If Biden doesn’t hold MBS accountable for the Khashoggi murder, Congress should
The Biden administration’s refusal to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) personally accountable for his role in the killing of U.S.-resident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is both morally unacceptable and strategically counterproductive. Giving MBS the diplomatic equivalent of a get-out-of-jail free card will simply encourage him to continue a series of reckless policies that are sowing instability, repression and conflict in the Middle East – none of which are in long-term U.S. interests.
If MBS – Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler – is allowed to get away with murder, it will send a message to dictators and autocrats worldwide that the U.S. is willing to give human rights a back seat to allegedly more important imperatives in its relations with repressive regimes. The MBS decision is an early, critical moment in the emerging Biden foreign policy. What does America stand for in the world, and how do current policies differ from the amoral, transactional approach of the Trump years?
The Biden administration deserves credit for its decision to end U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen, along with relevant arms sales. But in light of Saudi Arabia’s abysmal human rights record at home and abroad, of which the Khashoggi murder and its brutal war in Yemen are just the most egregious examples, President Biden needs to go much further.
One place to start would be to block all pending arms sales and military assistance to the Saudi military as leverage to get it to stop targeting civilians in Yemen, and to play a constructive role in inclusive peace talks aimed at ending the war. As Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution has noted, the Royal Saudi Air Force would be grounded without U.S. spare parts and maintenance. Ending this support would send a strong message that current Saudi conduct in Yemen will no longer be tolerated. In the short-term, the most urgent task is to press Riyadh to lift its devastating blockade of Yemen, which has blocked fuel imports and other desperately needed humanitarian supplies, increasing the ravages of life-threatening shortages of food and medical care.
Cutting military ties to the Saudi regime would be an important first step towards a total reset of U.S.-Saudi relations. Punishing MBS is another. At a minimum, the administration should impose travel and financial sanctions on Bin Salman under the Global Magnitsky Act, which applies to foreign individuals “responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.” MBS perfectly fits this description.
Administration officials have made numerous excuses for their failure to hold MBS accountable, most notably that it would severely disrupt relations with an ally that is critical to efforts to contain Iran and fight terrorism. Neither of these rationales hold up to scrutiny. Whatever intelligence Saudi Arabia may or may not provide regarding terrorist activity is more than outweighed by the impact of its aggressive conduct in Yemen, which has created greater space for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to operate and recruit.
And the key to relations with Iran is not to create an anti-Iranian bloc centered on Saudi Arabia. Doing so is a recipe for further conflict. The most important first step in a new U.S. approach to Middle East policy is to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal – formally known as the Joint Cooperative Plan of Action (JCPOA) – as swiftly as possible. The deal not only blocks Iran’s path to developing a nuclear weapon, but it could set the stage for discussions of other Iranian behavior in its region.
A one-sided U.S. approach that backs Saudi Arabia regardless of its conduct was one of the triggers for Riyadh’s devastating intervention in Yemen, which was a pet project of MBS that he wrongly assumed would end in short order with a Saudi victory. As we approach the sixth anniversary of a war that has left nearly a quarter of a million people dead and millions at risk of starvation and fatal disease, it is long past time to take a more balanced approach to U.S. relations with Iran and the Gulf states.
The whole world is watching the Biden administration’s response to the Khashoggi murder and the other Saudi crimes that implicate MBS. Leaders like Abdel El-Sisi in Egypt and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines must be breathing a sigh of relief, assuming that their own murderous conduct will be excused on the basis of inflated notions of their strategic importance.
As a candidate, Joe Biden assured us that if he was elected president, America would not “check its values at the door” in relations with Saudi Arabia. Now is the time to prove it, not only to provide a measure of justice for Jamal Khashoggi but to set a new, more pragmatic course for U.S. policy in the Middle East and beyond.
If the president doesn’t act, Congress should. There are already bills in the works to cut off all arms to Saudi Arabia; impose financial and travel sanctions on MBS; and suspend U.S. arms transfers to the Kingdom until MBS is held accountable for the Khashoggi killing. All are worthy of support, and all would mark a welcome new direction in U.S.-Saudi relations.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.