Sad to say, Jamal Khashoggi died in vain. Had his brutal, officially sanctioned murder in the Saudi embassy in Turkey led to a reevaluation of the American relationship with Saudi Arabia, we could very reluctantly say that his death had some purpose — reluctantly, of course, because nothing can justify cold-blooded murder.
President Trump wiggled and jiggled, and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after him, to condemn the murder without, however, condemning Saudi Arabia, whose top leadership, according to every piece of available evidence, ordered the hit. Trump and Pompeo suggested that Saudi Arabia was just too valuable an ally of the US, and too key a guarantor of stability in the Middle East, to condemn the Saudi leader Mohammad bin Salman outright.
But Saudi Arabia’s importance has radically declined and its ethics have not improved one iota. If anything, the country is as much a negative player as a positive one in the Middle East, not to mention in the lives of its own citizens.
First, however, spare us the pieties about Donald Trump; spare us the hypocritical anguish about how it was Trump who shoveled American values onto the ash heap. Those who correctly point out that Khashoggi’s especially egregious, political murder deserved nothing but American condemnation also hypocritically remain silent when China and Myanmar murder dissidents in the hundreds of thousands, when Saudi Arabia itself murders thousands of its own citizens, when countless other bad actors, from Hamas to Yemen and beyond, engage in and praise the terrorist murder of countless innocents and create or exacerbate humanitarian crises. On the moral plane, the reaction to Khashoggi’s murder is not about Donald Trump, it is about Trump and American presidents too numerous to name and about politicians and commentators too numerous to count. Is it Trump who is the moral villain while, on Bill Clinton’s watch, 800,000 Rwandans were hacked to death in 90 days? Or while, on FDR’s watch, some one million-plus Jews died as FDR wouldn’t bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz? Or while, on Nixon’s watch, the skulls piled up sky high in Cambodia? If it is American values we profess to care about, President Trump’s response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is but the latest in a long, sordid stream in American history that makes a mockery of “Never Again.” Spare us selective piety about American values.
That said, the American waffling after Khashoggi’s death is especially galling and corrupt because even the solicitude for the American-Saudi relationship is all but groundless. Supposedly, Saudi Arabia stands as a critical bulwark against anti-American forces in the Middle East, and a critical force for stability there. However, it is no longer so. The failure to condemn the Saudi leader for the murder of Khashoggi lacks even the justification of realpolitik. Saudi Arabia isn’t as important to the US as it once was, and even acts contrary to American interests in important ways (on which more below).
As the oil economy of the world changed — the US is now the world’s largest oil producer, not Saudi Arabia — the internal weaknesses of Saudi Arabia intensified. It accustomed its population to handouts, but failed to undertake economic reforms while the source of those handouts — oil sales — radically declined. The real danger to Saudi Arabia today is not from a potential decrease in American diplomatic and military support, but internal.
By failing to head off its inevitable, internal instability via economic reform, Saudi Arabia undercuts its power as a counterweight to Iran. Saudi Arabia undercuts its value to the US in five other ways:
• Saudi Arabia has taken no steps, military or diplomatic, to halt the Syrian civil war, which, after all, is the primary source of instability in the Middle East and the primary source of the uncontrolled immigration into Europe. Saudi Arabia — supposedly the bulwark against Iran — has taken virtually no steps to limit or eliminate either Iranian or Russian involvement in Syria.
• Saudi Arabia has taken no steps to condition Arab aid to the Palestinians on condition of economic reform — i.e., the end of the diversion of much of the aid to the personal coffers of Palestinian leaders, the rest ending up as handouts rather than the basis of a private Palestinian economy.
• Saudi Arabia has endangered America’s relationship with Qatar —keep in mind, it is Qatar, not Saudi Arabia, that is host to America’s most important military base in the Middle East. But Saudi Arabia has soured its relations with Qatar, to the negative effects of making the US choose between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and of pushing Qatar closer to Iran. This is the behavior of an ally?
• Saudi Arabia has helped create the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in its war with the pro-Iranian Houthis in Yemen. Now, on its face, this war is in America’s interest because its goal is to prevent Yemen from becoming an ally of Iran, and thus to prevent Yemen, or Yemen-cum-Iran, from attacking Saudi Arabia and trying to take it over. Well, in the last four years, things have not worked out that way, not least because Saudi military tactics do not try to minimize civilian casualties. The Saudi effort to defeat Iranian influence in Yemen has yielded the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, which in turn has undercut Saudi Arabia’s military goals. Rather than more stability and more anti-Iranian sentiment in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has generated the opposite.
And why not? A country that cuts off its citizens’ hands is not going to be a country whose military tactics will enhance the prestige of its primary military backer — the USA. The supposedly enlightened new ruler of Saudi Arabia now allows women to drive, citizens to go to movies and people to live without harassment by the religious police. Such reforms, though no doubt welcomed by Saudi citizens, especially the half of the country that is under 25, do not mask the utterly authoritarian nature of the regime and its utter indifference to human values — get it? The predominant reaction of the Saudi leader to his brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi was surprise. Others actually care about this kind of stuff?
• Saudi Arabia has not rendered Israel’s position in the Middle East more safe even though the Saudis have offered a peace plan and supposedly offered Israel unnamed forms of assistance.
Consider: The Saudi plan is a non-starter. It is already 16 years old. It requires Israel to return to its pre-June 5, 1967 borders without a single-dunam exception. That means that Israel would have to give up the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, the strategic hills on the West Bank, the Golan Heights, etc. Not a single Jewish political party in Israel will agree to this. But Saudi Arabia, keeper of the Islamic holy places, will agree to no less.
As for Saudi Arabia’s unnamed assistance, it doesn’t include an Israeli right to fly over Saudi air space — a critical factor in any Israel-Iran confrontation.
So there you are: six reasons why Saudi Arabia is not worth any American president’s solicitude, even if the solicitude did not entail severe moral compromise.
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