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Michael A. Cohen

In foreign policy, it’s Trump first, the United States second

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Amr Nabil/AP

Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

With these words President Trump announced on Tuesday that he is standing with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and against US intelligence agencies. The latter have concluded that there is no “maybe” when it comes to Mohammed’s involvement in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last month in Istanbul.

In yet another example of Trump’s transactional — and morally lacking — approach to US foreign policy, he made clear that he believes Saudi Arabia is too important an ally and trading partner to openly confront.


In international affairs, everything for Trump is about supposed material benefits — with his needs coming before America’s.

Trump says that the United States can’t afford to alienate Saudi Arabia since the kingdom “agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States” ($110 billion of that will be spent on military arms sales, Trump claims), which “will create hundreds of thousands of jobs.” The Saudis, says Trump, “have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran” and, per the president’s request, have kept oil prices low, which, he says, is “so important for the world.”

Little of this is true. The $450 billion figure appears to have been invented by the president. Fact-checkers have repeatedly shown that the claims of $110 billion in arms sales are likewise false.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s judge the president’s words on the merits. Is Riyadh’s contribution to the fight against Iran and its devotion to lower oil prices so important that the United States can dismiss the fact the nation’s de facto ruler had a legal US resident murdered on the soil of a key US ally? Not even close.

Saudi Arabia seeks to contain Iran because it is a rival regional power — and it’s a policy Riyadh has followed for decades. Just as Russia continued to work with the United States on the Iran nuclear deal after Washington pushed for international sanctions on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea, the Saudis will continue to support America’s policies vis-a-vis Iran if they were sanctioned over the Khashoggi killing. Why would the Saudis alienate Trump when they need him to serve as the bulwark in confronting Iran?


The Saudis have long-term economic interests in maintaining stable oil prices. Dramatically increasing oil costs, which Trump has warned of, would undermine Saudi credibility and strengthen other oil-producing nations at the kingdom’s expense.

As for those trumpeted arms sales, not one has actually been concluded since Trump took office. Considering the Saudis long reliance on US armaments, the Saudis are unlikely to be looking elsewhere for a supplier.

Rather than furthering US interests, looking the other way on Khashoggi’s death sends a worrying message: that American foreign policy can practically be held hostage by countries that might buy US armaments or have shared mutual interests.

This is what is most striking about Trump’s transactional approach to international affairs: It hasn’t worked.

Consider, for example, North Korea. Its leader, Kim Jung Un, turns over a few American hostages, offers some empty platitudes about denuclearization, makes nice with Trump, and suddenly US pressure over Pyongyang’s nuclear program disappears.

Conversely, European allies and China refuse to give into the president’s demands on trade, which are predicated on Trump’s simplistic notion that other countries are ripping America off, and the United States is plunged into a self-destructive trade war that undermines global economic growth.


Ironically, Trump’s perhaps only correct instinct on foreign policy is that the United States should avoid immersing itself in pointless Middle Eastern conflicts. By going all in with Saudi Arabia — and ramping up the pressure on Iran — his policies could have the exact opposite effect.

Truth be told, the most likely explanation for Trump’s solicitousness to the crown prince or Kim Jung Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin is that these strongmen were personally nice to him — and for Trump everything is about his ego. But even if you give Trump the benefit of the doubt — and judge his policies on their stated premises and goals — they are dismal failures that have emboldened the world’s leaders. And contrary to the president’s protestations, they have, over and over again, put America second.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.