If Saudi Arabia wants to act like Iran, eventually America and the world will be forced to treat it as such.
When it comes to Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post columnist who has been missing since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week, we remain in the allegation-and-denial phase. The Turkish police allege murder, and the Saudi government denies foul play.
As we wait for more information, it’s best to prepare for the worst. The Turkish government has provided specifics and evidence — such as video of Khashoggi entering the consulate and the names of 15 Saudi agents that it says flew to Istanbul in pursuit of him. The Saudis have issued blanket denials.
And even though the Turks have done the same kind of thing, it also fits a pattern for the Saudis under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. For more than a year, he has been purging his critics. Wealthy members of the royal family have had their assets confiscated. Others have died in mysterious helicopter crashes. As Reporters Without Borders has documented, at least 15 Saudi journalists and bloggers have been arrested or disappeared since September 2017.
That’s not unusual in autocratic states. But if the Saudis abducted or murdered Khashoggi in Turkey, it crosses another line. It’s the kind of sinister statecraft to be expected from Russia, North Korea and Iran — not from a U.S. ally.
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So if the Saudis did this, what should the U.S. do about it? One approach would be a slap on the wrist. Have an assistant secretary of state make a speech about how terrible this is without threatening any substantive repercussions. The Saudis are on the front lines of a regional war with Iran, after all, and the U.S. can’t risk weakening its side in the conflict. No one wants the Houthis and their Iranian patrons to control Yemen’s Port of Aden. As an early Trump administration memo put it: “Allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries.”
Another strategy would be to recognize that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have divergent interests and downgrade the relationship. Recall the U.S. ambassador, support a resolution condemning its actions at the United Nations and suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Maybe the president could even give a speech about the venality of this crime. America cannot allow this kind of lawlessness to become normalized.
If other nations are to take the liberal world order seriously, then the anchor of that system — the U.S. — must punish the outliers, friend and foe alike. Besides, the Saudi-led war in Yemen has been waged at a horrendous human cost. Why deepen ties with a despot who disappears reporters and bombs civilians?
There are problems with both tacks. A slap on the wrist lets the Saudis off too easily. Indeed, the relatively muted response from the Trump administration to Prince Mohammed’s purges up to now may have led his government to believe it could get away with it.
There is also a deeper problem with the slap on the wrist. It lets the Saudis believe the U.S. needs them more than they need us. It effectively puts the Saudis in control of the alliance, despite the fact that they are a much weaker power. As Robert Kagan told me in an interview this week: “Unless are you willing to punish them for this misbehavior, then they own you.”
What about the more severe response? Saudi Arabia would definitely get the message — and other U.S. allies would understand there are consequences if America recalled its ambassador and supported a U.N. resolution. But that risks undermining Prince Mohammed, and the U.S. has an interest in his success with promised reforms like greater women’s equality, a more open economy and a less radical clergy. What’s more, less U.S. military engagement in Yemen will likely lead to more civilian casualties.
Which course it chooses will say a lot about the Trump administration’s values. The first priority for U.S. officials should be to join the rest of the world in demanding a full accounting of what happened in Istanbul.
In the meantime, President Donald Trump should suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. He should also denounce the Saudis in public and threaten them with the more severe options in private. Finally, the State Department should investigate all cases of missing and detained journalists and dissidents in Saudi Arabia and release the results to the public.
Trump can do all this while also making it clear that the U.S. remains committed to helping its allies counter Iran in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. None of those allies, however, is indispensable. And if Saudi Arabia wants to act like Iran, eventually America and the world will be forced to treat it as such.