It's time to re-examine Saudi ties

By Bonnie Kristian

“When I speak of the fear, intimidation, arrests, and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds, and then I tell you that I'm from Saudi Arabia, are you surprised?” journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident, asked in a 2017 column for The Washington Post.

The answer he anticipated was a resounding “no,” for Saudi Arabia’s reputation for oppression is exceeded only by the sheen of its black gold. Khashoggi himself appears to be Riyadh’s latest victim, allegedly tortured, murdered (per some reports, accidentally), and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

You might think such an outrage would prompt a concrete response from Washington, the House of Saud’s most powerful ally. So far, you would be wrong. President Trump said on 60 Minutes Sunday he would be “very upset and angry” if Khashoggi’s blood is indeed on Riyadh’s hands. Some “severe punishment” would be in order, the president announced—but not the obvious choice. Not cutting off arms sales to a dictatorial monarchy that destabilizes the Middle East and seems to have proven, yet again, its utter disregard for human rights.

“They are ordering military equipment,” Trump said. “Everybody in the world wanted that order. Russia wanted it. China wanted it. We wanted it. We got it.” We did—but surely there are scenarios in which we would not want it anymore. Let me propose a simple one: when maintaining close ties between Washington and Riyadh is not helping U.S. interests, and when those ties indefensibly legitimize a cruel regime responsible for chaos and cruelty in its own territory and beyond.

The reality is a reexamination of U.S.-Saudi relations was overdue long before Khashoggi went missing, as the man himself well knew. “Saudi Arabia must face the damage from the past three-plus years of war in Yemen,” he wrote for the Post just last month. “The conflict has soured the kingdom’s relations with the international community, affected regional security dynamics, and harmed its reputation in the Islamic world.” It has also embroiled the United States—which supports the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen’s civil war—in a conflict that has subjected innocent civilians to unspeakable suffering and fostered a safe haven for terrorists.

Within three months, absent some move toward peace, Yemen could be plunged into the “worst famine in 100 years,” the United Nations warned Monday. “[W]e are looking at 12 to 13 million innocent civilians who are at risk of dying from the lack of food.” Images from Yemeni hospitals show skeletal toddlers, their faces strangely old, attended by grandparents who are starving too. Saudi airstrikes, executed with American intelligence, fuel, and weapons have targeted weddings and funerals, medical facilities and school buses. Those who escape the bombs face currency collapse, a raging cholera epidemic, and a steady drumbeat of death by starvation and preventable disease.

The strategic disadvantage of Washington’s role in Yemen is glaring, too. This is primarily a local conflict, unconnected to U.S. security. Protected by the globe’s most powerful military, largest moat, and friendliest neighbors, Americans will not be significantly affected by who comes to power in this small, poor, distant nation. We could, however, face a threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP. The Gulf branch of the terrorist organization has used the distraction furnished by U.S.-Saudi intervention to flourish. And unlike the Houthi rebels the Saudi coalition fights, AQAP is interested in 9/11-style attacks in Europe and the United States. Washington’s counterproductive intervention in Yemen has thus managed to make America less secure.

“One can understand that the practice of geopolitics means that you don’t always get to choose your allies,” writes Michael Brendan Dougherty at National Review. “And a superpower cannot conduct its business by dealing only with nations like Switzerland and Liechtenstein.” Saudi Arabia has provided real benefits to the United States, he argues, yet still “America really must come to grips with the costs” of this relationship.

The costs are too high for things to remain as they are. Washington’s ties to Riyadh are actively harming U.S. security in Yemen and contributing to the most acute humanitarian crisis on the planet. If Khashoggi did indeed die in that embassy—as all appearances presently suggest—this relationship will also strain our connection to Turkey, a NATO ally, and further link us to the very sort of abuses whose condemnation is enshrined in our Bill of Rights.

If the Trump administration will not set about substantially changing that relationship (and recent history suggests it will not), Congress must act. Putting an end to arms sales is the first step, and it already has bipartisan support in the Senate. Washington’s habit of turning a blind eye to Saudi malfeasance has never been principled or prudent. The crisis in Yemen and the apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi make it inexcusable.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Times on October 19, 2018. Read more HERE.