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The Curse of Osama Bin Laden

Why can’t the United States quit Saudi Arabia?

Trump was awarded a fancy necklace by Saudi Arabia's King Salman in 2017. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)

Five years before masterminding the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, Osama bin Laden laid out his strategy in a declaration of jihad “against the Americans occupying the land of the two holiest sites.” The aim: “Expel the infidels from the Arabian peninsula.” Bin Laden argued that the Saudi regime, whose rule derived from its safeguarding of Islam’s holiest sites, had forfeited its legitimacy by ceding so much of its security to the “infidel” Americans.

Two and a half decades later, Bin Laden is dead, the U.S. still has troops patrolling his former safe haven in Afghanistan, and President Donald Trump, once billed as “the dove” in the 2016 election, is as closely tied to the Saudi leadership as perhaps any American chief executive in recent history, which is quite a remarkable statement in itself. He defended ruthless Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman after the de facto ruler’s orchestrated murder of a U.S.-based Washington Post journalist; he sidestepped Congress to push through $8 billion in new “emergency” arms deals with the Saudi royals; he ritually and publicly touched the orb of global influence with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Now, Trump is mulling military action against Iran in retaliation for a devastating drone attack on one of the Saudi regime’s key oil-processing facilities on Saturday.

“Saudi Arabia oil supply was attacked,” Trump tweeted out of the blue Sunday evening. “There is reason to believe that we know the culprit, are locked and loaded depending on verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

Call it the curse of Osama bin Laden: The harder an American administration fights against the terrorist’s enduring challenge, the harder it becomes to quit Saudi Arabia. Here is an administration not merely ready to defend Saudi soil as if it were a NATO member, but asking the Saudis how to proceed. Allies of the Saudi royals want the U.S. to proceed with bombs, lots of bombs. “What is required is nothing more than the destruction of Iran’s oil installations, and if there is a capacity, nuclear facilities and military bases as well,” prominent Saudi pundit (and enjoyer of royal protection) Turki al-Hamad intoned this weekend.

In the Beltway, fealty to Saudi Arabia’s whims is just business as usual. The White House has offered no concrete evidence that Iran is to blame for the attacks. (Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels, who are fighting a Saudi coalition for survival in Yemen, claimed responsibility for the attack, though all indications are that the strike goes beyond their known capabilities.) But Trump’s gauntlet was taken up almost reflexively by “grownups” in Congress. “This may well be the thing that calls for military action against Iran, if that’s what the intelligence supports,” Delaware Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox & Friends viewers Monday morning.

Several other congressional Democrats weighed in on social media to remind Trump that he’d need legislative authorization for military action against Iran. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force has been used and abused by multiple presidents for misadventures the world over, and there’s been absolutely no indication that congressional restraints—or Americans’ extremely low appetite for war right now—matter to Trump when missiles are in play.

What prevents American policymakers from quitting Saudi Arabia? Is it really just oil dependence? Is it the blood and treasure we’ve sunk there since 2001? Or is it something else, perhaps the elite kinship Trump and his coterie of relatives feel with Mohammed bin Salman in his schemes to consolidate power? Put another way: What would it take for the U.S. to extract itself from Saudi military affairs?

These may not be the most important questions to ask today. Last week, when Trump unceremoniously dumped National Security Advisor John Bolton, arguably the biggest Iran hawk in the president’s foreign policy entourage, I warned that the president’s belligerence would grow more problematic, not less: “Foreign states and militant groups by now thoroughly understand the president’s intellectual limitations and emotional needs; all it takes is one of these groups, in a highly tweetable crisis, to push Trump and his rhetoric into a place where he can’t back down from them.”

Now, having tweeted that he’s “locked and loaded” for war (a threat that amounted to nothing when he leveled it against North Korea), Trump is in a familiar position: Bomb or not? The Iranians, driven to desperation by U.S. sanctions and sensing an opportunity in the meltdown of the two nations’ nuclear nonproliferation deal, now understand that Trump is a paper tiger with no coherent approach to them, or much else. He is painted into a corner. He can back down, as he always has, and accept that his bluster has no analog in reality. Or he can fight, and make losers of us all.