Dennis Ross, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, served in senior national security positions in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Obama administrations.
Policies — not just politics — are deeply polarized today. Every choice becomes binary with no middle ground.
In response to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, either we should punish Saudi Arabia and try to force Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman out of power, or our interests are so great in the kingdom that we should simply put this behind us. President Trump has chosen the latter course, disregarding our values in declaring that our interests in Saudi Arabia matter more than whether the crown prince gave the order to assassinate a journalist.
Regrettably, no president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt has made values a fundamental part of our approach to the kingdom. On the contrary, every one — like Trump — put our interests, narrowly defined, first. True, they were less blatant about it than this president, but oil and security were the hallmarks of our policy, and we turned a blind eye to Saudi domestic policy and the funding of extremist madrassas internationally.
Many in Congress hope to use the Khashoggi murder to toughen our approach toward Saudi Arabia. But given Trump’s belief that the Saudis are too important for oil prices and American jobs, they will have a hard time doing so. Still, they will try to impose additional penalties on the kingdom, perhaps even using the Magnitsky Act to try to sanction the crown prince personally.
Rather than producing a stalemate, Congress should be asking what we should be trying to achieve. Two goals are essential: First, send a message that like the Russian poisoning of a former agent in Britain, the Saudi killing of a dissident journalist is unacceptable; global norms matter, and when they are violated, the offending party must pay a price.
Second, influence the future behavior of the crown prince. The aim should not be punishment simply to make a point but to chasten the Saudi leadership and induce more considered policies, especially since the crown prince is likely to remain in power for many years to come.
Each goal requires the president and Congress to forge a common approach, and that may not be so far-fetched. Applying penalties on the crown prince will not muster the votes needed to override a presidential veto, but suspending the sale of some weapons to the Saudis would produce a strong bipartisan majority. Trump won’t want to be overridden. Moreover, he can rationalize that he headed off more stringent measures while still being able to offer the Saudis anti-missile and other defensive systems. It is possible to impose a penalty that also makes sense given the terrible effect of Saudi bombings in Yemen.
Imposing penalties within certain bounds should also help with the second goal: inducing Saudi policies that are less impulsive and reckless. The old bargain of “they preserve a balanced oil market and we take care of their security” reflected the reality that the Saudis needed us as their guarantor against external threats. They still do, and that provides leverage.
So do reports that Trump is unhappy about the position he has been put in because of the Khashoggi murder and what he called the “worst coverup in history.” Now is the time to go to the king and the crown prince and say “no more surprises.” Not only must Trump’s pick for ambassador, retired Gen. John Abizaid, have access to the king and the crown prince when needed, but we also want to establish a channel for high-level, regular policy discussions — every three months the secretaries of state and defense should meet with the crown prince, foreign minister and members of the royal court to discuss issues and concerns.
Beyond this, it is time to correct misguided policies that make it harder to counter Iran’s aggressive policies in the region. The president should say we will make a proposal to resolve the Saudi imbroglio with Qatar and that we expect the Saudis to accept it. Similarly, on Yemen it is not enough to call for a cease-fire based on the Houthis stopping first; the Saudis need to unilaterally declare a cease-fire for two weeks and say it will be extended indefinitely if the Houthis observe it. That way the humanitarian crisis can be eased, and a political process might have a chance. If the Houthis fail to reciprocate, the onus could be legitimately put on them and their Iranian backers.
The Khashoggi killing and the shifting Saudi stories have been a boon for the Iranians (and Turkey), diverting attention from their misdeeds and putting Saudi Arabia on the defensive. If the kingdom wants to alter that reality, the crown prince needs to shift his policy on dissidents, accept responsibility and change the policy and the people around him. He also needs to show again his commitment to reform and social transformation.
To that end, the administration should urge several steps: Release the imprisoned female activists, end the guardian rules for women, and change the Saudi textbooks that, as a recent Anti-Defamation League study shows, continue to demonize Jews and Christians. It’s hard to take seriously the crown prince’s claim that he’s creating a knowledge-based society when schoolbooks continue to teach dangerous shibboleths.
None of this will undo Saudi responsibility for Khashoggi’s death. But taken together, these actions would impose consequences for his murder and likely alter objectionable Saudi policies — and those are aims worth pursuing.