Our ‘Ally’ Saudi Arabia

The Moment is Right for a Clean Break
President Donald Trump and members of the U.S. delegation meet with King Salman and Saudi officials at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh in 2017 (Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

By what definition of the term does Saudi Arabia qualify as an ally of the United States? The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi hit men, almost certainly acting at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a.k.a MBS, invites Americans to consider this question. The wonder is why it took so long.

The United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are allies in the same sense that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are “friends.” Political expedience rather than affection explains why, in Trump’s estimation, “Lyin’ Ted” has suddenly become “Beautiful Ted” and why the Texas senator who once denounced Trump as a “pathological liar” and “utterly amoral” now says that he is “honored” to have the president’s backing.

So it has been with the Saudi-American relationship since the moment it was forged following a tête-à-tête between President Franklin Roosevelt and King Ibn Saud on board the heavy cruiser USS Quincy in February 1945. From the outset, the presumption of overlapping interests rather than shared values formed the basis of that relationship.

At the very center of that relationship is a bargain: we guarantee the security of the Kingdom (and by extension the status and prerogatives of the royal family); they facilitate the exercise of U.S. hegemony in the strategically critical Persian Gulf (thereby ensuring access to copious amounts of oil needed to sustain the American way of life). Implicit in this arrangement is this further agreement: we won’t tell the Saudis how to run their country, which happens to be an intolerant theocracy with negligible respect for human rights. In return they won’t tell us how to run our country, which happens to be a highly secularized liberal democracy with only passing regard for God’s word or will.

Sustaining this arrangement across more than seven decades has required considerable forbearance on the part of both parties, with each side working hard at not noticing what goes on in the other’s camp. While any diplomatic partnership will contain an element of hypocrisy, in this instance hypocrisy saturates the enterprise like a waterlogged sponge.

Behavior that in Riyadh will get your head chopped off will win you plaudits in Manhattan for advancing the cause of true freedom, especially in matters related to sex and gender. Practices that Saudis deem of divine provenance—abstaining from alcohol and allowing men to have multiple wives, for example—rank in American eyes as somewhere between eccentric and illegal.

Yet in Washington policy circles the tendency has been to treat such differences as incidental, an inclination fostered by Saudi largesse funneled to U.S.-based universities and think tanks and even more so by enormous Saudi purchases of American arms. Nothing quiets a conscience like money, and the Saudis have demonstrated an aptitude for spreading plenty of it around. Simply put, the U.S.-Saudi alliance has been bought and paid for many times over.

 

As far as U.S. interests are concerned, the Kingdom qualifies as expendable.

Yet long before Mr. Khashoggi’s execution elicited from American elites shocked recognition that the Saudi regime is capable of Putin-like nastiness, larger developments had begun to undermine the rationale of the Riyadh-Washington axis.  Two in particular stand out.

First, to deflect any recurrence of the 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca by extremists intent on overthrowing the monarchy, Saudi Arabia has invested tens of billions of dollars in exporting an ultraconservative version of Islam that is inherently hostile to Western values. In simple terms, for decades now, Saudi Arabia has underwritten, promoted, and nurtured groups and movements that the United States government classifies as terrorists. None of the 9/11 hijackers came from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which the George W. Bush administration depicted as the font of all evils. None came from the Islamic Republic of Iran, which the Trump administration today condemns in similar terms. Fifteen of the nineteen were Saudis, as indeed was Osama bin Laden himself. Saudi officials did not conspire to destroy the Twin Towers. They merely provided the rationale, inspiration, and wherewithal for others to do so.

The second development relates to oil. Unlike the 1970s, when American dependence on foreign oil found successive U.S. administrations kowtowing to various Saudi kings and princes, the United States today is essentially energy self-sufficient. Given a continuing (and lamentable) global reliance on fossil fuels, Saudi Arabia does remain an important player in global energy markets. Yet sustaining the American way of life no longer depends on maintaining a steady flow of Persian Gulf oil to your local service station. To the extent that accessing foreign oil remains a policy priority, we can get all that we need from within the Western Hemisphere.

In short, old assumptions classifying Saudi Arabia as critically important to the United States no longer hold up. As far as U.S. interests are concerned, the Kingdom qualifies as expendable. As far as the ideals that the United States supposedly represents are concerned, professions of undying Saudi-American friendship—recall the unseemly spectacle of Trump’s 2017 visit to the Kingdom—have become an embarrassment.

Outraged by Trump’s reluctance to finger the Saudi government and especially the crown prince for Khashoggi’s murder, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote: “we’re the United States;  we’re supposed to be a moral beacon for the world, not a mercenary nation willing to abandon its principles if the money is good.” One has to wonder where Krugman has been for the past several decades as U.S. policymakers have recklessly compromised or abandoned principles pursuant to policies that have done little to promote freedom and democracy while leaving much of the Middle East in a state of constant turmoil. Washington’s support for MBS’s utterly misconceived and incompetently waged war in Yemen offers an ongoing example of the folly to which the United States has become a party at the behest of Saudi Arabia.

Yet the good news may be this. The Khashoggi incident creates a ready-made opportunity to begin bringing U.S. interests and values back into alignment. An essential first step toward doing so would be to terminate an alliance that from the very beginning has been fraught with dishonesty and has long since become counterproductive. The U.S.-Saudi relationship has lost whatever value it may once have possessed. Recognizing that fact just might provide a first step toward a long-overdue reevaluation of U.S. policies throughout the region.

The opportunity at hand is a great one. Just don’t count on Trump and those around him having the wit to seize it.

Published in the December 1, 2018 issue: 

Andrew Bacevich is the author most recently of Twilight of the American Century, published by the University of Notre Dame Press.

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