Senators emerged from a closed-door briefing with the CIA director on Tuesday and accused the Saudi crown prince of complicity in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In some of their strongest accusations to date, lawmakers said evidence presented by the U.S. spy agency overwhelmingly pointed to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the assassination.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said while there was no smoking gun, there was a “smoking saw,” referring to the bone saw that investigators have said was used to dismember Khashoggi after he was killed by a team of agents from Saudi Arabia in that country’s consulate in Istanbul in October.
Given the leaks to the media — an undesirable, but understandable, way for the intelligence community and those seeking to sanction the Saudi regime to get the word out — this hardly comes as a surprise. It is, however, noteworthy that Graham, the most able Trump ally on foreign policy, won’t swallow the Kool-Aid on this one. (Meanwhile Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) balked because only a few senators were briefed, though it is equally untenable to brief every lawmaker — at least until such time as they can demonstrate they won’t leak.)
What is remarkable is that the administration expected Republicans to overlook the unassailable proof of the crown prince’s complicity. Apparently the evidence was so damning that Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, observed of the crown prince, who is commonly known as MBS: “If he was in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes. Guilty.” President Trump has become so accustomed to telling Republicans to believe him, instead of their lying eyes and ears, that he seriously misjudged the responses of both parties.
The administration’s policy of business as normal is crumbling. And that’s a good thing, for the credibility of the United States, for human rights and even (ironically) for our Iran policy.
Former diplomats Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolosky write: “Saudi Arabia is not a U.S. ally no matter how many times the president, [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and other senior administration officials affirm it.” They explain: “Unlike traditional allies, such as Britain, Canada, France or Australia, the Saudis don’t share fundamental American values: respect for human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. At best, they are an occasional and often reluctant, halfhearted security partner and their interests, particularly under the influence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman . . . only episodically align with ours.”
They make a powerful case that the Saudis are a source of instability in the region (see Yemen) and a less-than-effective surrogate against Iran. Miller and Sokolosky conclude:
Saudi Arabia simply doesn’t matter as much to the U.S. as it did in decades past. The oil-for-security bargain is coming apart: We are far less dependent on Saudi oil, and they no longer trust the U.S. for their security. The relationship is worth preserving, if only because an unstable Saudi Arabia or its collapse would deal a big blow to global prosperity, upset the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, and give free rein to Sunni jihadists and Iran. The U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism relationship also benefits American security.
But by far the biggest danger to Saudi Arabia is itself. MBS’ repressive policies at home and his misadventures abroad have made Saudi Arabia a lot less stable, increased Iranian opportunities for troublemaking and undermined U.S. interests and influence. The Trump administration seems clueless and paralyzed. Right now, we have a bizarre role reversal: The Saudis are acting as if they’re the senior partner in the relationship—and have convinced Trump that the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia more than it needs the U.S.
From all this, it should follow that we need to rebalance our relationship with the Saudi regime. We should cease support for the war in Yemen, which has been a humanitarian nightmare. We should suspend arms sales, but sketch out the institutional changes in Saudi Arabia that would be conducive to improved relations. And we would should sanction all those responsible under the Magnitsky Act, making clear that these are individuals who are now banned from the United States and are subject to having their assets frozen. In other words, if the Saudis prefer a change in leadership, it would remove these sanctions as a source of friction between the parties.
The Trumpists have never grasped that the United States’ strategic interests cannot be divorced from our values. They go hand in hand. The United States cannot simply wish away the atrocities of other nations and pretend our interests are shared. The Senate would be wise to remember this episode as it proceeds with necessary oversight in the new Congress.
Trump and Pompeo have lost all credibility on this, refusing to recognize their policy was untenable internationally and domestically. For now then, it is best to let Congress grab the wheel and steer U.S.-Saudi relations to a more realistic course.