Does the “lesser of two evils” principle apply when the most fundamental of American values — freedom of the press—comes under assault? Are Middle Eastern geopolitics worth overlooking a heinous crime? Do the end results of cooperating with our so-called ally justify the means? Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, which the CIA and Turkish intelligence agencies have traced directly to the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, leaves American policymakers with no easy answers.
Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi journalist and a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist, was reportedly targeted due to his anti-government rhetoric. In self-imposed exile since 2017, Khashoggi made a living lambasting Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy maneuvers and calling for the freedom of expression and gender equality in the hermetic kingdom. Utilizing the global bully pulpit that is Western media, Khashoggi even went so far as to repeatedly attack the crown prince by name, blaming him for suppressing dissent, arresting reform-seeking female activists, and “advancing a new form of radicalism.”
In light of Khashoggi’s assassination, many have proposed directing a full arsenal of America’s socio-political and economic weapons towards disciplining Saudi Arabia. National security expert Max Boot argued the US does not need to live with Mohammed bin Salman, cautioning the foreign policy establishment against the “he may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.” ideology. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has since softened his tone, suggested we should “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.”
In a recent interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” President Trump observed that it would be “foolish” to punish Saudi Arabia by cancelling arms deals with the kingdom. Hailed as a critical counterbalance to the Iranian influence and a significant expansion of US-Saudi relations, the said deal entails $350 billion in tanks, combat ships, radar, and cyber technology purchases over 10 years. Abandoning the agreement augurs to be a boon to Russian and Chinese defense manufacturers.
Just as other actors are all but guaranteed to fill the arms supply void left behind by the US, a rupture of ties with Saudi Arabia would embolden a ménage of hostile forces to replace American influence in the Middle East. The US-Saudi alliance is, after all, one of the critical sustaining pillars of that influence. Putin’s Russia, leveraging its newfound success in Syria and strong ties with Iran, already rivals American standing in the region. Sacrificing ties with Saudi Arabia only stands to complicate matters further.
Then there is Yemen’s devastating civil war between Saudi-backed President Hadi and Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Continued US partnership with Saudi Arabia is critical to ensuring that Yemen does not become another Lebanon, which Iran is known to have used as a base for training terrorists, projecting influence into Palestine, and funding Hezbollah and related groups.
Unfortunately, the geopolitical chessboard rewards pragmatism over idealism. Allying with Joseph Stalin during WWII might have been an affront to America’s self-proclaimed commitment to freedom and human dignity… and yet, Uncle Sam’s pact with the devil was likely the only way of rolling back an even greater threat posed by Nazi Germany.
There can be little doubt that Saudi Arabia is ruled by a ruthless, power-hungry regime that values nothing and no one above its survival. Crown Prince bin Salman and his cronies should be called out for what they are by independent human rights organizations, activists, and reformers. However, as far as strategic relationship is concerned, realpolitik dictates that US-Saudi partnership remains the most favorable option.