Stop confusing U.S. and Saudi interests

By Daniel DePetris

Nearly two weeks after Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Turkey, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia officially acknowledged his untimely death. Riyadh’s explanation of an interrogation gone wrong, one unauthorized by the royal family, was designed to shelter Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) of any culpability. Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the U.S. intelligence community, and Turkey are not buying Riyadh’s rationale — in a televised speech to the nation on October 23, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Khashoggi’s murder a pre-planned, “premeditated” operation hatched and carried out by Saudi intelligence officials close to the Saudi Crown Prince.

Throughout the crisis, President Trump has vacillated between threatening strong punishment on Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder and being sympathetic to the notion that senior Saudi princes may not have known about the operation beforehand. Regardless of the exact particulars of the journalist’s death or whether MbS did in fact order a state-sanctioned murder of a dissident and permanent U.S. resident, this disturbing event should be a lesson for the Trump administration on the value of the Saudi Kingdom as a U.S. partner.

The United States must stop looking at Riyadh as a strategic ally and start viewing the Kingdom for what it really is—a purveyor of extremist ideology across multiple continents, a country that feels entitled to U.S. protection but often provides Washington with half-hearted gestures of support, and one whose foreign policy has led to humanitarian crises and disaster.  

The Trump administration will attempt to draw a fine-line between retaliating for Khashoggi’s murder and maintaining a relationship it deems essential in containing Iran. It would be the height of irresponsibility, however, for the White House to give Riyadh what amounts to a slap on the wrist.  

Washington holds far better cards than the Saudis could ever hope to acquire. Saudi Arabia is entirely dependent on U.S. military training, maintenance, and spare parts in order to keep its fleet of F-15 fighter jets in the air. U.S. defense manufacturers produce the world’s most technologically sophisticated and effective weapons systems, platforms Riyadh would not be able to access if they decided to purchase more equipment from Russia or China. And while the Saudis could technically decrease crude oil production and raise gas prices at the pump for American consumers in retaliation to U.S. pressure, such a move would be unsustainable for the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia has yet to diversify its economy away from energy and its budget is financed through the sale of oil. Saudi Arabia simply can’t afford to lose market share over the long-term.

As Sen. Rand Paul astutely put it on Fox News Sunday, "The Saudis need us [the U.S.] much more than we need them.”

The White House has a number of options at its disposal to reprimand the Saudis for the murder of a journalist.

It could do what Sen. Dick Durban recommended and officially expel the Saudi ambassador back to the Kingdom, but this move would be tantamount to a symbolic expression of anger. The administration could utilize the Magnitsky Act or issue a standalone Executive order in which sanctions are placed on Saudi officials it believes are involved in Khashoggi’s murder. The White House could also enact U.S. travel restrictions on senior Saudi royals or ministers. But while these measures would be satisfying on an emotional level, it is an open question whether a few blocked bank accounts or VISA limitations would force Riyadh to engage in the comprehensive retrospection that is ultimately required; according to an analysis conducted by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, sanctions are hardly a foolproof policy response in terms of effectiveness.

If the administration wishes to get Saudi Arabia’s attention, President Trump could take a page out of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s playbook and indefinitely end arms sales to the Kingdom. In fact, the president can go further than that by calling King Salman and Crown Prince MbS and telling both that the U.S. will no longer be providing military or intelligence assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, a conflict which has decimated the country’s infrastructure and contributed to what U.N. officials have long described as the world’s most acute humanitarian emergency.

Withdrawing the U.S. from Yemen's proxy war would kill two birds with one stone—it would lift some of the stain on America’s reputation by disassociating from the war crimes that have been committed since Riyadh entered the conflict more than three years, and it allow the U.S. to leave a sectarian quandary that has no bearing whatsoever on U.S. national security. Such a decision would also be a victory for the American people, whose taxpayer dollars are being used to pay for a war that their elected representatives in Congress have never voted on.  

In sum, a U.S. departure would be a highly rewarding and relatively cost-free response. 

Saudi Arabia is not the strategic ally the Kingdom’s lobbyists claim it is. At the very best, the Saudi government is no better or worse than the rest of Arab world's governments. The Kingdom is highly repressive, authoritarian, brutal towards dissent, and adventurous to the point of reckless.  

The Khashoggi affair and Riyadh’s floundering cover up of the murder demonstrates why putting all of America’s chips in the Saudi pot is dangerous. While the U.S. should always look for opportunities to engage the Saudis on mutual problems, Washington should no longer confuse Saudi Arabia’s interests with its own.   

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on October 23, 2018. Read more HERE.