Trump must take ag­gres­sive stance with Saudi Ara­bia

Pawtucket Times - - OPINION - Bloomberg View Lake is a Bloomberg Opin­ion colum­nist cov­er­ing na­tional se­cu­rity and for­eign pol­icy. He was the se­nior na­tional se­cu­rity correspondent for the Daily Beast and cov­ered na­tional se­cu­rity and in­tel­li­gence for the Wash­ing­ton Times, the New Yor

When it comes to Ja­mal Khashoggi, the Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist who has been miss­ing since en­ter­ing the Saudi con­sulate in Is­tan­bul last week, we re­main in the al­le­ga­tion-and-de­nial phase. The Turk­ish po­lice al­lege mur­der, and the Saudi govern­ment de­nies foul play.

As we wait for more in­for­ma­tion, it’s best to pre­pare for the worst. The Turk­ish govern­ment has pro­vided specifics and ev­i­dence – such as video of Khashoggi en­ter­ing the con­sulate and the names of 15 Saudi agents that it says flew to Is­tan­bul in pur­suit of him. The Saudis have is­sued blan­ket de­nials.

And even though the Turks have done the same kind of thing, it also fits a pat­tern for the Saudis un­der Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man. For more than a year, he has been purg­ing his crit­ics. Wealthy mem­bers of the royal fam­ily have had their as­sets con­fis­cated. Oth­ers have died in mys­te­ri­ous he­li­copter crashes. As Re­porters With­out Bor­ders has doc­u­mented, at least 15 Saudi jour­nal­ists and blog­gers have been ar­rested or dis­ap­peared since Septem­ber 2017.

That’s not un­usual in au­to­cratic states. But if the Saudis ab­ducted or mur­dered Khashoggi in Turkey, it crosses an­other line. It’s the kind of sin­is­ter state­craft to be ex­pected from Rus­sia, North Korea and Iran – not from a U.S. ally.

So if the Saudis did this, what should the U.S. do about it? One ap­proach would be a slap on the wrist. Have an as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of state make a speech about how ter­ri­ble this is with­out threat­en­ing any sub­stan­tive reper­cus­sions. The Saudis are on the front lines of a re­gional war with Iran, af­ter all, and the U.S. can’t risk weak­en­ing its side in the con­flict. No one wants the Houthis and their Ira­nian pa­trons to con­trol Ye­men’s Port of Aden. As an early Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion memo put it: “Al­lies should be treated dif­fer­ently – and bet­ter –than ad­ver­saries.”

An­other strat­egy would be to rec­og­nize that Saudi Ara­bia and the U.S. have di­ver­gent in­ter­ests and down­grade the re­la­tion­ship. Re­call the U.S. am­bas­sador, sup­port a res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing its ac­tions at the United Na­tions and sus­pend arms sales to Saudi Ara­bia. Maybe the pres­i­dent could even give a speech about the ve­nal­ity of this crime. Amer­ica can­not al­low this kind of lawlessness to be­come nor­mal­ized.

If other na­tions are to take the lib­eral world order se­ri­ously, then the anchor of that sys­tem – the U.S. – must pun­ish the out­liers, friend and foe alike. Be­sides, the Saudi-led war in Ye­men has been waged at a hor­ren­dous hu­man cost. Why deepen ties with a despot who dis­ap­pears re­porters and bombs civil­ians?

There are prob­lems with both tacks. A slap on the wrist lets the Saudis off too eas­ily. In­deed, the rel­a­tively muted re­sponse from the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to the Prince Mo­hammed’s purges up to now may have led his govern­ment to be­lieve it could get away with it.

There is also a deeper prob­lem with the slap on the wrist. It lets the Saudis be­lieve the U.S. needs them more than they need us. It ef­fec­tively puts the Saudis in con­trol of the al­liance, de­spite the fact that they are a much weaker power. As Robert Ka­gan told me in an in­ter­view this week: “Un­less are you will­ing to pun­ish them for this mis­be­hav­ior, then they own you.”

What about the more se­vere re­sponse? Saudi Ara­bia would def­i­nitely get the mes­sage – and other U.S. al­lies would un­der­stand there are con­se­quences if Amer­ica re­called its am­bas­sador and sup­ported a UN res­o­lu­tion. But that risks un­der­min­ing Prince Mo­hammed, and the U.S. has an in­ter­est in his suc­cess with promised re­forms like greater women’s equal­ity, a more open econ­omy and a less rad­i­cal clergy. What’s more, less U.S. mil­i­tary en­gage­ment in Ye­men will likely lead to more civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

Which course it chooses will say a lot about the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s val­ues. The first pri­or­ity for U.S. of­fi­cials should be to join the rest of the world in de­mand­ing a full ac­count­ing of what hap­pened in Is­tan­bul.

In the mean­time, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump should sus­pend arms sales to Saudi Ara­bia. He should also de­nounce the Saudis in pub­lic and threaten them with the more se­vere op­tions in pri­vate. Fi­nally, the State De­part­ment should in­ves­ti­gate all cases of miss­ing and de­tained jour­nal­ists and dis­si­dents in Saudi Ara­bia and re­lease the re­sults to the pub­lic.

Trump can do all this while also mak­ing it clear that the U.S. re­mains com­mit­ted to help­ing its al­lies counter Iran in Ye­men, Iraq, Le­banon and Syria. None of those al­lies, how­ever, is in­dis­pens­able. And if Saudi Ara­bia wants to act like Iran, even­tu­ally Amer­ica and the world will be forced to treat it as such. THE TIMES — Fri­day, