American game of footsie with Saudi Arabia must end

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS -- At the top of U.S. President Donald Trump's tentative daily schedule posted Tuesday morning on Facebook was lunch with Saudi Arabia's defense minister and deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Perhaps Trump could post the full agenda for that meeting on social media as well. The lack of transparency in recent American-Saudi relations has many of us wondering what the endgame really is for the U.S.

This isn't your granddaddy's Saudi Arabia. For decades, America purchased Saudi oil and mostly ignored the country's human-rights issues, including the treatment of women as second-class citizens, while the Saudi royals enjoyed the benefits of having a rich, thirsty customer who paid on time.

But now, Saudi Arabia has become a liability for America's future energy interests, attempting to hinder North American energy independence by flooding the global market with oil as the lead OPEC nation. As the global price of oil dropped due to skyrocketing supply, related projects in North America stalled.

A great many people have questioned America's recent pivot to Iran. The U.S., along with the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, reached a nuclear deal that eased sanctions against the Iranians and opened up trade with them. What was the impetus for such a reversal? Well, Saudi tampering with oil prices could certainly be viewed as one justification for America's courting of Saudi Arabia's sworn enemy. The collapse in oil prices occurred in late 2014. The deal with Iran was reached in July 2015 (after many years of diplomatic jostling).

All right, so now Trump has the option of courting either Iran or Saudi Arabia -- or somehow trying to win the affections of both. What will he do, and what should he do? So far, Trump's harsher rhetoric has been reserved for Iran.

Despite Saudi Arabia's status as a longstanding U.S. ally, the Kingdom has largely been a nuisance of late. OK, I concede that if you're a Western nation and you decide to overthrow a nation-state (let's say Syria, for instance) and you need to finance and mobilize terrorists to be sold to the public as freedom-fighting "rebels," then Saudi Arabia is the right friend for the situation -- the sort of mischievous friend whose company you sometimes enjoy despite your mom's instructions to stay away from him.

But here we are now with Trump playing footsie with the Saudi defense minister in the White House this week, nationalist to nationalist. Where's mom when you need her?

The Saudis have been on a nationalist kick, even as chaos has expanded in the Middle East, making Saudi Arabia sort of a nationalist pyromaniac Pollyanna. You see, the glass is half-full for Saudi Arabia when creating the terrorist killing machine known as the Islamic State ends up driving a significant percentage of the Middle Eastern population into Europe and away from your borders. (Unlike the Saudis, European leaders weren't smart enough to close those borders to prevent an unmanageable flood of refugees.) And now, Saudi Arabia is using the Islamic State as a pretext to request security assistance from Pakistan -- a country that, according to some intelligence officials, might be willing to provide Saudi Arabia with a nuclear weapon should the need ever arise.

According to The National, a newspaper in the United Arab Emirates, "Pakistan is in discussions with Saudi Arabia to send combat troops to protect the kingdom amid growing concern over threats from ISIL militants and Houthi rebels."

Ah yes, the Houthis: Iranian proxies fighting against Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Somehow it always comes back to the Saudi-Iran cage match -- now with a touring roadshow.

If Trump wanted to use his business sense, he'd become the first U.S. president to invoke the "sunk cost fallacy" in dealing with Saudi Arabia. In other words, when you build a hotel or casino and it runs at a loss, you don't get romantic lamenting all the labor and time you've invested. Such emotional weakness in the face of an imminent loss could lead to a much larger loss over the long run. Instead, you just cut those losses. Yes, Saudi Arabia was an American ally, but its recent behavior has harmed the interests of the American people.

It's time for this new and unconventional American president to disengage the establishment's autopilot and rethink conventional wisdom.