Trump’s ‘America First’ means Americans lose

Flatter our president, and you can do whatever you want at home. Here, Saudi children present President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump with flowers on their arrival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Flatter our president, and you can do whatever you want at home. Here, Saudi children present President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump with flowers on their arrival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. NYT

“THE WORLD is a very dangerous place!”

Thus President Trump begins the statement in which he seeks to justify accepting what he had previously called unacceptable: the state-sponsored murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The world is dangerous and always has been. But his craven capitulation to Khashoggi’s murderers will make the world more dangerous, not less. What Trump presents as hardheaded realism is a grave attack on U.S. national interests.

We say this not simply because Trump’s justifications are factually fraudulent. He wildly inflates the amount of business Saudi Arabia has sent America’s way. He falls for royal flattery and fatuously allows himself to be lied to. He fails to see that Saudi Arabia is far more dependent on the United States than the reverse. He neglects the plain fact that every major action taken by the reckless crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman has harmed U.S. interests: his disastrous war in Yemen, which has redounded to Iran’s benefit; his failed effort to subjugate the small neighboring nation of Qatar, a U.S. ally; and his bizarre kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, also a U.S. ally.

No, Trump’s strategic blindness runs far deeper than just misreading this alliance. He is also undermining the basic understanding that has worked to the United States’ advantage since World War II under presidents both Republican and Democratic.

Those leaders all accepted that, with less than 5 percent of global population but more than 20 percent of the global economy, the United States, more than any other nation, depends on and benefits from predictable rules. It needs a world where business executives can go forth and come home without fear of kidnapping, where ships can ply the oceans without armed escorts, where contracts are honored and disputes fairly adjudicated.

Previous presidents understood that the way to achieve such a world was to enlist allies who would live by the United States’ rules in return for protection. They would go along because the United States stood not just for itself but for rules that benefited everyone and for values they cherished, as well: freedom, human dignity, the rule of law. By championing good — albeit imperfectly and inconsistently — the United States did well.

Now comes Trump to announce that this has been a sucker’s game. He will squeeze every other country as hard as he can. He cares not a fig for American values. He will no longer pledge U.S. forces to maintain world order. And if he can sell one or two more fighter jets, who cares if a journalist is murdered?

What Trump proposes is to destroy the American brand, and the Khashoggi case crystallizes the danger. The post-truth approach he has brought to domestic governing he now introduces to foreign affairs. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” he writes, with respect to the crown prince’s knowledge of the plot.

But the facts are knowable and mostly known. A truly hardheaded president, mindful of U.S. interests, would insist on accountability for those who planned and committed the murder. He would understand that the U.S.-Saudi relationship cannot and does not depend on any single person. He would understand that U.S. standing in the world will dwindle if the United States offers no objection to the murder of a peaceful, 59-year-old resident of Northern Virginia who was trying to bring a bit of light into a confusing world.

This president does not understand any of that. It falls to Congress, therefore, to decide. It can follow Mr. Trump down the path of phony realism, and decline; or it can take a stand to help defend American values — and interests.