Donald Trump’s handling of Jamal Khashoggi’s apparently brutal murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul is not the first time that an American president has had to maneuver between our economic interests and our purported values.
You can look back to FDR’s dealings with King Ibn Saud, who created the new state of Saudi Arabia in 1932, for another example. Then, as now, the United States caved to geopolitical reality. Roosevelt tried to get the new Saudi monarchy to bend to his own agenda, but in the end, he failed.
The story begins six years after the kingdom’s founding, when petroleum was discovered there by Standard Oil employees. American oil giants started to make investments and looked forward to expanding their interests when World War II ended. During the war, FDR had to be careful not to antagonize Arab leaders, since a major supply line to the Soviet ally ran through Arab territory on the Persian Gulf.
After the 1945 Yalta Conference attended by the Big Three, (FDR, Churchill and Stalin), Roosevelt went to Egypt to meet King Ibn Saud. One of the major things he hoped to accomplish was to convince the Saudi monarch to agree to a compromise settlement with the Jews who sought to establish a homeland in Palestine, which had been promised to them by the British during WWI in the Balfour Declaration, by the League of Nations, and in 1922 by the U.S. Congress. After the Holocaust there was increased support for the Zionist cause.
Roosevelt hoped that the king would cooperate, but indications were that he would resist. As William E. Eddy, the U.S. Ambassador to the kingdom, reported to FDR, Ibn Saud had told him that “if America should choose in favor of the Jews, who are accursed in the Koran as enemies of the Muslims until the end of the world, it will indicate to us that America has repudiated its friendship with us.”
FDR would not accept this as the final word. He thought that if he could have the chance to sit down with Ibn Saud, and use his personal charm and prowess, he would be able, as he told his Cabinet, to “settle the Palestine situation.” White House adviser economist Herbert Feis was amazed that Roosevelt “cherished the illusion that presumably he, and he alone, could bring about a settlement—if not a reconciliation—between Arabs and Jews.”
Roosevelt was already exhausted and quite sick, and the strain on him was immense (he would die just two months later). Yet, at the conference’s end, he decided that he would take the occasion to travel on to Egypt, where Ibn Saud had agreed to meet him on the U.S. battleship Quincy. The President explained his goal to Secretary of State Edward R. Stettinius, Jr. that he would bring with him a map to show the king “the Near Eastern area as a whole and the relationship of Palestine to the area.” He hoped to convince Saud to agree to give a portion of Palestine to the Jews, while preserving their own interests.
In preparation for the meeting with Ibn Saud, FDR ordered that the Quincy be outfitted to make Saud feel at home. The crew laid dozens of thick carpets on the deck, and a large so-called royal tent was set up in front of the forward gun turret for Ibn Saud to sleep in. Next, a sheep pen was set up. The animals were ready for slaughter, so the king and his entourage could be properly fed in the manner to which they were accustomed. The king brought his own food, cooks and charcoal stoves. Accompanying Saud and his immediate family were other relatives, the imam who led the palace prayers, the chief server of coffee, and the royal purse bearer. In addition, the king brought with him ten of his own armed guards, who carried sabers and daggers.
FDR was in “top form,” his translator William A. Eddy wrote, “as a charming host, and conversationalist, which the spark and light in his eyes and that gracious smile always won people over whenever he talked with them as a friend.” FDR knew he had to tread carefully. Thus, he began the meeting by letting King Saud know that he would never help the Jews at the expense of the Arabs. Next, however, he told the king he had a serious problem “for which he desired the King’s advice and help,” namely the rescue and settlement of the remnant of European Jewry. “What would the King suggest?” he asked.
Saud’s reaction was hostile, and he replied that in his view, “The Jews should return to live in the lands from which they were driven.” If they had no homes to return to, he suggested that the Jews should be given “living space in the Axis countries which oppressed them,” and not in Arab lands. The truth, he said, is that Arabs and Jews would “never cooperate, neither in Palestine, nor in any other country.” Arabs would rather die, he told Roosevelt, “than yield their land to the Jews.”
