Don’t Ditch Riyadh in a Fit of Righteousness

By Walter Russell Mead

Wall Street Journal

October 15, 2018

 

The murder (if that’s what it was) of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, was a horror in itself, and a greater horror still in what it threatens to unleash. The Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the ayatollahs of Iran are huddled over the corpse, hoping to turn a political profit from the death of an innocent man.

Mr. Khashoggi was a thorn in the flesh of the hyperactive crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman, a man who faces a concatenation of problems the likes of which the House of Saud has rarely seen. Iran, hostile, arrogant and ambitious, has ruthlessly carved a “Shia crescent” from Baghdad through Damascus to Beirut. A gusher of American oil and natural gas has diminished OPEC. Turkey, sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and harboring dreams of restoring its old Ottoman glory, seeks to displace Saudi Arabia as the voice of the Sunni world. Russia has reasserted itself in the region. And inside Saudi Arabia, a growing population with high expectations demands more opportunity and better governance from a traditional monarchy largely unprepared for the 21st century.

It was out of this turmoil and fear that the MBS phenomenon emerged. At home and abroad, the Saudis attempted a series of frenzied initiatives, including a war in Yemen and the privatization of Aramco, to improve their position. Meanwhile, MBS stroked gullible American elites into the belief that he was a democrat.

It worked for a while; gullibility is America’s most plentiful natural resource. But after Mr. Khashoggi’s death, even the most naive observer can see that the crown prince is at best a modernizing autocrat, using dictatorial power to drag his country into the future: Peter the Great, not Thomas Jefferson. At worst, he could end like Phaethon, the Greek demigod who lost control of his horses while foolishly trying to drive the chariot of the sun.

The Saudi transformation is not going smoothly. Aramco’s privatization has been delayed and the ambitious Vision 2030 goals for economic renewal seem increasingly elusive. MBS’s foreign policy looks more chaotic than inspired, and the blunder in Istanbul was not the first false step. The arrest of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri last year and the failed diplomatic standoff with Qatar were not the strokes of a master. Nor is the kingdom’s ill-planned and poorly executed Syria strategy or its intervention in Yemen, which has created a humanitarian disaster without notably advancing Saudi interests.

The Khashoggi affair is more of the same. But more than other MBS-era blunders, this episode may be an existential threat to the international prestige he has been working assiduously to build—even as the Saudis appear to be cooking up an exculpatory cover story.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, flying to Riyadh at short notice to bring some order to the chaos, is well acquainted with the hard facts of the Middle East. He knows the crown prince’s Saudi Arabia is not an authoritarian caterpillar metamorphosing into a liberal butterfly. But neither are Turkey and Iran. And on crucial issues, U.S. and Saudi interests are aligned. The U.S. wants to ensure that no single power, inside or outside the Middle East, has control over the world’s oil spigot. That means Saudi Arabia must remain independent and secure.

There are two things the U.S. should not do. One is sweep Mr. Khashoggi’s murder under the rug. His disappearance has damaged Saudi Arabia’s standing, including in Congress. Mr. Pompeo needs to deliver a clear message that this behavior weakens and ultimately endangers the alliance. He should not be deterred by Saudi threats. Like the American Confederates who overestimated the power of King Cotton in the 1860s, the Saudis tend to overestimate King Oil’s power today.

But to do what the Iran-deal chorus and the Erdogan and Muslim Brotherhood apologists want—to dissolve the U.S.-Saudi alliance in a frenzy of righteousness—would be an absurd overreaction that plays into the hands of America’s enemies. It could also stampede the Saudis into even more recklessness. France was not expelled from the European Community or NATO in 1985 when its agents sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, killing an innocent man in the process.

Without lionizing, ostracizing or enabling MBS, Mr. Pompeo needs to get to the heart of the matter: Saudi insecurity. To restore balance and sobriety to its foreign policy, Saudi Arabia needs to calm down, and only the U.S. can provide the assurances to make that possible. Among other things, this entails coordinating with the Saudis (and the Israelis) on a policy aimed at containing Iran and stabilizing the region. It also involves encouraging the economic transformation the Saudis seek at home. Even as he responds with appropriate gravity to a serious provocation, Mr. Pompeo must give Saudi authorities the confidence that sober and sensible policies will bring continuing American support for the kingdom’s independence and reform.