Counterterrorism Expert Says He Thinks Trump Made A Mistake By Defending Saudi Arabia
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
"America First" - that's President Trump's answer for why he's decided not to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, why he's keeping Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as an ally despite the CIA's assessment that he approved Khashoggi's killing.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it would be a terrible mistake.
CORNISH: That was Trump yesterday as he prepared to board a helicopter on his way to Mar-a-Lago.
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TRUMP: There buying hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of things from this country. If I say, we don't want to take your business, if I say, we're going to cut it off, they will get the equipment - military equipment and other things from Russia and China. Russia and China would be very, very happy.
CORNISH: Daniel Benjamin says that is grotesquely overstated. He's a counterterrorism expert at Dartmouth College. He worked in President Obama's State Department, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.
DANIEL BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me.
CORNISH: So we're going to get into some of the security issues when it comes to the U.S. and Saudis in a moment, but I want to start with the comments we heard with the defense deals the president mentioned because he says it will create thousands of jobs and economic development. Does the U.S. in fact put it at risk if they sanction the Saudis in some way?
BENJAMIN: Very likely not. First of all, the president's figures are wildly inflated. There have been something like $15 billion worth of deals, and all the rest is at best aspirational. And the Saudis have been slow-rolling a lot of deals. That's the first thing. The second thing is it's not clear the Saudis can go anywhere
else because they rely overwhelmingly on U.S. weapon systems, and you can't just change horses in the middle of the stream. You cannot start using Russian weapons if your whole military is equipped with American weapons. They're not interoperable, and they're not interchangeable. So they're a pretty captive market. They have a lot of weapons. I don't know how many more they need, but they're U.S. customers.
CORNISH: I want to get into regional security because in the written statement yesterday, the president noted that Saudi Arabia has agreed to spend billions of dollars to lead the fight against radical Islamic terrorism. Now, you worked on these issues under the Obama administration. What have their contributions been on that front?
BENJAMIN: Saudi Arabia is a fascinating case when it comes to the terrorism problem. It's been aptly said that the Saudis are both the arsonists and the fire department. There's no question that Saudi support for a pretty extreme form of Islam played a big role in the rise of jihadism worldwide going back to the '80s and the '90s. And at the same time, in the last 15 years, our intelligence relationship has become an extremely valuable one for the United States. And there's no question that lives have been saved because of that relationship.
The Saudis have dialed back their support for extremism abroad somewhat, and so on balance, you know, they've been better and better partners. They haven't gone all the way so far as many of us are concerned. But at the same time, it's important to understand that both sides get a lot out of that relationship, and the Saudis very much depend on our intelligence to know what's going on in their region and particularly with the country that they view as their primary opponent, Iran.
CORNISH: So is there something to be said for the president's approach, especially when you look back at past administrations who have also sought not to rock the boat with the Saudis?
BENJAMIN: No. I don't - I think that this is a misguided approach. The United States is at a point of maximum leverage right now, and we're signaling to the Saudis that we are weak, and we will put up with anything they do. And frankly, the crown prince has shown himself to be a remarkably reckless individual and one whose heedless of our opinions, our world view, our values. You know, just to come back to the security issue, the Saudis' misguided military intervention in Yemen is ultimately going to come back to haunt us because Yemen has become a major training ground and breeding ground for terrorists.
You know, the fact that we are just making all these concessions to the Saudis and not really standing up for traditional values and not dealing with the outrage of the Khashoggi murder in a way that would be in keeping with our traditions I think is a very big mistake. The president's actions have made America seem much smaller and much weaker, hardly great again. And I think that's a big mistake.
CORNISH: Daniel Benjamin was a counterterrorism official in the Obama State Department. He's now director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. Thank you for speaking with us.
BENJAMIN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.