What Now for U.S. Policy and the Crown Prince?

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by Thomas W. Lippman

Nothing in history is truly unprecedented, but the conundrum the White House and US policymakers now face in dealing with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) of Saudi Arabia is at least highly unusual.

It’s hard to recall a time when the United States maintained close economic and strategic ties with a friendly country whose leader, as a person, was no longer an acceptable interlocutor.

In the face of substantial, credible evidence that the impetuous MbS not only knew about but orchestrated the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, what is the appropriate way for President Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other senior officials to deal with him? Can they just carry on as if the murder didn’t happen? Certainly they can’t be seen exchanging exuberant high-fives with MbS, as Russia’s Vladimir Putin did at the G-20 summit in Argentina, but given the closeness of the bilateral relationship they also can’t avoid him altogether.

It’s a safe bet that members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will ask this question of retired general John Abizaid when they consider his nomination to be ambassador to the kingdom. Abizaid, who is of Lebanese descent, speaks Arabic, and has been steeped in Middle East affairs for much of his adult life, but his post in Riyadh will test his diplomatic skill. Should he pose for smiling photos with MbS or not? Should he invite the crown prince to the embassy’s July 4 ceremonies?

These are not just matters of protocol. They go to the question of what the United States stands for. What message does it want to send to the world?

In the decades since World War II, it has usually been easy for American officials to put foreign leaders into one of three categories.

There were clear-cut, highly-regarded “good guys” such as Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, and Anwar Sadat. Even easier to identify were the undisputed “bad guys” like Fidel Castro, Idi Amin, Manuel Noriega, and Ho Chi Minh. And then there were leaders who might have been bad guys, but at least they were our bad guys so Washington could overlook their flaws and excesses to work with them. These included Syngman Rhee, the shah of Iran, and assorted autocrats in Latin America.

The Trump administration has signaled that it intends to put MbS into that last category, calculating that the relationship with Saudi Arabia is too important to jeopardize by ostracizing its ruler. The United States does not condone Khashoggi’s murder, Pompeo wrote in The Wall Street Journal, but “degrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S. and its allies.” He denounced the vociferous critics in Congress who have been calling for the United States to reconsider the entire relationship because of killing and because of the CIA’s finding that the crown prince was directly involved. Deriding what he called “Capitol Hill caterwauling,” Pompeo wrote that the

kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is working to secure Iraq’s fragile democracy and keep Baghdad tethered to the West’s interests, not Tehran’s. Riyadh is helping manage the flood of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war by working with host countries, cooperating closely with Egypt, and establishing stronger ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia has also contributed millions of dollars to the U.S.-led effort to fight Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. Saudi oil production and economic stability are keys to regional prosperity and global energy security.

All that may well be true. Such considerations have led every president since Harry S. Truman to overlook Saudi Arabia’s deplorable human rights record. But no previous Saudi ruler had a direct role in the murder of a prominent journalist. And none of them had put so many blots on the royal copy book in such a short time as MbS, who disrupted U.S. military relationships around the Gulf with his boycott of Qatar, provoked a pointless split with Canada, and deployed mercenary veterans of Sudan’s campaign of atrocities in Darfur to do the ground fighting in the endless war in Yemen.

The crown prince is responsible for “one international disaster after another,” says Mehran Kamrava, a political scientist at Georgetown University’s branch in Qatar. No one else in the royal government can be blamed, because MbS has consolidated virtually all power in his own hands.

President Trump’s first visit to a foreign country after taking office was to Saudi Arabia, where he was flattered by a lavish welcome that became the foundation of his relationship with the crown prince. While in Riyadh, Trump even participated in a “sword dance,” an old tribal ritual, prompting Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum to observe that “until now American presidents made it clear that, while we have to deal with Saudi leaders, we don’t endorse their culture. Trump … and others in the delegation did exactly that, by participating in this sinister all-male dance.”

As long as his domestic rivals and critics remain cowed by his ruthless repression, Mohammed bin Salman will likely be king of Saudi Arabia for decades. Over time, the international furor over the death of Jamal Khashoggi will subside, just as the war in Yemen will eventually end. How long will it take for tempers to cool and memories to fade to the point where a U.S. president can in good conscience invite MbS to the White House?

Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Washingtonpost.com. Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.



  1. Great piece Tom. As you know well – you were my professor at the American University in Cairo way back in 1975 (!) – the region is infamous for it’s frequency and levels of violence. Minimum of 10,000 dead just to qualify – Tel Zaatar in 1976, Sabra and Chatila in 1982, Hama in 1983…Halabja in 1987-8, and on and on. Mass killing of enemies, using all weapons available, is standard practice; just ask our beloved NATO ally (?) Erdogan. He has done more physical harm to more journalists than MBS will ever accomplish. So yes, option 3, slow return of MBS and Saudi to “normal” perceptions. Their version of normal, not ours, eh Tom!

  2. Charley, the issue is not their atrocities , but our values. We want our puppets to restrict their heinous activities to their region. We don’t want them to use a bonesaw to cut a WP journalist and US green card holder. In other words we want them to give us the plausible deniability so that we can pretend that their criminality is their problem and perhaps claim that if it weren’t for us they would butcher and torture more people.
    I doubt that scenario 3 will hold true in this case. The situation is getting worse for KSA and Trump administration. day by day.Even Nikki Haley distanced herself from Trump yesterday. The only way out is to replace crown prince with another royal and find a safe place of exile for MBS. Putin is chummy with him, so send him to Moscow, perhaps?

  3. The US and SKA relationship has been downgraded or degraded from a state to state level to a person or persons to one person level. Mohammed-butcher of-Saudi (MbS) has contributed the most to Trump’s campaign in SKA 70 years relation with the US. Also MbS has saved Kushner’s ass on his business debts so MbS has some leverage over them thus the reason for Trump and Kushner looking away in regards to Khashoggi’s murder.
    Putin (snake) on the other hand is high fivin with MbS because he knows that MbS is an immature head of state with a very unstable personality. To Putin, MbS can destabilize and lower the price of crude oil by increasing its production over night at the request of Trump which can cost Russia $B’s in revenues. In short, MbS may survive his recent drama of butchering a US permanent resident for a while.

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