No easy future for Saudi relations

No easy future for Saudi relations
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The Saudi government has finally, reluctantly, admitted the horrible fact that Jamal Khashoggi was killed in its Istanbul consulate. Now we are left with the dilemma of what to make of the murder of the Saudi dissident, American resident, and Washington Post columnist, and what his death should mean for our politics, policy, and values. The choices are not easy.

I have no magic elixir to simplify the problem. But there are some things we ought to keep in mind. First, this was an outrage even if Khashoggi had been the anti-Christ or whatever the Islamic equivalent might be. Attempts to characterize Khashoggi as a Muslim Brotherhood zealot or fellow traveler of Osama bin Laden are shameful. His dalliance with the  Muslim Brotherhood was as a young man, a not uncommon occurrence in the Arab world for serious young males not born into power. His early contacts with Osama bin Laden were as a journalist, not unlike those of Peter Bergen of CNN. At the time of his murder, Khashoggi was a serious writer intent on bringing meaningful reform in his home country. He was what we would have traditionally called a “liberalizing” influence.


A second consideration is how this event fits into the larger “body of work” of the Saudi kingdom and its crown prince, both under pressure following the “Arab awakening” and the ascendance of Iran in the Arab capitals of Baghdad, Sanaa, Beirut, and Damascus. In response, de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Salman, at 33 years old, has jettisoned traditional Saudi caution in kidnapping a Lebanese prime minister, cratering Gulf unity by isolating Qatar, waging war in Yemen, detaining and shaking down hundreds of royals, and arresting women activists who called for some of the very reforms the crown prince himself has enacted.

Some of this is forgiven as youthful impatience, or even applauded as the kind of decisive action needed to move the kingdom out of its archaic past. But there are few institutional checks on the Saudi monarchy other than the need to preserve royal family solidarity, and the crown prince’s march toward the throne has shredded the family’s historic devotion to consensus. Killing political opponents abroad smacks more of Iranian leadership than it does of the House of Saud, but it is not clear how much the House of Saud controls its aggressive and impulsive crown prince.

It is impossible to imagine a hit team being sent to Istanbul without sanction by Mohammed Bin Salman. The current explanation of an illegal rendition gone bad is neither comforting nor is it convincing. Even this cover story is a deep embarrassment for many Saudis, especially those who have traveled to or lived in the West. One recent visitor to the kingdom compared the mood there to the American reaction to the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Moreover, this weak cover story by the Saudi government will tatter as more details become known.

At the same time, Turkey is not a totally honest broker in this drama. It has jailed more journalists than any other nation, exactly for alleged offense by Khashoggi of telling truth about a government. Turkey also is a regional competitor with Saudi Arabia, so its information is designed as much to influence as it is to inform. Still, there is little doubt that officials in Ankara have more embarrassing news to reveal on their own schedule.

How does all of this fit into the American view of the kingdom and its crown prince? Our ties date to a formal meeting on the cruiser USS Quincy along the Suez Canal in 1945. There, a dying Franklin Roosevelt promised the United States defense of the kingdom in return for a steady supply of oil promised by King Abdulaziz. But the Saudis know America is approaching energy independence, so they worry about the American promise. Ten years ago, during one of my visits to the kingdom, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, ended a nightlong session with me by presenting a lovely framed photo of the handshake between Roosevelt and Abdulaziz. No subtlety there.

Saudi oil is hardly irrelevant to other nations, though, and Saudi importance to the United States is reinforced by potential contributions vis-a-vis Iran and and peace between Israel and Palestine. All these factors provides sound motivation for pursuing a good strategic relationship, but they hardly explain the breakneck rush to embrace the kingdom and Mohammed Bin Salman in the early weeks of the Trump administration.

Bob Woodward’s bestseller “Fear” documents how Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerOvernight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — California monitoring 8,400 people for coronavirus | Pence taps career official to coordinate response | Dems insist on guardrails for funding Trump upends controversial surveillance fight Top Trump advisers discuss GOP need to act on health care at retreat with senators MORE, the minister of almost everything, pushed reluctant a Pentagon, State Department, and National Security Council into an early agreement with a presidential visit to Saudi Arabia. Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisFed chief issues stark warning to Congress on deficits Why US democracy support matters Hillicon Valley: DOJ indicts four Chinese military officers over Equifax hack | Amazon seeks Trump deposition in 'war cloud' lawsuit | Inside Trump's budget | Republican proposes FTC overhaul MORE, Secretary Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTrump lashes out over Kelly criticism: 'He misses the action' Timeline: Trump and Romney's rocky relationship Top Democrat demands Barr recuse himself from case against Turkish bank MORE, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster wanted to go more carefully. They probably were familiar with the advice I received while at the CIA: “The Saudis are often a lot more hat than cattle.”

In Riyadh, President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Memo: Biden seeks revival in South Carolina Congress eyes billion to billion to combat coronavirus Sanders makes the case against Biden ahead of SC primary MORE was lavishly praised by his Saudi hosts, who welcomed him with his outsized image on the side of a public building. President Trump reciprocated with a full throated endorsement of the kingdom and the crown prince, the demonization of Iran, and a series of paper deals on arms sales and counterterrorism. Kushner has nurtured stronger personal ties with Mohammed Bin Salman, so strong that the United States has yet to name an official ambassador to Riyadh.

So all of this brings us to the youthful linchpin of the relationship implicated in the killing of Khashoggi. President Trump initially reacted by trying to avoid the obvious with talk of trade deals, arms sales, and rogue elements. Over time, his comments and those of other officials have grown more concerned, more somber, and even more critical. Even Kushner has talked about calmly following the facts. The dispatch of no nonsense CIA Director Gina Haspel to Turkey last week, perhaps a “put up” or “shut up” moment for Ankara, is another encouraging sign.

As this situation evolves, it may very well be that the only way to salvage the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is to curtail the relationship with Mohammed Bin Salman. America obviously does not get to pick future Saudi kings, but we do get to choose how we relate to one. This crown prince may have so much baggage that, even if he survives Saudi palace intrigues, he may not survive backlash from Washington, as Congress and perhaps even the courts respond.

Saudi Arabia has had three crown princes in fewer than four years. Mohammed Bin Salman had to unseat first his uncle, Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz, and then his cousin before taking over the role. The cousin, Mohammed Bin Nayef, headed the internal security service of the kingdom, was educated in the West unlike Mohammed Bin Salman, and earned high marks from Americans like me who worked with him. He was placed under house arrest when Mohammed Bin Salman replaced him.

All recent kings of Saudi Arabia have been brothers of Abdulaziz Al Saud. Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz was the youngest surviving son and last in that line. The next king must come from the next generation. It does not have to be the Mohammed Bin Salman. Indeed, the continued health of the United States relationship with Saudi Arabia may demand that it is not.

Gen. Michael Hayden is a former director of the CIA and of the National Security Agency. He is now a visiting professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of “The Assault on Intelligence: American National Security in an Age of Lies.”