WASHINGTON NEEDS to have a thorough debate about Saudi Arabia and whether the bilateral relationship as it now stands serves U.S. interests. That raises a difficult question: Is it possible to have an honest discussion when so many American experts are, in one way or another, on the Saudi payroll?
Many countries spend heavily to influence Congress or U.S. public opinion, but the Saudi operation dwarfs most of them. In the decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals, the regime spent more than $100 million to rebuild its image here, according to Ben Freeman of the Center for International Policy. Last year alone it spent $27.3 million on lobbyists and consultants, according to public records; more than 200 people have registered as Saudi agents.
Prominent Washington think tanks, including the Middle East Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have accepted millions in Saudi money; so have universities, museums and other cultural organizations. U.S. financial firms are brokering big deals for the Saudi government, which is effectively controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Members of Congress or journalists looking for expert advice on Saudi Arabia might typically turn to former ambassadors or former chiefs of the Pentagon’s Central Command. But a number of them are connected to those think tanks or financial firms. According to Mr. Freeman, lobbyists made nearly $400,000 in campaign contributions last year to Senate and House members they contacted on behalf of the Saudis; in 11 cases, the contributions were made on the same day as the contact.
One of those lobbyists is Norm Coleman, a former Republican senator. He told The Post that “the relationship with Saudi Arabia is critically important, and its partnership in confronting the Iranian threat is critical for U.S. security.” That’s an oft-made and legitimate argument. But do those who hear it take into account the fact that Mr. Coleman is paid to represent Saudi rather than U.S. interests?
So far, all the influence-buying has not protected the regime from the powerful backlash to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Four lobbying firms and at least one think tank have cut their ties with the Saudis. Most top U.S. executives canceled their participation in a major investment conference in Riyadh this week — including some who have major Saudi investors or deals. There has been almost no public dissent from a bipartisan congressional chorus casting doubt on the credibility of the regime’s explanation of the Khashoggi murder and calling for sanctions.
Over time, however, the Saudi lobby will seek to reassert itself, just as it did after 9/11. That will confront those former senators, ambassadors and generals with a critical choice: Can they still argue the Saudi case in good faith?
In the long run, a total break in relations would not serve anyone’s interest. But future cooperation ought to depend on whether there is full accountability for Mr. Khashoggi’s murder — including the identification and punishment of every perpetrator. By pushing for such accountability now, the Saudis’ Washington advocates would best serve the alliance — while helping to preserve their own integrity.