Human rights and strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia are compatible

Human rights and strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia are compatible
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Saudi Arabia’s admission that on Oct. 2, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Saudi agents killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi will require a strong response from the United States. The murder of a Saudi journalist, who was a U.S. permanent resident in the employ of the Washington Post, is a stark human rights violation and an affront to our core belief that all men are endowed by their creator with the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Responding forcefully to the Saudi perpetrators of this crime should not, however, affect the unique strategic relationship the United States has with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, this is where strong leadership and diplomacy come into play. It’s in our interest — and Riyadh’s — to ensure that our efforts to counter Iran’s adventurism in the Middle East continue and intensify, and to ensure that joint counterterrorism efforts are not adversely affected. To permit a justified U.S. response to this gruesome killing to affect our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia would be a failure of leadership and diplomacy.


President George H.W. Bush’s strong response to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square protests, where reportedly thousands of Chinese were killed, is a model worth noting. The U.S. response was swift, condemning Beijing and suspending high-level government exchanges, halting military cooperation and the sale of military equipment, and imposing sanctions. The Congress imposed punitive measures on China, and U.S. relations with China were at a historic low point. President Bush was determined to punish China for its human rights abuses, while remaining mindful of the value of a strong strategic relationship with China.  

Thus, President Bush worked hard to ensure that justified U.S. sanctions and related actions did not undermine the unique and vital relationship the United States had with China and its leader, Deng Xiaoping. Bush conveyed this concern to Deng in a personal letter, and on July 1, 1989, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft quietly traveled to Beijing to share this message, in an effort to preserve both countries’ strategic and economic interests in a close bilateral relationship. This strategy for dealing with China, during a difficult period, was successful, and the U.S. reaction to the killing of protesters did not adversely affect our strategic relationship with China.

The international community looked to the United States for a response to the Tiananmen Square protests. What they saw was a swift affirmation of our nation’s strong values, and concern for the human rights of all people, yet acknowledgement of the importance of a strong strategic bilateral relationship. The international community continues to look to the United States for this leadership, especially now when there are a greater number of authoritarian leaders who seem more concerned with absolute power and less concerned about human rights and the rule of law.

Indeed, a strong U.S. reaction to the perpetrators of Khashoggi’s killing will reinforce our values and strong leadership role on human rights issues. It will also be a message to those who may think human rights abuses can go unpunished.

As more information on what happened in Istanbul becomes available, President TrumpDonald TrumpDonald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' Schiff sees challenges for intel committee, community in Trump's shadow McConnell says he'd back Trump as 2024 GOP nominee MORE and the Congress will be taking appropriate action to punish those who authorized and carried out this atrocity. Indeed, the Global Magnitsky Act permits the freezing of assets and banning of visas of those who perpetrated gross human rights abuses from any country. These and other sanctions on Saudi officials will be forthcoming. Less public will be the diplomatic efforts to ensure that these justified sanctions do not adversely affect our important, strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia on issues dealing with Iran’s provocative behavior in the Middle East and our joint counterterrorism cooperation.

Ambassador Joseph R. DeTrani was the State Department’s special envoy for negotiations with North Korea from 2003 to 2006. He directed the National Counterproliferation Center in 2010 and was a special adviser to the director of national intelligence. He served more than two decades with the CIA and as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service. The views are the author’s and not those of any government department or agency.