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Trump on Khashoggi: It's a good first step
01:35 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University, editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment” and co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Saudi Arabia finally admitted to the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The government announced that Khashoggi died during a fistfight with Saudi officials at their consulate in Istanbul. Many are skeptical about the official explanation that the death resulted from a clash that followed when Khashoggi went to obtain marriage papers.

They suspect his death was the result of a violent interrogation or, even worse, the deliberate murder of a prominent critic. There are many unanswered questions and calls for greater accountability. Even many Republicans on Capitol Hill who usually side with Trump have expressed outrage.

But President Trump has been extremely reluctant to be tough on Saudi Arabia. When asked if he believed their account of what happened to Khashoggi, Trump said: “I do. I do. Again, it’s early. We haven’t finished our review, or investigation.” He also noted that the arrest of 18 Saudis is “a good first step.” The statements come a few days after the President was parroting Saudi leaders’ insistence that they had no knowledge of the incident as the crisis unfolded.

Congressional Democrats pounced. The President, Sen. Richard Blumenthal said, was simply protecting the Saudis as they were “buying time and buying cover,” while retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker warned that “we should not assume their latest story holds water.”

But the reluctance of the administration to do anything dramatic about the Saudis is not all about President Trump. It reflects almost eight decades of foreign policy in the Middle East.

The United States has turned a blind eye toward the worst behavior of this Persian Gulf giant since we entered into a working alliance with the Saudis back in the 1940s. Since Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, Saudi Arabia has emerged as an important partner to the United States in the region.

The Saudi government offered different forms of assistance to promote the US national interest. Their government has remained a major producer of oil and they have offered a crucial geographic outpost for American military operations. As Council on Foreign Relations scholar Rachel Bronson argued in her book, “Thicker than Oil,” the country’s deep religiosity was also valuable between the 1940s and 1990s, because it helped create a buffer to the appeal of communism.

Under President Trump, Saudi Arabia has once again been the linchpin of the administration’s policy in the Middle East. The plan, for which Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been a key adviser, has been to depend on the wealthy Persian Gulf states to isolate Iran and eventually build support among Arab states for an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

The US connection to Saudi Arabia has repeatedly led American presidents to turn a blind eye to the underside of the regime. During the Cold War, US presidents said little about the rampant corruption and concentration of wealth in Saudi Arabia. Democratic and Republican administrations remained most concerned about the support the regime offered in the fight against communism.

Critics of the Bush administration saw this as a prime example of the real limits of the war on terrorism.

Presidents from both parties have done very little about the evidence of human rights abuses committed by the Saudis. Last year, long before Khashoggi was a well-known name, Amnesty International warned of such violations taking place in Saudi Arabia.

“The authorities severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly,” Amnesty’s annual report said. “Many human rights defenders and critics were detained and some were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after unfair trials. Several Shi’a activists were executed, and many more were sentenced to death following grossly unfair trials before the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC). Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained common.”

This is not news. When President Obama was our commander in chief, Human Rights Watch’s World Report stated: “Saudi Arabia continued in 2014 to try, convict and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely on account of their peaceful activities. Systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities continued.”

While the Trump administration may hope that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will be a reformer, thus far it looks like he is only making things worse.

The silence of US policymakers is a product of realpolitik. Without making human rights a priority in US foreign policy, we are bound to witness more incidents such as the death of Khashoggi. When foreign policy revolves around alliances with untoward regimes that we don’t hold to international human rights standards because they serve our national interest, we create the conditions for this kind of crisis to happen again and again.

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    As with so many aspects of American politics and policy, what makes President Trump distinct is his willingness to dive into the most problematic issues without seeming earnest in his attempt to show concern.

    If Americans are serious about their outrage, they need to do more than condemn President Trump. They need to push for a thorough re-evaluation of US foreign policy that makes human rights a much bigger priority in how we handle business beyond our borders. Until then, we will be watching the same movie play over and over.