Saudi decision not as simple as human life vs. economy

President Trump declared this week he would not further punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

He made it clear he values the benefits of good relations with the kingdom in that consideration, even as there is a possibility that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince ordered the killing.

The obvious point that some people attempted to make is that the president values the economics of a relationship with Saudi Arabia over the human life snuffed out by its thuggery.

If only it were just a moral judgment.

But this is the kind of thread-the-needle call that all presidents have to make in which it is nearly impossible to make a judgment without leaving a large opening for criticism.

President Trump, while acknowledging a “horrible crime that our country does not condone,” rejected calls from many in Congress for a tougher response and said there is no certainty that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman must have at least known about the murder plot.

He focused instead on the diplomatic partnership with Saudi Arabia that is paying dividends in effort to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of Iran and tightening the economic sanctions on that country. He said it would be foolish to cancel arms sales contracts with the Saudis that are worth billions of dollars, a move that would only benefit Russia and China.

Trump said separating from the Saudi partnership also would send oil prices skyrocketing, with a resulting impact on energy costs to all Americans.

Trump made all these arguments in his usual blunt style, both on the White House lawn and via Twitter.

We agree with those in Congress who called for a tougher response and hope that is what is happening in the back channels that are so critical to diplomatic relations.

President Obama was much more eloquent in these moments. But presidents don’t get extra points for foreign policy eloquence if their decisions do not pay long-term dividends to the American people. It’s fair to say that, for all his eloquence, President Obama did not make progress – and probably ceded ground – on behalf of the American people when it comes to relations with Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

Given his bluntness and tendency to put decisions in business terms – his lifelong profession – it’s easy to criticize Trump in these matters.

But it’s unfair and oversimplified to summarize Trump’s decision as valuing economy over human life.

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