Jamal Khashoggi was a well-known Saudi political activist and a journalist. Last week he went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get a document for an upcoming marriage — and disappeared. Turkish authorities are searching for the Saudi “hit squad” they believed murdered Khashoggi and dismembered him.
Whatever barbarity is at work, it is now becoming another special moment in the very special relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. We can add it to the other special moments, where the president jiggled an orb, where America’s credulous columnists praised Muhammad Bin Salman as a great reformer, and when the U.S. assisted the Saudis in creating the worst cholera outbreak of modern times.
When asked whether he might retaliate and stop a $110 billion arms deal with the kingdom, President Donald Trump said, “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that is being poured into our country.” Why? The jobs.
The truth is that Trump is doing a selling job on himself. The $110 billion figure is more like a menu of deals he offered the Saudis, not a done deal. The Saudis have purchased a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic-missile system for about $15 billion, and the State Department has announced $4 billion in other completed and approved arms sales. The Saudis didn’t complete every arms deal that President Obama offered them either.
One can understand that the practice of geopolitics means that you don’t always get to choose your allies. And a superpower cannot conduct its business by dealing only with nations like Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Saudi Arabia does share intelligence with us. And it has helped to keep oil prices low when America wanted to put a crimp on the Kremlin. But America really must come to grips with the costs of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is partly a country, partly an organized-crime family, and partly an institution of radical religious entrepreneurism. The way it is able to throw a fit in front of a U.S. president and get him to bully Qatar, a country that has hosted the U.S. military throughout the war on terror, sets the entire gulf on edge. The way it is able to convince the U.S. to support its increasingly dirty war in Yemen appalls all people of conscience. The killing of Jamal Khashoggi will bring Saudi relations with our NATO ally, Turkey, to a new low.
Just as America uses its commercial power, its cultural power, and a vast array of quasi-governmental institutions to advance its version of liberalism, Saudi Arabia uses its energy economy to power Sunni extremism across the Islamic world and into Europe. There are millions of Sunni Muslims who despise the form of Islam that Saudi Arabia is exporting into their countries and around the world. Saudi-funded radicals have been involved in every civil war across the Muslim world over the last decade.
That in turn created a wave of refugees and migrants landing in Europe — scrambling the Schengen border arrangements. It fostered disorder that enabled a wave of terrorism. When Syrian migrants arrive in Europe, they find that the Saudi-funded mosques preach a radical message of cultural separatism and terror they never heard at home. On a dark day when American needs its traditional European allies, European people may cite our relationship with Saudi Arabia as one of their primary reasons for standing aside.
And so far America’s leadership class has proven helpless in dealing with this problem. Barack Obama’s attempt at lowering Saudi leverage over the U.S. by cutting a deal with Iran never had the buy-in to work; in fact, it possibly made him more willing to assist Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Trump has gone the other way and tried to kill Saudi Arabia with kindness. The response, so far, has been an increase of bad behavior. A license to kill, even in an embassy.
It’s great that women now can drive in Saudi Arabia. It’s fine that the Saudis have been quietly indifferent rather than hysterically hostile to Israel. But to look squarely at the influence of Saudi Arabia in the world and in the Middle East is to see that this is a country that thinks creating chaos is almost always favorable to its interests, whereas stability works for Shia powers. If America aspires to be the guarantor of a global order, how much chaos can we sponsor as part of that bargain?