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A President Kowtowing to a Mad Prince

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© Evan Vucci/Associated Press President Trump met in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, last year with Mohammed bin Salman, who became the crown prince a month later.

By NICHOLAS KRISTOF, The New York Times

American presidents have periodically engaged in cover-ups of their own corruption or licentiousness, but President Trump is breaking new ground. He is using the United States government to cover up a foreign despot’s barbarism.

As someone who knew Jamal Khashoggi for more than 15 years, I’m outraged at the reports that a Saudi team of royal thugs beat, drugged and murdered Jamal — even cutting off his fingers, presumably because that’s what he wrote with — and then dismembered him with a bone saw. But I’m equally outraged at the pathetic White House response.

In the past, Trump repeatedly denounced President Barack Obama for having bowed to a Saudi king. But today Trump is not just bowing to a king; he’s kowtowing to a mad prince. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as M.B.S., has repeatedly manipulated Trump and Jared Kushner, for he knows how to push Americans’ buttons, and now it’s happening again: Trump is helping whitewash what appears to be the Saudi Arabian torture-murder of an international journalist.

At least four of the alleged killers have ties to M.B.S., The Times has reported, and anybody who knows Saudi Arabia knows that this brazen attack could never have happened without M.B.S.’s approval.

Maybe we shouldn’t write columns when we’re upset. But this atrocity is infuriating as well as heartbreaking: If the reports are true, it happened in part because American officials — and many others in their bipartisan gushing over M.B.S. — enabled a reckless ruler, helped him gain and consolidate power, and led him to think that he could get away with anything. Trump and Kushner cultivated M.B.S. early on as a potential ally, inviting him to dine in the White House and backing him as he rose to effectively run his country.

M.B.S. attacked Yemen, creating what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, bombing schoolchildren and leaving eight million Yemenis on the brink of starvation — and there were no consequences. He provoked a crisis with Qatar, and there were no consequences. He kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon, and there were no consequences. He imprisoned women’s rights activists and extorted from business leaders, and there were no consequences.

If M.B.S. can do all this and still be applauded as reverently as ever in America, it’s no wonder he thought he could get away with dismembering a troublesome journalist. And if there are no serious consequences this time as well, even now that his moniker is said to stand for “Mr. Bone Saw,” what will M.B.S. do next?

The truth is that for decades, we have enabled Saudi Arabian misconduct, including the extremist education and terrorist financing that contributed to the 9/11 attacks. We stood by as Saudi Arabia seeded fanatical madrasas in places like West Africa, Pakistan and Indonesia, gravely destabilizing poor parts of the world. In fairness, Saudi Arabia has made progress in some areas, including its financing of terrorism, but it remains despotic, intolerant and misogynist.

Enough!

Franklin Roosevelt supposedly once described a Nicaraguan dictator as “a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch,” and that may be how some Americans see M.B.S. But M.B.S. duped Americans. He talks a good game but didn’t deliver on his promise to buy $110 billion in weapons, didn’t back the Trump peace plan for the Middle East and hasn’t managed to take the Saudi oil company Aramco public.

His plans keep backfiring. His war in Yemen created new opportunities there for Al Qaeda, his confrontation with Qatar benefited Iran, his kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister left Hezbollah stronger than ever, and the alleged Khashoggi kidnap-murder is a gift to Saudi rivals in Turkey and Iran.

In short, the mad prince is not only barbaric, he’s also unreliable and incompetent. He doesn’t advance our interests; he damages them. Indeed, one of my fears is that he will try to drag us into a war with Iran.

Yet even as Saudi officials lie low, Trump has become the kingdom’s puppet and apologist, suggesting that “rogue killers” might have been responsible for the apparent murder. He dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for an unctuous mission to thank King Salman for his commitment to a “thorough” and “transparent” investigation.

Trump acts as if the Saudis have leverage over us. In fact, the Saudis desperately need us and our spare parts for their American-made aircraft. The Saudis haven’t even been able to defeat a rebel militia in Yemen, so they depend on us for their security — yet we squander our leverage.

Trump should stop collaborating in a cover-up. He should call for an international United Nations-backed investigation and for the release from prison of genuine reformers like the women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul and the blogger Raif Badawi. And he should make clear to the Saudi royal family that if it wants to sustain its relationship with America, it needs a new crown prince who isn’t a butcher.

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