Mounting evidence that Saudi Arabia is behind the disappearance of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi has laid bare the risks of a US Middle East policy aligned closely with Riyadh.
From the war in Yemen to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Washington has invested heavily in a relationship built largely on the personal bond between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. With Prince Mohammed widely suspected of having ordered Khashoggi’s murder inside a diplomatic facility on NATO soil, that strategy is now in jeopardy.
Many critics have argued that President Donald Trump’s silence on human rights abuses in the Gulf and around the world “emboldened” the prince’s worst impulses — notably in an editorial in The Washington Post where Khashoggi had been an opinion columnist during his exile in the United States. Others point to Trump’s awe at his grandiose reception in Riyadh, his first foreign trip, as well as his family business’ opaque deals with Saudi Arabia as leaving the impression — unwittingly or not — that the kingdom could act with impunity.
“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia,” Trump tweeted in November as Prince Mohammed, often referred to as MBS, was locking up alleged tax dodgers (and potential rivals) in the Ritz Carlton. “They know exactly what they are doing.”
Beyond the personalities involved, however, the Khashoggi affair also raises questions about US Middle East policy writ large. Washington now champions the stability of the Sunni Gulf powers in the face of internal and external threats, real and perceived, above all else, largely deferring to the region’s autocrats as to how they want to deal with them.
“The MBS circus is the obvious outcome of a bipartisan consensus to push Saudi/UAE (United Arab Emirates) to ‘take responsibility’ in their own neighborhood,” Tobias Schneider, a research fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, tweeted in disagreement with The Washington Post editorial arguing Trump’s singular culpability.
UAE Ambassador to the United States Youssef al-Otaiba articulated that line of thinking plainly at the Aspen Security Conference last July. Bristling at the growing bipartisan frustration over the Saudi/UAE-led coalition battling the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, Otaiba tore into the Gulf’s US critics.
“For the last 10 years, there's a debate that's been going on in this country that [the] US doesn't want to get more involved, that there's still a hangover from Iraq and Afghanistan,” Otaiba said. “When we hear that, it means we need to do things on our own. … You can't then come to us and say, well we don't want you to do this in Yemen. ... You can't have it both ways.”
That sense that the Gulf states have carte blanche to act as they see fit has only accelerated over the past two years, said Jeffrey Prescott, a former senior director on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.
It’s a “natural outgrowth of a policy toward Saudi Arabia — and the Gulf region in general — that [amounts to] an unqualified green light from the administration from the very beginning,” said Prescott, who now heads National Security Action, an advocacy group made up of several Obama administration alumni. Under Trump, Prescott told Al-Monitor, the United States has adopted a Saudi agenda “rather than pushing a US agenda with the Saudis.”
To be sure, he added, the United States isn’t just following Saudi Arabia’s lead on Iran. Rather, the Trump administration views Tehran as the sole culprit for many of the ills plaguing the Middle East, leading to the withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal.
“It’s a convergence of views that I think has already increased the risks to the United States,” Prescott said, “because of the risk of a new nuclear crisis and the potential at any time to lead to a more significant conflict.”
The move away from Obama’s policy of balancing Gulf states’ security with overtures to Iran has raised concerns that the United States is taking sides in a regional quarrel between Sunnis and Shiites. The Trump administration, however, has sidestepped the question by treating Iran as a terrorist outlaw rather than a Saudi rival.
“I don’t think the members of [the Islamic State] would share your view,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Chuck Todd of NBC’s "Meet the Press" last month when asked about the perception that the United States is taking the “Sunni” side on issue after issue. “We’ve been incredibly hard on terror from wherever it comes, whether it’s a [Shiite], whether it’s the Sunnis or whether it’s anyone else engaged in terror around the world.”
The new policy was spelled out clearly in a May 2017 memo from Brian Hook, now the State Department’s special envoy for Iran, to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The memo made the case for using human rights as a club against foes rather than a centerpiece of foreign policy across the board.
“After eight years of Obama, the US is right to bolster US allies rather than badger or abandon them,” Hook wrote in the memo obtained by Politico. “One useful guideline for a realistic and successful foreign policy is that allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries.”
For Rep. Gerry Connolly, the administration has only fueled Saudi arrogance with its approach. Khashoggi lived in the Virginia Democrat’s district before his Oct. 2 disappearance in Istanbul.
“If you're implacably against, say, Iran, to the point where you even pull the plug on the Iran nuclear agreement, you have lost all of your leverage, even with an ally,” Connolly told Al-Monitor on Wednesday after attending the kickoff rally for a Justice for Khashoggi movement put together by the journalist’s friends and ideological allies.
“[President Richard] Nixon and [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger understood the value of the duality of the China-Russia dialectic — you played one against the other, you never put all your eggs in one of those baskets,” said Connolly, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “That led to enormous concessions by both China and Russia to the United States, and it arguably led to the dampening of tensions in a sense among all three. If we simply say, it's a bipolar world and we're taking your side and not the other's, you know that you have nothing to worry about.”
Some of Khashoggi’s friends see a similar pattern at work with the United States’ tacit support for repression against nonviolent groups that are unpalatable to the West. While Washington may draw distinctions among different strands of the opposition, they argue, the Gulf monarchies view all forms of dissent as a threat to their rule.
“This is nothing new. We start with the main opposition — and in most of the cases with the dictators of the Middle East, it happens to be either the Muslim Brotherhood or an Islamist of some sort — but it doesn't stop there,” said Mongi Dhaouadi, who helped organize Wednesday’s rally. “Once we allow it to happen, once we give them the green light and look the other way, it doesn't stop there.”
Dhaouadi, a regional director of United Voices of America, a nonprofit group that promotes Muslim civic engagement, argued that for autocracies that rely on Western support and approval, critics such as Khashoggi represent in some ways a greater threat than more radical opponents.
“His mildness and his demeanor that's not threatening in any way make it in the eyes of Saudi Arabia a very dangerous threat because they see him as very effective,” Dhaouadi told Al-Monitor. “He writes for a very prominent newspaper, The Washington Post; he is invited in many circles; and because he does not take an extremely hard line in all the subjects concerning Saudi Arabia, he is being looked at as a legitimate, very credible, independent voice.”
In his conversation with Al-Monitor, Connolly bemoaned a “culture of impunity that in some ways the West has aided and abetted.”
“We've kind of allowed the Saudis to believe that they are so important and they are so strategically located that we're willing to acquiesce to almost anything they want to do so long as it preserves the stability of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he said.
But he argued that the Khashoggi case has created unique momentum for a recalibration.
“The United States is not moribund. We get to insist on abiding by certain rules of behavior. We get to assert our values,” Connolly said. “This is not a static relationship, where we just have to accept whatever they define as reality. And that's what's missing right now: The United States asserting itself and insisting we won't tolerate that kind of behavior.”