by Mitchell Plitnick
Donald Trump’s statements and actions are so blatantly awful, so thoroughly misguided and immoral, that he gets blasted from a spectrum of political commentators, from the far left all the way to Lindsey Graham (R-SC). But through all the criticism, little is said about what should be done.
The backlash against Trump’s shocking apologetics for Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has been powerful. Most Americans, including a significant number of Republicans, do not support a foreign policy based solely on cynical self-interest. They also object when the president makes it clear that if the price is right, the United States will allow an ally to get away with murder.
Trump is not, of course, without his supporters. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute and Tony Badran of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies essentially echoed Trump’s arguments.
It’s easy to assail their position. Trump’s argument is that the world’s sole superpower is somehow dependent on Saudi Arabia, that abandoning MbS would lead to a collapse of the world economy, and that strategic U.S. objectives in the region would be hopelessly compromised. Therefore, argue Trump and his supporters, it is naïve to pursue a case against MbS and better to be satisfied with the charges being brought against lower level Saudi officials.
The argument, of course, doesn’t pass even the most cursory examination.
What Does “Accountability” Mean?
Many in Congress and the mainstream media are demanding “accountability” from Saudi Arabia. They reject “business as usual” and insist that there must be justice for Khashoggi. Very well, but what does that mean in practice?
One option is to cut off support for the ongoing Saudi onslaught in Yemen. But U.S. support for that slaughter should never have started and should end immediately regardless of Khashoggi. The United States has already sent the message that it would have continued to ignore Yemen if not for Khashoggi’s murder. To break from Trump’s policies, it is imperative to break from that message as well.
Although Trump has engaged in embarrassing rhetoric, on a policy level, all he’s really done is double down on long-standing U.S. policy. Every U.S. administration since Harry Truman has based its Middle East strategy in large measure on ensuring the stability and security of the Saudi ruling family. Even during the tense Obama years, arms sales to Saudi Arabia went up to record levels.
Trump’s boast of a record arms deal with the Saudis is just smoke and mirrors. His claims about anywhere between $110 and $450 billion in sales and investment are simply false as are his claims of “hundreds of thousands” of jobs coming from Saudi money. Whatever Trump’s interest in covering for the Saudis may be, it is not American jobs and the U.S. economy.
Trump’s specter of China or Russia stepping in to capture U.S. business with Saudi Arabia is illusory as well. Neither if those countries has even a fraction of the capacity the United States has to manufacture weapons and, even if they could expand that capacity, virtually the entire Saudi arsenal is U.S.-made or based on U.S. designs. According to a report by William Hartung of the Center for International, “The preponderance of US equipment used by Saudi forces also makes it difficult for another supplier like Russia or China to replace the United States as a major supplier to Riyadh. It would take decades for the Kingdom to wean itself from dependence on US equipment, training and support, and new equipment might not be easily interoperable with US-supplied systems.”
So, what does it mean to hold Saudi Arabia accountable? Is the US willing to stop or suspend arms sales, as Germany and Denmark have over Khashoggi and as Norway, Switzerland, Finland, and Greece did over the bloodshed in Yemen? Neither the United States nor the Saudis’ second biggest arms source, France, appear ready to do that.
There might be action to stop the war in Yemen, but there will be no fundamental change in arms supplies to Saudi Arabia. Although a bill was introduced in the House in late October to end all arms sales and military support to Saudi Arabia, it is not going to pass, given the lack of enthusiasm for such a measure in the Senate, including among many Democrats.
Eliot Engel, who will chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee when the Democrats take control of the House next month, said,
I think that we cannot have business as usual right now; we’ve got to take some time to show our annoyance, but I don’t think you slam the door and you say ‘never,’ because in diplomacy, in foreign policy, there are always shifting alliances. And I think that Saudi Arabia is an important player in the region, and the United States needs to work with them.
The Trump administration clearly wants MbS to stay. Its various Middle East ambitions—for an “Arab NATO,” greater cooperation with Israel despite the ongoing denial of Palestinian rights, and a new era of Saudi-led militarism in the region—depend on the crown prince.
If a more progressive policy is to take hold, the mainstream discourse must be injected with more specific policy demands. Calls for accountability are not enough, for they would impose only a minimum penalty on the Saudis. Instead, the list of demands must begin, not end, with stopping the horrors in Yemen.
Framing the Demands
U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia is at least as fundamental to regional U.S. strategy as U.S. policy toward Israel, perhaps even more so. If support for the Saudis is anathema to U.S. values—and it is—changing that policy is not as simple as standing on one issue. Although stopping the war in Yemen is an immediate imperative, if that’s the only change in policy, there will be more Yemens.
