On the Sunday talks shows, Republican and Democratic lawmakers almost uniformly ridiculed the Saudis’ cover story — a “fistfight” — for the grotesque murder of The Post’s Global Opinions contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. From right-wing isolationist Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to conservative internationalist Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) to liberal Democrat Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the message was the same: They do not buy the cock-and-bull story cooked up to try to shield Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from responsibility, and moreover, we cannot have business-as-normal with a regime that butchers American (or any other country’s) journalists.
Only days earlier Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been all smiles and hearty handshakes during his visit with MBS, as the crown prince is known. Pompeo was content to give the Saudis more time to investigate themselves. Before this weekend, the president had issued undiluted praise for MBS and gone out of his way to insist there would be no real change in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, ruling out use of our biggest leverage, arms sales. That proved not to be sustainable in the face of international outrage, American public revulsion and bipartisan insistence that the administration not let the kingdom off the hook. For once it seemed, Trump could not rewrite reality to suit his desires.
In a Saturday interview with The Post, Trump was a bundle of contradictions. “Obviously there’s been deception and there’s been lies. Their stories are all over the place,” said Trump, who evidenced rare acknowledgment that saying something doesn’t make it true. However, he still wrapped his arms around MBS. “He’s seen as a person who can keep things under check. I mean that in a positive way,” he said. As he has done with other brutal leaders, he insisted that MBS “loves his people.”
The administration seems in be in the denial (or maybe bargaining) stage of its reaction to the death of the existing relationship with Saudi Arabia. But it’s time to move to acceptance that the status quo is unsustainable. So what next?
Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams wrote that “the image that MbS so carefully built has been smashed. Everyone has been reminded there is no modernizing of the Saudi government, just the sometimes praiseworthy and sometimes disgraceful efforts of one 33-year-old man.” Abrams argues: “In Saudi Arabia the concentration of all power in the hands of one young man has very quietly been debated, but now the debate should be over. Whatever MbS loses in his ability to force through beneficial changes must be given up now, because unrestrained, unlimited power has too often been used badly . . . The United States should not engage in the royal succession sweepstakes but we should state that our interests require a Saudi government with which we can work.”
Nevertheless, many foreign policy experts and administration officials who have prioritized the threat posed by Iran are reluctant to give up our excessive dependence on Saudi Arabia, which entails indulging the kingdom’s slaughter of thousands of civilians in Yemen (a proxy war against Iran). We cannot change the faces but cling to a policy and set of assumptions that simply have not held up in the real world.
Pushing for a change in Saudi leadership and governmental structure certainly is advisable. However, that in and of itself will not be sufficient to satisfy public opinion, change the Saudis’ conduct or rationalize our Iran policy. Replacing MBS with someone equally despotic is no answer. The fear that somehow the Saudis won’t pursue an anti-Iran policy unless we stuff them with arms and cater to their whims is foolish; it is in their own interest to confront Iran, and they will continue to do so.
The administration must demand an international investigation and full accounting of this atrocity. We have the Magnitsky Act on the books, and if it is to have any meaning, it must be applied in this case to everyone involved, up to and including MBS. Beyond that, the United States must revoke the pass we’ve given the Saudis to conduct its war in Yemen. We should re-look at every aspect of the relationship from arms sales to diplomatic visits to investment. (It’s time for full transparency when it comes to the Saudis’ influence-buying.)
At the root of the problem, of course, is a huge void where a cohesive, rational Iran policy should be. We’ve alienated our European allies, accepted Iran’s occupation of Syria and taken little or no action to check Iran’s nonnuclear conduct. We cannot outsource foreign policy to the Saudis. Once we figure out an effective Iran policy — that may require great U.S. resources and reintegration of the United States into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in exchange for European cooperation on other issues (e.g., sanctions for Iran’s missile testing) — we can put the Saudi-U. S. relationship in its proper context.
Not unlike our current approach to Egypt, we’ve been perpetuating a policy based on an exaggerated sense of the Saudis’ importance. They need us far more than we need them. A rebalancing of the relationship is long overdue.