FDR returned home, and his first order of business was to report to America the result of Yalta. He would do that in a speech to both houses of Congress. The text had been handed to the press in advance, and they and the country listening on radio were stunned to hear an additional sentence added by the President. FDR made a comment that angered most Americans, whom polls showed largely favored creation of a Jewish state. At his meeting with Ibn Saud, Roosevelt told his nationwide audience, “I learned more about the whole problem of Arabia—the Moslems, the Jewish problem—by talking to Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters.” Clearly, Ibn Saud’s response to the very idea of a Jewish presence in Palestine had shaken him.
In a letter to Roosevelt written after the meeting, the king wrote that only “the Arabs had a right to Palestine,” reiterating what he had argued on the Quincy. He argued that the Arabs had been in Palestine since 3000 B.C., and the Jews “were merely aliens.” Any historical claims by the Jews were, in Saud’s eyes, a “fallacy.” Again, cautioning against a creation of a Jewish state, Saud wrote that such an event would be “a deadly blow to the Arabs.” It was the duty of the wartime allies to “prevent the Jews from going ahead.”
FDR’s reply was brief, and the president chose not to refute him. He had given his letter “most careful consideration,” he assured the king, and reminded him that their meeting aboard ship had already given him “so vivid an impression” of his views. The president then told Ibn Saud he would “take no action…which might prove hostile to the Arab people,” which he said the King knew was already American policy.
Later, he told Zionist leader Rabbi Stephen Wise, “I have had a failure. The one failure of my mission was with Ibn Saud.” The only reason he had set up the meeting, he told the rabbi, was “for the sake of your cause… I tried to approach the Jewish question a number of times. Every time I mentioned the Jews he would shrink” and say something like “I am too old to understand new ideas.” When he told Saud about the Jews’ irrigation of the desert and the planting of trees, Saud retorted that “my people don’t like trees; they are desert dwellers. And we have enough water without irrigation.”
FDR felt defeated, confessing to Wise that “I have never so completely failed to make an impact upon a man’s mind as in this case.” He had another way of dealing with the problem though and told Wise that he had been thinking of a plan to bring the case up at the first meeting of the Council of the United Nations. His death left the matter in limbo. In 1948, three years after his death, the UN finally solved the problem by voting to recognize the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and Arab area.
Like many presidents after him, Roosevelt accepted the necessity for Saudi oil and strategic friendship and understood it was paramount when dealing with the Saudi monarchy. Oil is not as important today as it was then, but Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner have pinned their hopes on the Saudis and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to be the linchpin in solving the intractable problems of the Middle East, whether it be Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are reports that Kushner, who is close to MBS, has been advising him to just brave the storm; Trump, in familiar fashion under such circumstances, has said he barely knows him.
As I write mid-Saturday, the Saudis claimed to have investigated Khashoggi’s murder, announcing that he had been killed after a fistfight at the consulate. Turkish investigators disputed their claim, saying that he was deliberately killed by Saudi agents sent there to murder Khashoggi. The Saudis then arrested eighteen and five major officials who the Saudis said were responsible, including an adviser and a general who was his deputy intelligence chief. President Trump announced it “was a first great step,” failing to address the many contradictions in the Saudi claims. Of course, they were developed to put MBS in the clear as having any responsibility for the torture of Khashoggi and his eventual death. Trump may understand this, but the Washington Post quoted a Trump adviser who told the paper his “inclination is not to ruin the [U.S.-Saudi] relationship.”
Will MBS be held to account, or will the president continue to rationalize the “incident,” accept the Saudi’s self-serving “investigation,” and move on? Will he, like FDR, give up on his original agenda and end up doing what the Saudi king desired? The UN temporarily solved the Palestinian crisis in 1948, voting to accept the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab sections. It is likely that in our own time, the UN will fail to deal with the crisis effectively, if at all.