It’s a familiar pattern. When it comes to America’s abuser allies, the crutch of realpolitik has propped up the foreign policies of past presidents for decades. Barack Obama’s administration wouldn’t call the military’s ouster of an elected president in Egypt a “coup” and he never cut off military aid to Egypt, even after its military slaughtered dozens of protestors in Cairo in 2013. George W. Bush tolerated many deceptions, crackdowns and double-dealing from Pakistan, even though Osama bin Laden himself was living in a compound down the road from its military academy. Ronald Reagan supported apartheid South Africa because it was on America’s side against international communism.
Trump’s case is slightly different because he can’t even get the realpolitik right. It’s true that Saudi Arabia could in theory choose to purchase its arms from China or Russia, as the president warns. But given its decades-long reliance on the U.S., that transition would take years — years the Saudis do not have in their current conflict with Iran. That’s the real reason the Saudi alliance is in the U.S. national interest. The kingdom’s enemies are America’s enemies.
With that in mind, a better approach for Trump would have been to say nothing for now and focus behind the scenes on spurring more Saudi reforms and concessions. Under this scenario, Congress could have been a good foil. Trump could have privately demanded the Saudis release journalists and human-rights activists from prison and take more seriously a peace process in Yemen. If the Saudis balked, Trump could say he doesn’t know how much longer he can hold off Congress.