Global Opinions

A missed chance to reshape our relationship with Saudi Arabia

(Ann Kiernan for The Washington Post)

The U.S. government missed an unique opportunity to reshape our long and complicated relationship with Saudi Arabia. All President Trump had to do was hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for the brutal murder of journalist and Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi two years ago. But Trump refused to do so, and U.S. interests and the Saudi people will pay a heavy price because of it.

Lessening our reliance on Saudi Arabia has quietly been a strategic priority for many in the U.S. foreign policy community since 9/11, but a constant stream of Saudi money flowing into Washington has long obscured that goal. Our decreasing appetite for Middle Eastern oil, however, kept the prospect of a more balanced relationship tenable. Now there is literally no resource, natural or strategic, that we need from Saudi Arabia that can’t be sourced somewhere else.

But Trump’s transactional approach to every matter made it obvious he had no interest in limiting Saudi influence in Washington. (Remember the glowing orb?) Khashoggi’s gruesome killing and the subsequent sloppy coverup created a window to scrutinize this alliance anew. Trump not only missed it, we now know he actively tried to subvert it.

The depravity of luring an exiled dissident to a third country to murder him inside a consulate shocked the world. Khashoggi was a well-respected journalist with deep relationships in media and policy circles. But as horrific details emerged and official Saudi denials of culpability became more farcical, the story took on a different significance, begging the question: Is Saudi Arabia an ally the United States can trust?

With King Salman’s health failing, MBS could ascend to the throne as a very young man. If the impunity of his unpardonable crime is allowed to continue, future U.S. administrations will have decades to regret not punishing him.

There has been a sustained international campaign calling for justice, weakening the royal thug’s standing around the world. These efforts have effectively undermined MBS’s attempts to whitewash the kingdom’s history of abusing power that preceded him and put to rest any debate of whether he’s a credible reformer.

Outside the administration, there are still key American political figures who believe there must be justice — even among Trump’s most reliable enablers.

“This gruesome episode is not exactly the change one was hoping for when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s behavior,” Sen. Lindsey O. Graham wrote in a series of tweets in September, following the announcement of very soft verdicts in the Saudi trial of supposed defendants in the Khashoggi murder case. “I strongly believe that my criticism of these trials is widely shared by members of the Senate in both parties.”

Trump, however, has learned nothing from the horrific saga. Khashoggi’s murder confronted the U.S. establishment with moral dilemmas that could have reset Middle East policies long in need of an overhaul.

In his new book “Rage,” Bob Woodward writes that Trump deemed his handling of the public outcry over Khashoggi’s murder a success, because he was able to help MBS evade justice.

“I saved his ass,” Trump told Woodward. “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.”

And as if there were any doubt over why he did so, Trump explains himself further.

“He (MBS) says very strongly that he didn’t do it,” Trump said. “Bob, they spent $400 billion over a fairly short period of time.”

It’s unclear how much Saudi Arabia has actually spent, but the point is that, for Trump, money matters more than human life. Most of what was spent was used to purchase weapons, supplying an international pariah with one of the world’s biggest and most advanced arsenals.

Perhaps our foreign relations have always been guided by transactions, but it’s never so plainly stated by a U.S. president.

“We can thank Trump for forcing this clarity on us. There’s a transparency and nakedness that didn’t exist before,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of the new group Democracy for the Arab World Now told me. The group, known as DAWN, was inspired by Khashoggi’s vision.

When MBS arrived on the scene, many observers were overly optimistic about the prospects of his promised reforms to Saudi Arabia. They easily ignored the pointless and catastrophic war he has waged on Yemen. They have also looked past the growing list of human rights abuses that have become more egregious on his watch.

Now that we know the predictions of modern reform were wrong, the United States must correct course. We must push to hold MBS accountable — not only because it is the correct and moral thing to do, but also because it could ensure that we don’t remain entangled and dependent on a despotic leader motivated by a blind and violent thirst for power. That remains the ultimate threat to our interests and national security.

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