CNN | 12/17/2018 | Español | Listen

If Donald Trump doesn't confront Saudi Arabia, the world order could be upended

Updated 11:31 AM ET, Wed October 10, 2018

Editor's Note: Nic Robertson is CNN's international diplomatic editor.

Istanbul (CNN) - In what world order can the head of Interpol be dragged off the streets, or a globally renowned journalist be made to disappear in front of his fiancée's eyes?

A world order that, one might speculate, is coming off its rails. One where a country can attack another, then look it in the eye and say it didn't happen.

In the world of Marvel heroes, this would never happen. The bad guys would get what's coming to them. But we are not in the Marvel Universe. We are in a post-2016 reality, where the world's top global cop, President Donald Trump, is taking a break from convention and letting misdeeds slide.

The world's most powerful man has made a virtue of shirking the expectation that America traditionally sets the world order, instead demanding allies do more while dialing back pressure on enemies.

Of course, abdication of America's moral responsibility is something previous Presidents could be accused of. But there is something unique about Trump's America First lens at the cost of all else.

On North Korea, where he is exceptionally engaged with the country's notoriously duplicitous dictator, Kim Jong Un, who is talking up the hermit kingdom's denuclearization, despite the absence of real-world actions.

Meanwhile, Trump looks at his regional allies in South Korea and Japan, and tells them that from now on, they need to shoulder the cost of their own security. If they don't, they face the threat of having to defend themselves alone.

To his base at home, the "America First" strategy sounds laudable. To his international allies, it's becoming increasingly laughable. And to his enemies, it is a moment of opportunity.

For seven decades, the United States has not only been at the forefront of keeping the world on a stable track, it also built the rails and set the moral compass for the direction of travel.

But this past week, there has been another noticeable wobble.

The Saudi Arabian journalist and former Saudi government official, Jamal Khashoggi, disappeared while visiting his country's consulate last week in Istanbul. In previous years, something such as this might have been addressed with a firm hand from the White House.

Saudi officials say Khashoggi left not long after arriving. Turkish officials hint, darkly, that he may never be seen alive again. A Saudi official told CNN that Saudi Arabia categorically denies any involvement in his disappearance. The official added that "Jamal's well-being, as a Saudi citizen, is our utmost concern and we are focusing on the investigation ... to reveal the truth behind his disappearance."

The situation is spinning out of control.

Trump says he is "concerned" that no one knows what happened. Vice President Mike Pence is "deeply troubled" and that "the world deserves answers." And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that the Saudis should support an investigation.

Saudi Arabia has agreed -- much as it did when its air force mistakenly killed Yemeni women and children while targeting Houthi rebels with US-made bombs.

Human Rights organizations say that Trump is giving the Saudis an easy out.

Khashoggi's fiancée, along with the rest of the world, might never get the answers Pence says should be forthcoming in part, at least, because the Saudis know they are unlikely to be held to account.

It's not the first opportunity Trump has missed to get tough with his Saudi partners.

He likes to remind us they have committed to billions of dollars in arms deals over the coming years.

But he rarely raises the Saudis' massive falling out with Qatar, which happened only weeks after Trump visited Riyadh on his first overseas trip as President in May 2017 when he told the Saudi royals to get tough on terrorism.

Since that visit, the Saudis' behavior has been increasingly autocratic -- from the mass detention of hundreds of Saudi royals and businessmen last year on corruption allegations, which led to the death of at least one detainee, to the arrests of women's rights activists this summer.

This was followed by a bust-up with Canada, leading to the recalling of dozens of diplomats and hundreds of students, barely a month after Trump flew into a rage with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following the G7 summit.

Trump has opted to ignore where he should have confronted. In doing so, he has become a role model to all the wrong people and for all the wrong reasons.

His summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki this summer was another missed opportunity to shore up world order. Rather than take the Russian President to task for attacking American democracy, he praised him. For Putin, it was a pat on the back that put a smile on his face all the way home to Moscow.

With Trump in the White House, Putin is acting with contempt and disregard for the international rules-based order. His military intelligence services continue to meddle in elections and infect social media with fake accounts. And he has the audacity to send his spies to poison people with an illegal deadly chemical weapon in the UK.

Putin is not the only one reading Trump's weakness.

China is exploiting the moral vacuum. It has never been shy to lock up dissidents and political opponents, but President Xi Jinping is taking things to a new level. A few months back, a major movie star disappeared over alleged tax evasion. Then last week, we saw the kidnapping of the head of the world's policing body, Interpol.

Eventually, after much international pressure, Xi's officials fessed up to nabbing the man -- accusing him of corruption.

Despite Trump's trade war with China and escalating military tensions, Xi enjoys a level of power that no Chinese leader has had in decades.

In Venezuela, a government official reportedly fell from a 10-floor window of the government's intelligence headquarters this week.

In the movies, it would be part of a daring escape. But in the real world, Venezuelan officials are calling it suicide. For whatever Trump's rhetoric about the country, it knows it can do as it pleases.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, increasing evidence pushed by Turkish sources through Turkish media implicates a complex Saudi government plot to capture Khashoggi.

The Washington Post is reporting that a video of his killing has been shown to US officials and that American intelligence picked up conversations between Saudi officials plotting Khashoggi's abduction (and possible death).

Trump's most vocal critics are trying to get this issue heard.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke up this week about Khashoggi's abduction and its implications.

"While this authoritarian trend certainly did not begin with Donald Trump," Sanders said, "there's no question that other authoritarian leaders around the world have drawn inspiration from the fact that the President of the world's oldest and most powerful democracy is shattering democratic norms, is viciously attacking an independent media and an independent judiciary, and is scapegoating the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society,"

Trump's worldview and its roots in America First may be selling well with his base at home. But overseas, it is buckling America's carefully crafted world order. And while it is not yet broken, it is already having irreversible repercussions.


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