The death of Saudi national and Washington Post opinion writer Jamal Khashoggi should not result in a change in the U.S.-Saudi alliance. The United States shouldn’t even formally inflict a severe punishment on the Saudi government. Devising a calibrated, proportional response that preserves the strength of the U.S.-Saudi alliance is both wise and moral.
After changing its story a few times, the Saudi government has finally admitted that Khashoggi died at the hands of Saudi officials in a Saudi consulate in Turkey. The Saudis also said 18 individuals, including senior ranking officials, will be held accountable for what they say was an operation that was not ordered by the young crown prince Mohammed bin Salman but went awry and resulted in Khashoggi’s death.
The media, led by The Washington Post, has provided significant coverage of the matter. The picture media reports paint of the Saudis is cruel and sociopathic. The truth is, Saudi Arabia is often cruel and does not tolerate dissent. The young crown prince has ordered extrajudicial killings and rounded up and jailed or killed many of his enemies. Saudi citizens who convert to faiths outside of Islam are guilty of capital crimes, women are abused without anywhere near the legal protections of men, and I could go on.
But, despite the Saudi government’s lack of some of the principles of justice Americans hold dear, the Turkish government has provided no proof to contradict Saudi claims that the death of the Saudi national was an accident. And the flurry of media reporting has largely been sourced by anonymous Turkish individuals.
Remember that Turkey, NATO ally or not, has a dismal human rights record, has jailed hundreds of journalists, and has a state-run media known for its deceptions and fabrications. Most importantly, Turkey’s president and Iran ally, Recep Tayyip Erdogen, would like nothing more than for the United States to end its alliance with Saudi Arabia, while gaining favor with the United States for looking like a defender of a Washington Post columnist.
Contrast this picture of the Saudi hit squad with the image American media has painted of Khashoggi, who undoubtedly suffered an unjust fate at the hands of Saudi officials, as a sort of representative of the free press — a “journalist,” a “liberal reformer,” and “democracy promoter” entitled to be treated by the U.S. government as if he was an American citizen, because he lived in the United States and wrote for The Washington Post.
No doubt he was a political enemy of the crown prince, which is why he fled to the United States last year to live in peace. He held beliefs critical of the Saudi government and supportive of terrorist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, and wanted to write in peace about such topics as the necessity of embracing, rather than cracking down on, Islamists, and the need for the United States to support the Muslim Brotherhood. His most recent article lauding the Muslim Brotherhood was published in The Washington Post in August.
Because of these two extreme characterizations — “a ghoulish assassination squad of barbaric Saudis torturing and murdering a Washington Post journalist who was a champion of free press” — emotions are whipped into a frenzy. Congressmen, journalists, and other media personalities demand justice and feel righteous in their anger, and their anger is fueling their insistence that the United States take drastic measures against the Saudi government.
If justice is to be had, if the moral decision is to be made about how the United States ought to respond, cooler heads must prevail. Insisting that one must belong to a school of thought that prioritizes either morality or realism is a false choice. It is a false choice in the individual lives of human beings and it’s a false choice in matters of foreign policy. There is no foreign policy action or inaction void of a moral decision or without moral consequence. None.
Every action the United States takes is based on a complex set of considerations about what is right and good. So those analysts who argue that we must take a colder, more transactional, amoral approach to foreign policy are arguing in favor of actions that have moral consequence, or more likely, are immoral. Likewise, those banging their fists on the table and shouting “Justice for Khashoggi!” could be rushing headlong into catastrophe that only creates greater injustice.
Consider that the United States’ strategic partnership with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has arguably never been more productive. The young prince bin Salman has committed to helping the Muslim nation that contains both Mecca and Medina move towards a more just society and has already implemented modest but meaningful reforms. Moreover, he has aided in Saudi’s recent softening of its stance towards Israel, stating that he believes the Jewish people have a “right to their own land.”
None of this should be overstated, and hopefulness for the young prince to make good on his commitments should be tempered. But if the prince can be encouraged to make reforms incrementally and with greater prudence and consistency, it could portend positive developments not only for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but also for the larger Muslim world.
Saudi Arabia is famously the largest customer of American foreign military sales. Unfortunately, this relationship is frequently disparaged as based on greed and nothing more. No doubt American companies and therefore plenty of Americans benefit directly from selling expensive military equipment and weapons to other nations. But the primary reason that the United States invests so heavily in Saudi Arabia is because of its strategic importance.
Saudi Arabia is a crucial counterweight to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran is a sworn enemy of the United States and Israel. It is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq, and for maiming countless other American warfighters in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iran regime oppresses its own people and fails to invest in its own economy, because it has prioritized funding Bashar al Assad’s brutal civil war in Syria, enabling him to repeatedly use chemical weapons on his own people.
Iran is a constant destabilizing force, seeking to undermine the governments of sovereign nations like Iraq and Yemen. Although Saudi rightly receives flak for its atrocious (and in many cases, avoidable) civilian casualties in Yemen, that war only exists because Iran is funding and arming the Houthi rebels. It is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, in which Iran is the aggressor and Saudi is the defender. Last, and certainly not least, Iran continues to fund and export terrorism in the Middle East and Europe.
It is not too strong to say Saudi Arabia is our most important strategic partner in mitigating and rolling back Iran’s power and malign activities. While true that the United States is becoming energy independent, it is still inextricably tied to the global market and our Asian allies remain reliant on Golf petroleum. The stability and diversification of the energy market is a critical factor in matters of war and peace. Iran has repeatedly brandished its ability to affect the energy market by, for example, threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz.
Saudi Arabia leads the Gulf coalition in maritime security to keep critical shipping lanes open. And should the United States and allies like Saudi Arabia lose control of the security of those shipping lanes, countries like Iran and its increasingly bold partners — large nuclear powers China and Russia — would be greatly empowered to more effectively blackmail and coerce the United States and our allies.
Every government of every sovereign nation is primarily responsible for the care of its own people. The United States government must weigh all of the above in order to determine what is the just thing to do for its own citizens first, and also what effect its actions will have on its allies, and even the impact on humanity in general.
Damaging the U.S.-Saudi alliance will not decrease human suffering, and will not increase justice or peace and stability for Americans or for our allies. Heavy sanctions on the Saudi government, ending arms sales and military cooperation with Saudi, or demanding the House of Saud remove bin Salman would play right into the hands of America’s enemies. Doing the moral thing does not require the United States to advantage those who seek to harm us.
Instead, once as many facts can be concluded as possible (which will be quite difficult if Turkey can’t or won’t provide evidence that contradicts the Saudi version of what happened), the United States should publicly condemn the extrajudicial killing of the Saudi dissident in the Saudi consulate. This should, ideally, happen at the highest levels. President Trump or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should make clear that the United States encourages all nations to make room for political dissent, to work towards more just judicial proceedings, and to respect the dignity of its citizens. Perhaps the United States can impose targeted sanctions against specific Saudi officials if they are found to have ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
Then, the United States should be much more intentional about privately encouraging and supporting reforms inside Saudi Arabia and the way they fight wars abroad. Partnering with Saudi Arabia is not “choosing among lesser evils.” Partnering with Saudi Arabia is about doing the most good, and the unjust killing of a Saudi national does not change that.