SAUDI ARABIA, so far, has tried bluster and bullying to silence the questions about journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago Tuesday. On Sunday, a regime statement threatened to “respond with a larger action” to any sanction stemming from the case; Saudi-owned media floated such steps as cutting back oil production, buying arms from Russia and holding back counterterrorism intelligence. On Monday, King Salman told President Trump in a phone call that he “denies any knowledge of what took place,” according to Mr. Trump, who added “it sounded to me like maybe it could have been rogue killers.”
That preposterous suggestion may have anticipated a change in the Saudi story; CNN reported that the regime was preparing to admit that Mr. Khashoggi died in an interrogation gone wrong. If so, there must be consequences not just for those who supposedly erred in killing the journalist but also for whomever ordered the illegal operation in the first place. U.S. intelligence intercepts suggest the order came from Mohammed bin Salman, the reckless crown prince whose excesses had been criticized by Mr. Khashoggi in columns for The Post.
We expect to learn more soon: Whatever happened to Mr. Khashoggi appears to have been recorded on video or audiotape. In the meantime, it’s worth considering just how much the United States might have to lose if its relationship with Saudi Arabia ruptured. What about that oil, and the $110 billion in arms purchases Mr. Trump keeps talking about? What about the war on terrorism?
Start with the oil. Saudi Arabia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, supplied 9 percent of U.S. petroleum imports in 2017, or about 960,000 barrels a day. But thanks to the shale revolution, the United States is essentially energy independent: It, not Saudi Arabia, is now the world’s largest crude-oil producer. Last year, U.S. daily oil exports averaged 6.38 million barrels, or nearly seven times the Saudi imports. If the Saudis cut back production or boycotted the United States, they could temporarily drive up prices, but the beneficiaries would be U.S. shale companies, which over time would fill the gap — and deal a devastating blow to the Saudi oil industry.
As for arms sales, someone needs to brief Mr. Trump on the actual results of the promises made to him when he visited Riyadh last year. As Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution sums it up, “The Saudis have not concluded a single major arms deal with Washington on Trump’s watch.” Moreover, an end to supplies of U.S. spare parts and technical support, something Russia cannot provide, would quickly ground the Saudi air force. That would have the welcome effect of ending a bloody bombing campaign in Yemen that a U.N. investigation concluded was probably responsible for war crimes.
Saudi Arabia does supply the United States with counterterrorism intelligence. But as Andrew Miller of the Project on Middle East Democracy points out, stopping it “would be a colossal error . . . when there’s already a strong perception in Congress and with Americans that Saudi Arabia has fueled extremism.” Mr. Miller notes that a law passed by Congress in 2016 opens the way for civil suits against the Saudi government for any terrorist acts it enables.
The reality is that Saudi Arabia, which, as Mr. Trump himself has crudely pointed out, would not survive without U.S. security support, has everything to lose from a break in relations, while the United States no longer needs the kingdom as much as it once did. Mr. Trump has overvalued the relationship and encouraged Saudi leaders to believe they can behave recklessly and even criminally without consequence. Whatever the outcome of the Khashoggi case, a fundamental reshaping of the relationship — mandated by Congress, if necessary — is imperative.