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Larry Pressler: President Trump, Saudi Arabia and international affairs: Some problems have no solutions

A Turkish forensic officer arrives at the Saudi consulate to conduct a new search over the disappearance and alleged slaying of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul, early Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. Pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak on Wednesday said
A Turkish forensic officer arrives at the Saudi consulate to conduct a new search over the disappearance and alleged slaying of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul, early Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. Pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak on Wednesday said it had obtained audio recordings of the alleged killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
Emrah Gurel, AP

Everybody looks to the president of the United States to be the world’s policeman. However, sometimes there is no solution.

This week, Washington, D.C., is abuzz with a murder mystery that even Agatha Christie could not have dreamed up.

President Trump is really on the spot — the outrageous atrocity of Saudi Arabian agents killing and dismembering the body of a Saudi journalist is an extremely cruel, medieval story — unbelievable.

If any fiction writer had written such a repulsive, horrible story it would have been rejected by any responsible publisher as “it couldn’t happen in 2018 in our civilized times.” Perhaps Ivan the Terrible might have done something like this in a bygone time.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi (not an American citizen), went to the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Turkey. Mr. Khashoggi was apparently living in Turkey and he went to the Saudi Arabian Consulate to obtain a document he needed to marry his fiancée of Turkish citizenship. The document was apparently a certification of his divorce to a Saudi citizen. When Mr. Khashoggi arrived at the consulate, he was met by a 15-member special Saudi Arabian squad of killers who beheaded him. They had come through Turkish airport inspection and checked-in an electric bone saw. The killers used that bone saw to cut Mr. Khashoggi’s body into several pieces. His remains have not been recovered at the time of this writing.

How should President Trump respond? His foreign policy options are very limited by practical concerns. He is hesitant and waiting for more information.

The president has telephoned the King of Saudi Arabia and protested. But the real culprit appears to be Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who really rules Saudi Arabia at this time. President Trump made his first foreign trip as president to Saudi Arabia. He has done personal business with the Saudis in the past and very much wants to be close to Saudi Arabia.

President Trump has been brutally honest and open about his concerns. He has pointed out that we have a $120 billion arms sale agreement with Saudi Arabia. If we shut that off, the president argues that we will lose that business and employment, plus the Saudis will quickly buy the arms elsewhere. The point is in this age of international trade, the economies of major countries have become so intertwined that the president can’t just shut off commercial or diplomatic relations without consequences that will hurt us almost as much.

The dilemma of this foreign policy situation is what the Saudis did is so absolutely outrageous in terms of normal ethics that it leaves us speechless. There is no simple solution. Probably the United States government and other critical governments will have to swallow hard and accept what the Saudis did. Yes, there will be letters of objections, monuments erected, and strongly worded condemning statements issued. However, as a practical matter, essentially nothing will be done.

The United States is financially supporting Saudi Arabia’s position in the nasty civil war in Yemen. Maybe we could lessen our support there (as a Vietnam veteran, I think we should pull out of Yemen entirely as nobody seems to know what our objectives are there other than to help the Saudis). If we did pull the support of Saudi allies in Yemen, we would probably be hurting U.S. policy objectives at the same time.

So, what does the president do? He can procrastinate for several days in the hopes that Mr. Khashoggi will turn up or there will be a sudden revelation that tells us this nightmarish story did not happen. However, in reality, it did happen.

I think the president should admit that it is very difficult in the affairs of great powers for one country to break off relations completely with another great power.

The United States cannot be the world’s policeman for all such incidents. The president should try to get a resolution through the United Nations severely condemning Saudi Arabia for this, and hopefully this will gain support. But it is possible that Saudi Arabia will continue to lie about this incident and ignore action by the U.N. Sometimes our government is faced with a moral dilemma in which there is no clear course of action. Mr. Khashoggi was not a U.S. citizen and he was killed on Turkish territory in a Saudi consulate. Out of Mr. Khashoggi’s death, perhaps a glimmer of good will come. The Washington Post published a full-page column from Mr. Khashoggi in the Thursday, Oct. 18, issue. Its headline is “What the Arab World Needs Most: Free Expression.”

However, in reality, Mr. Khashoggi’s expression will go unheeded. In all probability, the United States and world community will do nothing beyond expressing their gravest concerns.

A columnist such as me usually ends with a sweeping, brilliant recommendation to the president. Alas, I must admit that I do not have one. The murder of Mr. Khashoggi is something we will just have to live with. Of course, we should condemn and re-condemn the Saudi government, and in particular, Prince Mohammed. But none of this will bring Mr. Khashoggi back to life. At best, U.N. resolutions will be passed, but they will be worthless.