Democrats won’t defeat Trump on Saudi ties

Democrats won’t defeat Trump on Saudi ties

Gross domestic product has gone up during Donald Trump’s term and unemployment is down. (Reuters)

Democrats are desperate to find issues that might help them defeat President Donald Trump in the 2020 US election. It appears the Russia collusion allegations will not work now that the independent counsel has essentially exonerated Trump and his associates. The Democrats cannot run on the economy, as gross domestic product has gone up during Trump’s term and unemployment is down. Therefore they just might run on foreign policy, and one line of attack will relate to the Trump administration’s dealings with Saudi Arabia.

But will it work? Is there something nefarious in the Trump White House’s partnership with the Saudi government, or is the relationship built, from the American perspective, on the best interests of the US? The president’s critics seek to hurt him on this issue and even, perhaps, drive a wedge between the two countries.

As The Washington Post reported last week, “experienced Democratic strategists are urging party candidates to make Trump’s dealings with Riyadh a litmus test on the president’s character.” To be sure, The Washington Post is one of Trump’s most staunch critics in the press, but that is all the more reason to take its reporting on this topic seriously. Trump may accuse it of being “fake news,” but it is likely knowledgeable about the Democrats’ 2020 strategy.

The same newspaper also noted that several Democratic presidential candidates have already criticized Trump about the relationship with Saudi Arabia, more than a year and a half before the election. The Washington Post compared Trump’s relationship with Riyadh to his relationship with Moscow, with all of the implicit allusions to collusion. On the other hand, one candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, took the reverse perspective. He said: “Saudi Arabia is a country clearly inspired by Trump… (It) feels emboldened by the Trump administration’s unquestioning support.”

The issues that Democrats point to concerning Saudi Arabia are many. They complain about the war in Yemen and the role the US has played in assisting Saudi Arabia and its allies in that fight. This issue may not succeed for Democrats because the Yemen conflict is complicated and few Americans have bothered to learn much about it. It is not front-page news in America. In the US, the view on the war in Yemen is becoming much like the view of occasional conflicts between Israel and Hamas in and around Gaza.

The far left and environmentalists in the US can also point to Saudi Arabia as a major oil producer. For them, that is a reason to oppose Riyadh, but that argument will not pass muster with American voters. The US currently produces more oil than Saudi Arabia. From an environmental perspective, the true concern should be pollution, and China and India produce more of that.

The simple truth is that Americans care much more about the domestic economy than about what is happening in a far-off country.

Ellen R. Wald

Recently, Democrats have highlighted the news that Energy Secretary Rick Perry apparently approved the sharing of information with Saudi Arabia on nuclear power plants and technology. Perry and Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih went to the same university and are known to be close. It is entirely expected that Perry and the US would approve early stage discussions for nuclear plants because of this connection. Also, nuclear power is the best way for Saudi Arabia to decrease pollution from oil-burning plants. If the US does not build those plants, Russia, South Korea or some other country will.

Where the Democrats will find the most success in using the Saudi relationship against Trump is in the basic differences between the two governments. Of course, Saudi Arabia has a monarchy and the US is a democratic constitutional republic. This is what makes it easier for the US to ally with European countries such as the UK, France and Poland or with Japan, Israel, Canada or Australia. These countries have similar ideas of participatory government. Due process, free speech and religious freedoms are vitally important to most of the American electorate.

In that vein, Democrats could also attack Trump’s relationship with Xi Jinping of China, but they would not do this because many of them seek an equally close relationship with Beijing. However, the Democratic Party has not been close with Saudi Arabia for a while, in part due to a shift during the Obama administration. As a result, Trump’s improved relationship with the Kingdom is an easy target for his opponents.

But will this strategy work? Unlikely. The simple truth is that Americans care much more about the domestic economy than about what is happening in a far-off country. Americans, like all people, care first about their own families and their own communities. The Democrats will seek to win points on the Saudi-US ties, but they will not win an election on it.

  • Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy
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