Is America really letting Saudi Arabia get away with murder?

The repercussions from the Trump administration giving a hall pass to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi are reverberating through the annual Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires, which started earlier today. The G-20 is an obvious place for the United States to either reassert a principled view of our values and interests around the world or not. Sadly, I am betting that “not” wins this time.

Top of mind is the current aggression by Russia in and around Ukraine, a clear expansion of the war of attrition, which is four years old and has claimed a reported 11,000 lives. Capturing naval vessels and blocking ports is not a subtle move. It is another test of President TrumpDonald TrumpSenators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session Gosar's siblings pen op-ed urging for his resignation: 'You are immune to shame' Sunday shows - Delta variant, infrastructure dominate MORE and Western leaders by Vladimir Putin, who has in recent years been fingered for poisoning and murdering his enemies on foreign soil, as well as conducting influence operations to disrupt and sway the outcome of elections. It is welcome news that Trump canceled his meeting with Putin at the summit, which also sends a signal to others flaunting international law, including China, Syria, and (remember this one?) North Korea.


With new information revealing undeclared North Korean missile operating bases, which is evidence that Kim Jong Un may be cheating on the so called “deal” he struck with Trump, putting this challenge back on the main policy agenda is critical. The good news is that many of the parties central to achieving a serious deal with North Korea will attend the G-20. The hard part is that our agendas are not perfectly aligned. America wants denuclearization, South Korea wants reconciliation, Japan wants protection from nuclear tipped intermediate range missiles (Trump has a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe), China wants containment and a guarantee against collapse, and North Korea clearly wants to keep its nuclear weapons as regime survival insurance.

After Trump and Kim shook hands in Singapore over the summer, the president publicly announced on Twitter that they had agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea, assuring his followers that they could rest easy. Yet, the reported secret North Korean missile operating bases indicate that, if anything, Kim feels emboldened by recent events, and he is certainly not taking meaningful steps towards denuclearization.

If Trump fails to conceptualize the North Korean negotiations as multilateral, by instead continuing to view this conflict merely as him versus the dictator, Kim will keep on having the upper hand. Thus, until the battling agendas of all five major players are addressed and aligned, any kind of “deal” or agreement Trump strikes will make the abandoned Iran nuclear deal look even better than its advocates staunchly claim.

So too with Saudi Arabia, where there are foreign policy options beyond the binary choice of letting Mohammed Bin Salman get away with murder or losing an important ally. The United States can encourage the kingdom to move the crown price sideways and select a more responsible member of the royal family to carry out impressive modernizing reform there.

In his dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump can work to settle long standing tensions, especially the high stakes trade war and digital intellectual property theft, while charting a joint course on North Korea and the safety challenges of artificial intelligence. Just last week, to the credit of the administration, Trade Representative Robert LighthizerBob LighthizerBiden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Whiskey, workers and friends caught in the trade dispute crossfire GOP senator warns quick vote on new NAFTA would be 'huge mistake' MORE released a report describing Chinese technology transfer policies and state sponsored cyberattacks against a range of sectors including manufacturing. This gives Trump some leverage if he wants to use it.

It is ironic that a sleeping Congress has showed signs of life in recent days by pushing back against White House support for the Saudi proxy war in Yemen, which has yielded the largest humanitarian crisis on the planet today. In an overwhelming show of support, the Senate will debate a bill to cut off military support. Condemnation of Russian adventurism and action to curb or fence military support for Saudi Arabia could follow.

Just imagine a nuanced policy that both confronts and cajoles the many players who will be together in Buenos Aires. That would be an “artful” deal and a “huge” win for an administration that surely needs one.

Jane Harman is president of the Wilson Center. She served 16 years in Congress as a representative from California and was the ranking Democrat on the Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee.