For more than a month, business leaders across the country have been waiting to get a definitive answer from Washington about what turn the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia may take in the wake of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi — and how it might impact their business relationships with the kingdom.
Despite offering public condemnations over Mr. Khashoggi’s death and distancing themselves from the kingdom by pulling out of a major investment conference, many executives appeared to expect that business would quickly, if not quietly, return to normal.
“Keep in mind, it is a big country,” Larry Fink, the BlackRock chief executive, said early this month. “There are many fine people in country, like there are many fine people in every country. These things are not black and white, and they’re very complex.”
But things have changed drastically since then. President Trump has offered a vociferous defense of the kingdom and, by extension, its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and dismissed a report from his own intelligence officers that concluded the prince had ordered the murder.
Mr. Trump’s continued public support of the man known as M.B.S. has pointed to the role that Saudi Arabia plays as a Middle East ally against Iran and the kingdom’s agreement to buy weapons from American suppliers. And then there’s oil: “They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels,” Mr. Trump said last week in a statement rife with exclamation points.
But the president’s strong support for the crown prince, whom he will almost certainly see this week when he flies to Buenos Aires for the Group of 20 meeting, may have the opposite effect to the one intended. Rather than end the conversation, it has invited a new one that could go on for months, if not years.
Congress is now making noises about doing what the president would not: a public investigation that could lead to real sanctions. (If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is a replay of what happened a year ago after Mr. Trump refused to punish Russia for meddling in our elections.)
Diplomacy is never simple, and it’s not a given that a forceful rebuke would have been enough to keep Congress — particularly the Democrats who have captured control of the House — from opening their own investigation. Presidents have chided partners before, sometimes lightly and sometimes harshly, and business has gone on as usual.
But Mr. Trump has sought to cast blame anywhere but the crown prince: “Maybe the world should be held accountable, because the world is a vicious place,” he said last week. And politicians from both parties made it clear that they would push for a more direct approach — one that could complicate matters for businesses far more than an admonishment from the president would have.
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a staunch Trump backer, said the crown prince wouldn’t get “a pass” if he was making the world a more dangerous place. And Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said it was a “grave mistake” for Mr. Trump to ignore the C.I.A.’s assessment.
“If the President does not reconsider what actions our government should take toward the Saudi Government & MbS, Congress must act instead,” she wrote on Twitter.
Mr. Graham and Ms. Collins are among three Republicans who have co-sponsored the Saudi Arabia Accountability and Yemen Act, which was introduced the week before Thanksgiving.
And House Democrats, fresh off their midterm triumphs, are also rattling their sabers.
Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he had been briefed by the C.I.A. and believed the president was being dishonest.
“I think, in part, he feels that by saying that we don’t know or that the world is a dangerous place or everybody does it, he thinks it makes him look strong,” Mr. Schiff said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It actually makes him look weak.”
Not only has Mr. Trump increased the chances that Congress will enact restrictions on the Saudi royal family or make it harder to do business with the kingdom, he has prompted Democrats to question his financial ties to Saudi Arabia. Mr. Schiff, who is expected to take over as chairman of the Intelligence Committee when Democrats take control of the House in January, has promised to investigate those, too.
“Is his personal financial interest driving U.S. policy in the gulf?” Mr. Schiff said on CNN.
An investigation that examines not only the activities of the crown prince but any financial links that Mr. Trump may have with the kingdom would almost certainly be a ponderous affair, and cast a lingering cloud that would chill business leaders’ enthusiasm for investment in, and from, the Saudis.
Mr. Trump may think he has gained the loyalty of the crown prince by standing by him, but if Congress moves to enact sanctions, the economic fallout could be serious for the kingdom, which the president has been encouraging to hold down oil prices.
Between the economic pressures that Saudi Arabia is increasingly facing — the price of oil is hovering around $50 a barrel when the kingdom needs it to sell for $70 to maintain its budget — and the executives who are rightly skittish about investing there, Mr. Trump may have pushed Congress toward taking actions that create more problems.
In more normal times, the president of the United States would publicly condemn the crown prince and the kingdom, and extract some kind of concession that was meant to reflect American values.
One such measure, for example, could have been “the release of all political prisoners and journalists and the lifting of restrictions on the media and civic debate,” Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, a professor in the practice of international relations at Georgetown University, wrote in an essay for Foreign Policy. “This would help spur significant change that would serve both the Saudi people and the country’s economy.”
Such a response could have mollified critics of the kingdom and made possible a return to business as usual in six months.
There’s an argument to be made that by throwing his support behind the kingdom without any half-measures or virtue signaling, Mr. Trump is in a way being straight with the American people and the world.
“He was just candidly acknowledging the core tenets of U.S. foreign policy for decades,” Glenn Greenwald wrote for The Intercept.
Even if there is something honest about his overtly candid approach in this case, diplomacy is in many ways about outcomes rather than honesty.
And Mr. Trump has done more than just leave him and the United States open to criticism that we embrace despots as long as there is a buck to be made. He has inadvertently created more economic uncertainty for the business community that he says is so important to him.