Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East analyst at the State Department and adviser in Republican and Democratic administrations, is a vice president and director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Richard Sokolsky is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. From 2005 to 2015, he was a member of the secretary of state’s Office of Policy Planning.
The late John McCain was fond of saying that American values and interests are one and the same. He would have been all over Saudi Arabia like a cheap suit pressing for tough action in response to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Post contributing columnist.
McCain would also have conceded that the United States has important interests in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has compromised these interests by enabling and placating a reckless Saudi leader. If Khashoggi’s killing is to have any lasting meaning and impact, it should offer up both a moment of clarity and a warning to the Trump administration to restore reciprocity and balance to a relationship that’s now out of control.
Despite significant differences over the years — including Saudi support and export of an extreme brand of Islam — the U.S.-Saudi alliance has survived because it was cemented by common interests and goals. Ever since Franklin Delano Roosevelt met with Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state in 1945, the United States has had a stake in the security and stability of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and in ensuring the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. In recent decades, Saudi Arabia emerged as an important security partner that supported the U.S. campaign to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and supported American objectives in containing Iran and combating terrorism.
The U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is therefore worth preserving — but not under current circumstances or at any price. In the past two years, the Trump administration has allowed the dynamic to slip out of our control into the hands of the inexperienced, overly ambitious and reckless Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has not only taken U.S. support for granted but also exploited it to pursue policies that fundamentally undermine American interests and values.
The de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia has left a trail of failed and feckless policies abroad with which the Trump administration is now linked: the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, the prosecution of a disastrous war in Yemen that has become the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster, and an ill-conceived boycott of Qatar that has made it more difficult to form a united Gulf state front against Iran and, like the war in Yemen, has only enhanced Iranian influence.
At home, under the cover of several important social and economic reforms (including the decision to allow women to drive and a crackdown on the religious police) MBS has shown a darker and ruthless side — brooking no dissent; arresting journalists, civil society bloggers and women activists from the driving campaign; and imprisoning and bilking wealthy Saudis in the “shaikhdown” at the Ritz-Carlton.
The killing of Khashoggi reflects the culmination of a pattern of destructive MBS policies that the Trump administration has either ignored, enabled or supported through acquiescence or silence. Worse still, the president and his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s approach to Saudi Arabia has been based on magical thinking. Far from being a catalyst in containing Iran or taking a lead role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, MBS’s policies in Qatar and Yemen have enlarged Tehran’s room to maneuver.
King Salman had to walk back his son’s enthusiastic support for the president’s peace plan. The administration might very well get some Saudi help to dampen upward pressure on oil prices when new U.S. sanctions on Iran remove oil from the market, but this will surely benefit Saudi Arabia and is anchored in Saudi Arabia’s own national interest.
The challenge isn’t just punishing Saudi Arabia for killing a journalist. The Saudis have been undermining U.S. interests, too. We need to take steps to rebalance what has become a one-sided, dysfunctional relationship. The administration should start by freezing senior-level contacts with the kingdom, beginning with MBS, for a period of time to send an unmistakable signal that it is losing confidence in the crown prince. Washington should also suspend support for the Saudi air campaign in Yemen — a misadventure that is seen as MBS’s war — and press Riyadh to show greater flexibility toward a U.N.-brokered political solution.
There is also no reason that the United States should not speak out against MBS’s repressive policies at home, which over time could accelerate instability in Saudi Arabia. And if it’s proved that MBS was involved in Khashoggi’s murder, additional steps such as freezing assets, travel bans and suspension of arms sales should be considered.
This is a critical inflection point in U.S.-Saudi relations. MBS could conceivably rule Saudi Arabia for 50 years. The United States has a strong stake in supporting a wise, prudent and reform-minded leader; it most certainly doesn’t have an interest in being used and abused by a reckless authoritarian who seems bent on repressing his own citizens, killing his opponents, destabilizing the region and undermining American interests and values in the process.