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?