(Denver, Colorado) — Whither the U.S.-Saudi alliance?
A ferocious debate over this question is raging in Washington at this very moment, and the stakes are high.
On on side of the debate are many in the media, along with numerous former advisors to President Barack Obama. They have never liked how close Washington has been with Riyadh and they are freshly determined to smash the Saudis in the mouth because of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist.
Most of these voices had no problem with President Obama cutting a nuclear deal with Iran — one of America’s most dangerous enemies and certainly the worst terrorist state on the planet. Despite Iran’s history of murdering thousands of their own people and others throughout the Middle East (now especially in Syria and Yemen), these voices saw no problem with providing the ayatollahs with $150 billion in cash, removing economic sanctions from Iran, or legitimizing Tehran’s previously illegal enrichment of uranium. They never once during the process seriously tried to require Iran to stop funding terrorism, building longer range missiles, or sowing seeds of revolution and destruction throughout the Middle East. But the Saudis, oh the Saudis, these folks claim, these are the blood-thirsty despots who really need to be punished.
What’s more, a growing number of Republicans on Capitol Hill are also ready to impose severe punishments on the entire Saudi government over the Khashoggi affair. Some are calling into question the nature of the alliance itself.
On the other side of the debate are those who fully agree that the Khashoggi murder was despicable and must be punished, but are calling for cooler heads to prevail when it comes to upending American policy in the Gulf region. They make the case that we need the Saudis to help us counter Iran and Russia in the Middle East, to help us fight the Radicals like al Qaeda, ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, to keep oil flowing, and hopefully to advance Arab-Israeli peace.
They make the case that the 33 year-old Saudi Crown Prince is making bold, serious, and important reforms at home, and wants to work more closely with the U.S. and the West. Yes, he has made mistakes, even serious ones. But he should be helped, coached, encouraged, not cut loose.
What’s more, these voices caution that punishing the entire Saudi government — rather than targeting the operatives responsible for the crime — would be a serious mistake, one that could rupture the alliance. Some worry that if Washington hits the Saudis too hard, this could drive Riyadh into the waiting (eager) arms of Vladimir Putin and the Russians.
Putin is headed to the G20 summit in Argentina and plans to meet with the Saudi delegation. He would absolutely love to flip Riyadh from the American camp into the Russian orbit. I don’t believe Saudi King Salman or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) are inclined at the moment to switch sides to the Kremlin. But I fully expect Putin to make a very tempting offer. And who knows where the king and his son might wind up if most of Washington loses focus on U.S. national security interests in the region, in addition to our enormously important human rights concerns.
At the moment, the anti-MBS/anti-Saudi faction is the loudest. Their articles, interviews and speeches are everywhere.
It’s tougher for the average reader or viewer to find articles and statements by those who want to punish those responsible for the murder of Khashoggi but who also want to maintain or even strengthen the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
Here are a few worth reading, including the statement by President Trump just before Thanksgiving.
I found particularly insightful the columns by Elliott Abrams and William McGurn. Both urge President Trump to send a retired senior American statesman who is liked and trusted by the Saudis — perhaps former Secretary of State James Baker, or former V.P. Dick Cheney — to meet with MBS in Riyadh. They recommend such a statesman quietly recommend big, specific, immediate reforms MBS should make that would signal to the world just how serious he is about taking the kingdom in a different, better, more positive direction.
Interestingly, both cite the example of former President Nixon discreetly and very effectively communicating with the Chinese leadership in Beijing after the Tiananmen Square, warning them — as a long-time trusted friend — that the massacre was a huge deal and they simply could not proceed with their “business as usual” approach. First, Nixon personally traveled to Beijing to have off-the-record talks with the most senior leaders. Second, Nixon sent a follow up letter that was respectful, frank and specific — a letter that was kept secret for decades. Abrams and McGurn argue Nixon’s approach worked, helping both President George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton reengage with China on more positive terms for both countries, while not ignoring the atrocities that had been committed.
I commend both articles to your attention.
- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “The U.S.-Saudi partnership is vital — We don’t condone Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. But the kingdom is a powerful force for Mideast stability.“ (op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal)
- Elliott Abrams: “More Realpolitik, Please — Trump is right: We should not break with Saudi Arabia. But we should demand a higher price for our support.”(column published by National Review Online)
- William McGurn: “Nixon, Now More Than Ever — Trump could use an elder statesman to tell the Saudis what they need to hear.” (op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal)
- Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia. (The White House)
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