Opinion | Jamal Khashoggi’s murder is not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of reckless and destructive behavior by the Saudi Kingdom that includes ongoing support for extremist groups, the war in Yemen, and activities directly at odds with the West.
The grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi has captured the world’s attention. It is not hard to understand why. The allegation, reportedly supported by both video and audio evidence recorded by the Turkish government, that the government of Saudi Arabia sent a team of operatives to kill and dismember a US resident in a diplomatic consulate and chop his body up with a bone saw would horrify any decent person. But the ensuing debate over how the United States should respond is divorced from any notion of national strategy and indicative of a congenital lack of strategic sense among the commentariat.
To start with, there is tremendous moral confusion in some of the outrage. As awful as the death of Khashoggi is, it pales in comparison to the violence in Yemen. This war, which has killed at least 10,000 people is fueled by Saudi Arabia along with the UAE.
Yemen is neither the beginning nor end of the problem. Saudi Arabia has been a duplicitous actor on the world stage for decades, financing fundamentalist religious institutions and fueling Islamic radicalism.
Since Mohammad bin Salman became Crown Prince and assumed the position of de facto ruler of the country, Saudi Arabia has only become more reckless. Its support of religious fundamentalists includes financial backing to Islamist militias in Syria and is directly at odds with the West. Bin Salman also spearheaded a blockade of Qatar that failed to achieve Saudi goals, divided the Gulf Cooperation Council, pushed Doha towards Tehran, and put the United States in a precarious diplomatic position. They kidnapped the Prime Minister of Lebanon and forced him to resign. Yet none of these incidents of misconduct produced the level of outrage seen in the wake of Khashoggi’s death.
It is understandable that Khashoggi’s colleagues at the Washington Post and others he knew in media are more deeply affected by his murder than they are by far off events in Yemen. But that doesn’t explain why members of Congress who stood by Riyadh before are less willing to do so now. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, had previously fought efforts to block arms sales to the Kingdom but now says bin Salman is “toxic” and has to go. Strategic confusion shapes the US relationship with the Saudis.
To say that I am skeptical of the new Saudi narrative about Mr. Khashoggi is an understatement. https://t.co/am4fraUL6H
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) October 19, 2018
In fact, prior to the death of Khashoggi, bin Salman was being hailed in the United States as a bold reformer who would modernize the Kingdom. Commentators noted that he was going to allow women to drive cars while ignoring that he was jailing many of the female activists who had demanded this change be made. He created excitement about opportunities for more foreign direct investment, including an IPO for Saudi Aramco that was supposed to happen this year. Now, investors doubt the IPO will ever happen and many of the promised economic opportunities appear to be a mirage.
One of the worst offenders in the commentariat is Thomas Friedman, whose now infamous editorial from November of last year praising bin Salman where he claimed the Arab Spring had finally come to Saudi Arabia looks incredibly naive today. When Friedman wrote the original column the Saudi campaign in Yemen and the blockade of Qatar were well underway and bin Salman’s true nature was apparent to anyone paying attention. Friedman may have been the highest profile person who was ensorcelled by bin Salman but he was not alone.
— Washington Post PR (@WashPostPR) October 20, 2018
Having ignored Saudi behavior for years we finally hear demands that Saudi Arabia be punished, possibly by having arms sales suspended. The whole framework in which this discussion is happening is confused, both morally and strategically. It is saddening that the death of one journalist has created more outrage in certain quarters than the death of thousands of Yemeni civilians or fueling fundamentalist radicals.
The US needs to stop thinking about Khashoggi’s murder as an isolated incident that must be punished without any sense of what this punishment should be directed to achieve. It should instead see Khashoggi’s death as part of a pattern of reckless and destructive behavior by bin Salman that harms the strategic interests of the United States and a response should be designed that is calibrated to end reckless Saudi behavior.
The claim that Khashoggi was killed while brawling with 15 men dispatched from Saudi Arabia is not at all credible. If he was fighting with those sent to capture or kill him, it was for his life.
The Kingdom must be held to account. If Administration doesn’t lead, Congress must.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) October 19, 2018
There are clear and achievable changes to Saudi behavior the US should want to see. Washington should demand the Saudis make greater effort to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen. Riyadh should be pressured to support a peaceful settlement to the conflict and accept that the Houthis will have a say in their own government. Saudi Arabia must stop financing Wahhabi religious movements around the world, including not just militant groups but also nominally peaceful religious establishments.
The US government has a wide variety of options available to change Saudi behavior. It could suspend or cancel arms sales. It could limit intelligence sharing in support of Saudi operations in Yemen. It can sanction individuals involved in the Khashoggi assassination. It could expel the Saudi ambassador to the United States. It could refuse to participate in the upcoming economic conference in Riyadh, dubbed Davos in the Desert.
But whatever is done, both the end goal and the motivation should be clear. If the US uses diplomatic sanctions simply to express outrage, it is unlikely to improve matters. The US needs to identify the changes in behavior it wants to see from Saudi Arabia with regard to support for extremist groups, the war in Yemen, and its other activities abroad. It must be clear that either Mohammad bin Salman needs to make these changes and start behaving responsibly, or Saudi Arabia needs to find itself a new Crown Prince.
Without this kind of strategic focus and clarity, any action taken against Saudi Arabia will be flailing and unfocused. It will damage the US-Saudi alliance without any real likelihood of producing the change desired in Saudi behavior, meaning neither American security nor human rights will be advanced.
John Ford, for Lima Charlie News
John Ford writes about foreign policy, with a particular focus on understanding the core concept of strategy. He is a lawyer and a reserve military officer. You can follow him on twitter at @johndouglasford.
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