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How Should We Respond to Saudi Arabia?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 16, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: the hunt for a proportional response to the Saudis over Jamal Khashoggi’s death that sends a clear message but doesn’t blow up the relationship between Washington and Riyadh; why some of Bernie Sanders’s team from 2016 doesn’t want to see a Bernie Sanders 2020 bid; why the conventional wisdom about the Senate elections is changing so rapidly; and South Dakota’s gubernatorial race becomes a family affair.

The Saudi Question

If people want to argue that Jamal Khashoggi’s death is being treated differently because he was a member of the news media, wrote for the Washington Post, and had a lot of friends in the U.S. foreign-policy media establishment, well . . . welcome to the real world. If you kill somebody who wrote for the Post, then the Post is going to write about that murder a lot. This is personal to them. You would react more strongly if a friend or co-worker was killed than if it happened to some guy who lived on the other side of town.

President Trump emphasized that Khashoggi was not a U.S. citizen but he was a lawful permanent residenta “green card” holder, who under U.S. law may “accept an offer of employment without special restrictions, own property, receive financial assistance at public colleges and universities, and join the Armed Forces. They also may apply to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain eligibility requirements.” About 18,000 lawful permanent residents currently serve in the U.S. armed forces. If we don’t consider Khashoggi “one of us,” then what would we say to those folks in uniform?

Look, Saudi Arabia, you can’t just tell a U.S. permanent resident that he needs documents for his marriage and then kill and dismember him because he wrote some columns and made some speeches criticizing your leader. We expect this kind of behavior from the North Koreans or Iranians or Syrians or Russians. We give your kingdom a lot of slack about how you handle internal dissent. You guys don’t have religious freedom, and we look the other way on that. We look the other way as your justice system institutes punishments such as amputations and flogging. We look the other way as your justice system punishes women for having been raped. We look the other way as you institute the death penalty for crimes ranging from murder, apostasy, adultery, and witchcraft. You still crucify people, which is the sort of thing that really gets under the skin of a Christian country.

In a world where a lot of countries treat guest workers like crap, you stand out as among the worst. Your record on human trafficking is getting a little better but is still pretty bad. Many American feminists may be too committed to multiculturalism to acknowledge this loudly in public, but in your country, The Handmaid’s Tale could be a documentary.

We prefer you guys to the Iranians in your proxy war in Yemen, but reports on the ground say you guys are hitting “residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, jails, boats and medical facilities.” Are you guys monsters, or do you just have terrible aim? How do you hit a school bus by accident?

We give you guys minimal grief over all of that because you sell the world oil, you help us with some counterterrorism issues and intelligence-sharing, you hate the Iranian regime as much as we do, and you’re probably better than what would emerge if there was ever a popular uprising against you.

But if this is supposed to be an alliance of convenience, you guys are getting awfully inconvenient.

Presuming the accusations about the Saudi government murdering and dismembering are true, the question then becomes what the appropriate consequence is. Senator Lindsey Graham said while appearing on Fox & Friends that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman “has got to go.” That seems like the most unrealistic demand that the United States could make of the Saudis.

We don’t want to blow up the whole relationship; we just need to send a signal that they’ve done something unacceptable, that they need to make restitution and need to resist the temptation to take similar actions in the future.

Ordinarily, the United States could declare the current Saudi ambassador persona non grata and tell him to leave the country, but the current ambassador already went back to his home country and isn’t expected to return. There’s already buzz that the Saudis might name Princess Reema bint Bandar as his replacement.

Cancel arms sales to Saudi Arabia? We might be cutting off our nose to spite our face. We might not like what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen, but we want them as well-armed as the Iranians to deter any further aggression in their direction in the Middle East. Why did Saddam Hussein invade Kuwait in 1990? Because the Kuwaitis didn’t have the military forces to stop him — and neither did Saudi Arabia, really, until U.S. forces started arriving in Operation Desert Shield.

A few ideas:

  • Obviously, identify and indict anyone involved in Khashoggi’s murder and make it impossible for them to ever travel to the United States or its allies. We may have no jurisdiction when it’s a Saudi-on-Saudi crime, but we do when it’s a Saudi-on-U.S.-permanent-resident crime.
  • Tout Khashoggi as a martyr for freedom. The Saudis killed him to silence him and send a message; maximize how much this backfires for them. Cite his reporting in State Department reports. Quote him in speeches. Lots of regimes have resisted murdering their critics because they realize killing them is a form of validation and promotes their message more powerfully and widely than ever before.
  • Khashoggi called for the equivalent of a Radio Free Europe in the Arab World. The United States government may not need to actually do this; even reports that the State Department is contemplating a move like this would sting the Saudi royal family.
  • Lots of wealthy Saudis like to travel to the United States. We don’t necessarily need to bar them from entry, just . . . delay their visas. Require more paperwork. Lose their paperwork and make them resubmit it. Use every lever of bureaucratic incompetence and aggravation. When the Saudis complain, shrug and say, “Look, we all know it’s very easy to accidentally tear something to pieces and leave it scattered around a consulate garden. These things happen, you know?”

Bernie Burnout?

Politico notes that not everybody who loved Bernie Sanders in 2016 is so eager to see a sequel in 2020:

With the Vermont senator kicking off a nine-state tour on Friday with stops in Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada and California, a sizable contingent of the people who helped build his insurgent 2016 campaign is ambivalent about a second run, according to interviews with more than a dozen former staffers. Many of them are looking for a different progressive champion to finish what Sanders started.

“I think that if a younger candidate can pick up the mantle and have Bernie’s support, I think that would be a better option for 2020. I feel like 60 to 70 percent of former staffers are looking around for another Bernie-esque candidate this time around, even if it’s not him,” said Daniel Deriso, a field organizer for Sanders’ 2016 campaign who went on to help run a successful insurgent mayoral campaign in Birmingham, Ala., last year. “But if Bernie called me to have me work on the campaign then I’d do it.”

At the beginning of the year, I noted that the Bernie Sanders post-campaign activist group, Our Revolution, had hit a lot of bumps in the road.

It’s not hard to figure out why Sanders fans yearn for a younger version of the guy they loved in 2016. Sanders himself is 77 years old now, would be 79 on Election Day 2020, and would be 83 years old at the end of his first term if elected in 2020.

President Trump was the oldest president to be inaugurated, at 70 years and 220 days old. Ronald Reagan was 73 years, 274 days old at the time of his election to a second term.

Why Mitch McConnell Is Smiling So Much Lately

For what it’s worth, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com now puts Democratic chances of winning control of the Senate at 19 percent, a 15 percent chance of a 50-50 (in which case Vice President Pence would break ties), a 17 percent chance that things stay as they are with 51 Republicans and 49 Democrats, a 16.5 percent chance that the GOP picks up a seat, a 12.7 percent chance that the GOP picks up two seats, an almost 9 percent chance that the GOP picks up three seats, and a 5 percent chance that the GOP picks up four seats.

ADDENDA: You know you’re having a good election cycle when your opponent’s in-laws are donating to you. The grandmother and great aunt of South Dakota Democratic gubernatorial candidate Billie Sutton have donated to Republican Kristi Noem’s campaign. These aren’t small donations, either; the total donations for the cycle could add up to nearly $20,000. Noem is favored; the state hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since the 1970s and has never had a woman governor.

Credit the Sutton campaign for a good spin: “Sutton marrying into a well-known conservative family shows how truly bipartisan Billie is and how he has never put politics before personal relationships.” Hey, good for him.

This year’s Thanksgiving at the Sutton house could be awkward, though.

“Could you pass the gravy?”

“Why don’t you ask your friend the governor to pass the gravy?”

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