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How a post-Khashoggi US 'correction' on Saudi relations could unfold

Why We Wrote This

President Trump's foreign policy has been emphatically transactional. Could the Khashoggi affair reintroduce an element of soft power on behalf of human rights?

Leah Millis/Reuters
President Trump talks to reporters about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey during a bill signing ceremony at the White House in Washington, Oct. 23, 2018.

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From the beginning, a central question following the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was what impact it would have on US-Saudi relations. Steven Cook, at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, offers one explanation for why the Saudis may have believed they had a “blank check from the Trump administration” to pursue actions like the silencing of regime critics such as Mr. Khashoggi. It is at least in part, he says, because they saw other authoritarian leaders, in the region and in the world, silencing their critics and stamping out dissent with impunity. But, some add, the United States is uniquely placed to alter this course if a transactional White House adjusts to make values like human rights and the rule of law part of its equation. “This event will push the Trump White House to make some adjustments, and the question will be whether the White House takes the lead in that correction or Congress pushes the White House to take action,” says Elizabeth Prodromou, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. “But either way, we’re going to go in the same direction.”

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi will have far-reaching repercussions in the coming months – from the viability of the US-Saudi strategy to counter Iran, to the price of oil, and on to prospects for President Trump’s Middle East “deal of the century” peace plan.

What is less certain is whether the horrific violation of one Saudi regime critic’s human rights will do much to stem the rise and free rein of rights-violating regimes across the Middle East and indeed around the world, many regional experts say.

The Saudis may have believed they had a “blank check from the Trump administration” to pursue actions like the silencing of regime critics such as Mr. Khashoggi, says Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington. If they did, it is at least in part because they saw other authoritarian leaders – from regional players Turkey and Egypt to global powers Russia and China – silencing their critics and stamping out dissent with impunity, he adds.

“None of those leaders have been held accountable for their acts” – by the US, the West, or the international community, Mr. Cook says – “so why should the Saudis in this environment think they should have to act any differently?”

That sobering assessment of unchecked impunity could very well play out in the Saudi case, including with respect to its disastrous war in neighboring Yemen, considered the world’s worst humanitarian disaster by the UN, despite the intense global attention the Khashoggi case is garnering, regional analysts say.

But, some add, the US is uniquely placed to alter this course if a transactional White House that has been single-mindedly focused on American economic and military interests adjusts to make values like human rights and the rule of law part of its equation. A course correction could also occur if another influential power – for example, the US Congress – asserts itself and demands consequences strong enough to alter regime behavior.

“Under this White House, the US-Saudi relationship has been overwhelmingly focused on military-to-military relations … and left to the relationship between [Trump son-in-law] Jared Kushner and [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman, but we’re going to see some correction,” says Elizabeth Prodromou, a professor of conflict resolution at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

“This event will push the Trump White House to make some adjustments, and the question will be whether the White House takes the lead in that correction or Congress pushes the White House to take action,” she says. “But either way, we’re going to go in the same direction.”

Among the concrete steps Professor Prodromou and others expect to see in the coming weeks:

  • The nominating finally of a US ambassador to Riyadh to “professionalize” the relationship and take it out of Mr. Kushner’s inexperienced hands.
  • Renewed congressional efforts to stop arming the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
  • Perhaps sanctions aimed at putting on notice Saudi Arabia – and for that matter other US partners in the region – that America is going to act in defense of its values and count human rights among its vital interests.

“The Saudi relationship will become perhaps the key metric for how seriously the world takes us for our exercise of soft power and our commitment to universal human rights,” says Prodromou, an expert in the intersection of religion, democracy, and security. “It’s going to provide a measure of how we’re perceived in the world, of our ability to lead on human rights – and whether our moral authority holds any longer.”

Clearly the US is not going to sever or even seriously downgrade relations with Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi affair. Mr. Trump has consistently stated – since shortly after Khashoggi, a resident of Virginia and columnist for the Washington Post, disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – that no matter what he would not jeopardize US arms sales to the kingdom, and the “American jobs” he says those sales create.

New leverage for US?