This line of thinking provided the foundation for Barack Obama’s strategic vision in the region. Obama hoped that his deal with Iran would allow a rational successor more leeway to reduce the U.S. footprint in the region. Without a nuclear umbrella, Iran might still be a regional power that could not be ignored, but it would never be an existential threat to the Saudis or to Israel. An Iran that kept to its part of the nuclear deal would, it was hoped, develop a stronger interest in regional stability as its economy regained health, leading to a balance of power and comparative calm. Despite the often exaggerated or even false claims of the deal’s detractors, there is no compelling evidence suggesting that this strategy wouldn’t have worked over the long haul.
Of course, the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran would continue, and without a resolution of the Palestinian issue, Iran would remain the great bogeyman in Israel, and vice versa. But the military tensions could lessen on both fronts if the United States did not persistently view Iran through a Saudi or Israeli lens. If the United States was, instead, encouraging diplomacy and compromise, searching for areas of mutual interest rather than mutual anger, a sort of cold détente is hardly out of the question.
Indeed, this was precisely what Saudi Arabia and the Netanyahu government feared about the Iran deal. Both the dictatorship in Saudi Arabia and the structurally democratic Netanyahu government rely on the specter of Iran to help maintain their domestic support. They did not like the idea that Obama was trying to change the regional game in a manner that could lead to real problems for them domestically.
On the other hand, the United States cannot simply abandon the region, even those parts where it has played a destructive role. Trump’s policy in Palestine demonstrates that a vacuum will only lead to even worse oppression of the powerless by the powerful, and Syria illustrates what happens when the United States backs off but other external powers do not.
A Progressive US Policy: Start With Saudi Arabia
The history of U.S. foreign policy is one of cynical alliances. Important U.S. allies include both relatively democratic states where human rights are respected and some of the world’s most ruthless dictatorships. That has been a common theme in both Republican and Democratic administrations. The current moment allows for a new foreign policy standard that demands that American allegiance be based on respect for international law and human rights norms.
That standard should be used with a dictatorship like Saudi Arabia, a democracy like England, or something in between like Israel. U.S. interests would not, of course, be ignored. But a progressive foreign policy platform must also include the following agenda items:
- Respect for international law, including international human rights law (IHRL) and international humanitarian law (IHL).
- Accession to international treaties the United States has so far refrained from either signing on to or ratifying, beginning with the Rome Statute, which founded the International Criminal Court (ICC).
- An increase in the foreign aid budget. It is currently around one percent of the overall U.S. budget, somewhere around $50 billion annually. Bringing it to two percent of the budget under a mandate that none of that increase goes to military and security support could significantly expand the positive impact of U.S. aid.
- Establish an office under the joint auspices of the Departments of State and Defense which would constantly monitor all U.S. military and security aid for compliance with the Arms Export Control Act, the Foreign Assistance Act, the Leahy Law, and all other relevant U.S. laws.
- Create a joint House and Senate working group to monitor relations with recipients of U.S. support, whether military or civilian, to ensure compliance with international law and human rights norms.
- Reassert Congress as the sole U.S. entity permitted to declare war and pass stricter limits on a president’s ability to deploy U.S. armed forces or support the war effort of an ally without congressional authorization.
These steps can help limit U.S. entanglements with authoritarian figures like MbS, Jair Bolsinaro, or Rodrigo Duterte. They also limit the damage when the U.S. public elects their own authoritarian figure , like the current occupant of the White House.
These are lofty goals. Attaining them will take some time, especially given the dearth of trust and confidence in the United States that Donald Trump has magnified so intensely with his violation of the Iran deal and his general dishonesty and lack of commitment to long-standing allies. But this is what it will take for the United States to engage in the world through diplomacy and partnership rather than the military and fiat.
In an October speech, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) described a progressive foreign policy this way:
In order to effectively combat the forces of global oligarchy and authoritarianism, we need an international movement that mobilizes behind a vision of shared prosperity, security and dignity for all people, and that addresses the massive global inequality that exists, not only in wealth but in political power. Our job is to reach out to those in every corner of the world who shares these values, and who are fighting for a better world.
That’s a huge task, but not an impossible one. In order to pursue it, the United States cannot afford to turn a blind eye to Saudi crimes, to ignore the denial for decades of the rights of Palestinians, or to continue to demonize Iran. It’s not enough to demand an end to the war in Yemen, although that’s the starting point. Otherwise, there will just be more Yemens, more Gazas, and more Khashoggis while U.S. politicians dance around reality.