger is a Visiting Senior Fellow with the Military Transformations Program at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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