This week Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin visited Riyadh and met with the crown prince, though he tried to give the stop on a six-country trip a low profile (until the Saudis issued a photo of Mr. Mnuchin with the prince).

But CIA Director Gina Haspel was also dispatched this week to the region – in her case to Turkey, where she is reported to have listened to tapes Turkish officials have claimed to have of Khashoggi’s murder. Some unnamed US officials with knowledge of Ms. Haspel’s meetings described the tapes as “compelling.”

And Congress has made it clear that it intends to hold the administration’s feet to the fire over the Khashoggi scandal. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has already invoked the Magnitsky Act, which directs the president to report back to the committee on a country’s grave human rights breach within 120 days and determine whether sanctions will be imposed.

After an initiative by Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky to stop arming Saudi Arabia’s Yemen war lost by only four votes in June, many observers now expect the Khashoggi case to prompt Senator Paul to try again – and very possibly with a different result this time.

What all of this tells some diplomats and foreign policy analysts is that the US post-Khashoggi will have unprecedented leverage over Saudi Arabia and in particular Crown Prince Salman, also known as MBS – if the Trump White House decides to use it.

Noting that US-Saudi relations have been “bouncing from one problem to another under MBS’s leadership,” Middle East expert and former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk says the Khashoggi case adds fresh urgency to an already needed reassessment.

“We have an opportunity to sit down with MBS … and say, ‘We cannot go on like this, we need a reliable partner,’ ” he says. “We need to restructure our relationship with MBS if we decide we can’t get rid of him and have to work with him.”

Impact on Yemen war

Indyk says the Khashoggi debacle only reinforces the already growing sentiment that the White House strategy of relying on Saudi Arabia to deliver the Palestinians to accept a grand peace accord with Israel is in tatters. But he says the new leverage the US has with the Saudis could salvage some aspects of the strategy to counter Iran.

Noting that new US sanctions targeting Iran’s oil production will go into effect shortly, Mr. Indyk says Trump could pressure the Saudis to make up for the estimated 1 million barrels a day of Iranian oil that will no longer reach the global market. The worrisome aspect of such a scenario is that Trump might “soft-pedal” the US response to Khashoggi in order to get the Saudis to boost oil production.

But perhaps the most significant impact Indyk and others see from a post-Khashoggi recalibration of US-Saudi relations will be on the disastrous war in Yemen, where Saudi bombing campaigns (using US-supplied bombs) continue to hit civilians, and where millions of people face starvation.

“Part of the positive side” of something as horrendous as the Khashoggi killing could be “getting the Saudis out of Yemen,” says CFR’s Cook. The White House has shown little interest in the war, he says, “but the Congress is in a completely different place on this,” he adds. He expects to see Congress “using this brutal murder to hold MBS accountable on Yemen.”

Indeed some experts see a congressional effort to stop the Saudis’ use of US arms in Yemen spilling over into heightened attention to the state of rights and the rule of law inside Saudi Arabia. “We see in Congress a growing preoccupation with the gross human rights violations in the Saudis’ prosecution of the war in Yemen,” says the Fletcher School’s Prodromou, “but what I think generally is that there’s going to be more rather than less concern over the human rights part of this relationship.”

Prodromou says she believes there’s a “50-50 chance” of some sanctions on Saudi officials being triggered by the Magnitsky Act. “And if that happens it will be a sea change in the relationship.”

‘Windfall for Iran’

What worries Prodromou is that while the Khashoggi affair may end up prompting the US to assert its values and other aspects of its soft power in its relations with Saudi Arabia, the scandal will only empower and embolden others in the region with as bad or worse human rights records – including Turkey and Iran.

“Turkey has more journalists in prison than China, and that’s been true for a decade, and yet Turkey is going to come out of this a big winner,” she says, arguing that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has played the Khashoggi affair adroitly – even using it to make that case that Turkey and not Saudi Arabia should be the center of Sunni Islam.

Beyond Turkey, the shambles of the Trump White House MBS strategy can only be seen “as a windfall for Iran,” says Indyk, who notes that the region will now see the US strategy for countering Iran as a failure.

“In the end,” he says, “MBS has really helped the Iranians instead of helping us.”

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