You would think we would have learned from a half-century of experience with civil-nuclear relations that nothing is more important than the character of the country we are dealing with.
Up to now — that is, pre-Khashoggi — the key question about a U.S.-Saudi nuclear agreement was whether to insist on a Saudi pledge not to enrich uranium. The White House, seeing the Saudis as close friends and fixed on the possible jobs that a Saudi nuclear contract (or subcontract, as South Korea has the inside track) might bring to Donald Trump’s electoral base, wanted the deal. But now, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey is a sharp wake-up. What were we thinking in contemplating any nuclear installation for the Saudis?
Last fall, arm wrestling over the possible commitments in a prospective U.S.-Saudi nuclear deal obscured that we were dealing with a thuggish absolutist regime with no scruples. Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance makes it hard to gloss this over. For now, the Saudis have to be careful in dealing with us as they depend on us for their security. President Donald Trump didn’t exaggerate by much when he said they wouldn’t last two weeks without our protection. But what happens if that security relationship changes? Let’s not forget that even under the current security arrangements the Saudis years ago secretly bought missiles from China, and recently signed a multibillion-dollar arms deal with Russia.