Arms and the Very Bad Men

Oct 22, 2018 by

The New York Times

Trump’s rationale for going easy on Saudi Arabia is a shameful lie.

Paul Krugman

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

President Trump highlighted arms sales to Saudi Arabia in an Oval Office meeting in March with the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Credit Evan Vucci/Associated Press

A few days ago, Pat Robertson, the evangelical leader, urged America not to get too worked up about the torture and murder of Jamal Khashoggi, because we shouldn’t endanger “$100 billion in arms sales.” I guess he was invoking the little-known 11th Commandment, which says, “On the other hand, thou shalt excuse stuff like killing and bearing false witness if weapons deals are at stake.”

O.K., it’s not news that the religious right has prostrated itself at Donald Trump’s feet. But Trump’s attempt to head off retaliation for Saudi crimes by claiming that there are big economic rewards to staying friendly with killers — and the willingness of his political allies to embrace his logic — nonetheless represents a new stage in the debasement of America.

It’s not just that Trump’s claims about the number of jobs at stake — first it was 40,000, then 450,000, then 600,000, then a million — are lies. Even if the claims were true, we’re the United States; we’re supposed to be a moral beacon for the world, not a mercenary nation willing to abandon its principles if the money is good.

That said, the claims are, in fact, false.

First, there is no $100 billion Saudi arms deal. What the Trump administration has actually gotten are mainly “memorandums of intent,” best seen as possible future deals rather than commitments. Many of these potential deals would involve production in Saudi Arabia rather than the U.S. And the sales, if they did materialize, would be spread over a number of years.

It looks unlikely, then, that deals with Saudi Arabia will raise U.S. annual arms exports by more than a few billion dollars a year. When you bear in mind that the industries involved, mainly aerospace, are highly capital intensive and don’t employ many workers per dollar of sales, the number of U.S. jobs involved is surely in the tens of thousands, if that, not hundreds of thousands. That is, we’re talking about a rounding error in a U.S. labor market that employs almost 150 million workers.

Another way to look at Saudi arms sales is to notice how small the stakes are compared with other areas where Trump is casually disrupting business relations. He seems, for example, to be eager for a trade war with China, which imported $187 billion worth of U.S. goods and services last year.

Finally, it’s worth noting that under current conditions, increasing exports, even if you can do it, won’t create net additional jobs for the U.S. economy. Why? Because the Federal Reserve believes that we’re at full employment, and any further strengthening of the economy will induce the Fed to raise interest rates. As a result, jobs added in one place by things like arms sales will be offset by jobs lost elsewhere as higher rates deter investment or make the U.S. less competitive by strengthening the dollar.

But let’s get real: Trump isn’t going easy on the Saudis because of the jobs they provide to defense workers. His ever-inflating count of how many jobs are involved is in itself a dead giveaway that arms sales are an excuse, not a real motive, for his actions. So what’s the real reason he’s so willing to forgive torture and murder?

One answer is that he doesn’t actually disapprove of what the Saudis did. By now it’s a commonplace that Trump seems far more comfortable with brutal autocrats than with the leaders of our democratic allies. Remember, when Trump visited Saudi Arabia, his commerce secretary exulted over the fact that there were no protesters to be seen — something that tends to happen when protesters get beheaded.

Oh, and a president who proclaims that the news media are “enemies of the people” may feel that torturing and murdering a critical journalist is not such a bad idea.

Beyond that, the Saudis have funneled tens of millions of dollars to Trump personally, and are continuing to do so. And the very real millions going to Trump are a much more plausible explanation of his friendliness toward Mohammed bin Salman than the mythical billions going to U.S. arms manufacturers.

Of course, Trump loyalists bristle at the suggestion that he is letting his financial interests shape U.S. policy. But has Trump ever made a personal sacrifice in the public interest?

Anyway, we’re not supposed to have to trust that the big money a president receives from foreign governments isn’t influencing his decisions. The emoluments clause of the Constitution prohibits the president from accepting any such favors in the first place. Unfortunately, Republicans have decided that this clause, like so much of the Constitution, doesn’t apply when their party is in power.

So, as I said, what we’re looking at here is another step in the debasement of our nation. Accepting torture and murder is a betrayal of American principles; trying to justify that betrayal by appealing to supposed economic benefits is a further betrayal. And when you add in the fact that the claimed economic payoff is a lie, and that the president’s personal profit is a much more likely explanation for his actions — well, genuine patriots should be deeply ashamed of what we’ve come to as a nation.

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Paul Krugman has been an Opinion columnist since 2000 and is also a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography. @PaulKrugman

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