The disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and writer for the Washington Post, is the biggest crisis in U.S.-Saudi relations in years. While the Trump administration is resistant, unless the emerging narrative about what happened changes, a clear American response will be inevitable and warranted.
But we need to be clear about what we want and why we want it, and to accept our own responsibility for the international climate in which this has occurred.
Everyone agrees that on Oct. 2, Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Saudi government insists he left shortly thereafter, but can’t substantiate that. The Turkish government says it is sure that he was killed by a team of Saudi agents; Ankara has released fragmentary and circumstantial evidence to back that up.
Bipartisan pressure is mounting for the administration to demonstrate U.S. outrage. Business leaders are pulling out of Saudi investment conferences and breaking off negotiations for new deals. And the Post and other newspapers are rightly insisting that an attack on one journalist is an attack on us all.
President Donald Trump would love to ignore this, but Congress and the media aren’t going to let him. The administration is going to have to take some action. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Eli Lake outlined exactly what a smart but forceful response might look like.
But there is a big problem. The long-standing U.S. partnership with Saudi Arabia is entirely transactional. It’s certainly not about shared values.
Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are stuck with each other unless they want to completely rethink their strategic posture. The U.S. needs a local partner in the Gulf region, especially while Iran seeks to overturn the regional status quo that Saudi Arabia backs.
There’s is nothing much the U.S. gives Saudi Arabia we don't need them to have, and taking it away for a long period of time would cause major problems for us too.
Therefore if Saudi Arabia can't exonerate itself, the most likely scenario is some time in the doghouse. Weapons sales frozen or canceled. Technology transfers deferred. Investments postponed or abandoned. And diplomatic engagement greatly reduced.
But the essential aspects of the relationship – military-to-military and intelligence cooperation and work to stabilize the global energy markets – would continue as always because the price of not doing that is prohibitive.
After some period of penance and repentance, Saudi Arabia's timeout would be lifted, and things would basically return to normal.
The relationship really is that indispensable. If it wasn't shaken by the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the war in Yemen, then fate of any one individual, no matter how appalling, isn't going to reshape it either.
But there’s an additional complication. As F. Gregory Gause III points out, while Saudi Arabia still shares our basic strategic goal of preserving the regional status quo, the tactics being recently pursued by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are increasingly disruptive and, in their own way, destabilizing.
The point of any sustained U.S. pressure on Saudi Arabia in response to the Khashoggi affair must be to convince the Saudi king and crown prince that the mutual U.S.-Saudi strategy of defending the status quo and regional stability can't be effectively pursued by reckless and destabilizing tactics. Indeed, when the tactics directly undermine the strategy, the whole project becomes self-defeating.
In part, these misguided actions are the result of Saudi Arabia assuming a regional leadership role for which it is not fully prepared. The collapse of traditional Arab power centers in Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad has left a vacuum that Gulf countries now attempt to fill. That's exacerbated by the gradual pullback from the region by the U.S. And Saudi Arabia’s regional leadership learning curve appears steep.
Saudi recklessness is also partly driven by panic about the rising power of Iran, especially since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the proliferation of disruptive pro-Iranian nonstate actors in the Arab world.
Letting the Saudis know we’re serious about stability in the Arab world and defending our mutual interests is important, but part of that deal is insisting that Saudi policies don't undermine the strategic goal of stability.
Finally, if Khashoggi was killed with Saudi involvement, that is a moral outrage. The U.S. can't shrug at such conduct from anyone. But the laissez-faire attitude from Trump and his administration regarding human rights has encouraged friend and foe alike to disregard the most fundamental international norms.
We are not going to get very far in championing and protecting international norms and rules with friends like Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Turkey – or with adversaries like Russia, China and Iran – if our own president and policies derisively dismiss those standards. If Saudi Arabia has indeed "disappeared" Khashoggi, our own rhetoric and policies helped set the stage for that, and we, too, must change our ways.
The probable pressure, and likely period of relative estrangement, forthcoming between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is an important opportunity to reset some of the basic terms of the relationship. But it's got to be done carefully and intelligently, and both sides are going to have to adjust their way of doing business.