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Senate Approves Trump's Nominee To Be Ambassador To Saudi Arabia


Over the past few years, Saudi's crown prince has tightened his grasp on power. He's had critics and activists detained and reportedly tortured. And the CIA believes that he ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. All the while, Saudi Arabia has continued to drop bombs in neighboring Yemen. And during all of this, the U.S. has not had an ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Well, that changed today. The Senate confirmed retired four-star General John Abizaid to the post. To understand what Abizaid brings to this daunting task, we're joined now by Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress. Welcome.

BRIAN KATULIS: Great to be with you.

CHANG: So I want to start by visiting an important time in General Abizaid's career. This is the last few months when he was overseeing U.S. Central Command. It was right before the 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq. How did Abizaid feel about that strategy?

KATULIS: Abizaid was concerned at the time about the focus on military tools. What he tried to do in the debates inside of the Bush administration was broaden the discussion to include diplomatic tools. His essential point was that we don't need to be throwing more U.S. troops into a problem that, essentially, is political.

And he largely - his arguments largely fell on deaf ears, which is why we did the surge. But I think he was ahead of the curve. He understood the thing that I think many of us now who look at the region know fully from our experiences there, that it's how do you motivate - whether it's Iraqis or Saudis or others - to pull their weight, to actually settle their conflicts and then deliver services to their people that we can't do that - from the U.S. perspective - that it's too costly. And it's better for these partners to do it, you know, less effectively and over a longer timescale perhaps.

CHANG: So what do you think of Abizaid's fitness for his new role as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia? I mean, we should say that he's Lebanese-American. He speaks Arabic. But what additional qualifications do you see in this man?

KATULIS: I think he's an ideal candidate. He's steady. He's practical. He's very knowledgeable of the region. He knows the Saudis very well by virtue of his past positions. They know him very well. So the Saudis won't be able to pull the wool over his eyes.

I think he faces a number of challenges. First, he's going to have to figure out how to make sure he's part of the conversation between the royal palace and Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince.

CHANG: You mean because there's such a close relationship already between the crown prince and the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

KATULIS: That's it, yeah. This linkage between the royal palace and the West Wing, he's going to have to figure out how to navigate that and make sure that he's in the loop. Secondly, he arrives in this position at a very heated and hyper-partisan moment about U.S.-Saudi relations in our politics. There are a lot of understandable and legitimate questions because of Jamal Khashoggi's murder and the Yemen war.

CHANG: And these are concerns that even Republicans have about the White House's approach to Saudi Arabia.

KATULIS: Absolutely. It's not simply just a partisan issue. But I think with our elections, it will become even more so. You know, the Democrats are much more skeptical about Saudi Arabia these days. So he'll have to serve in this position and try to buffer the working relationship from a lot of those political tensions.

CHANG: So given those sprawling challenges, what do you think his first priority should be as he ventures forth on this new job as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia?

KATULIS: Well, first, I think he's got to work with the Saudis to find a way to resolve the conflict in Yemen. And the U.S. has substantial leverage it can use to help the Saudis defend themselves but then also resolve the conflict. Second, I think he needs to keep these very important issues of Saudi Arabia's human rights record on the agenda, even though the Trump administration has downgraded those issues. It's a very important issue for the sake of bilateral relations. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, their detention of human rights activists - all of these things create turbulence in the U.S.-Saudi relationship and are of deep moral concern to a lot of Americans.

CHANG: Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Thanks so much for joining us today.

KATULIS: Great. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.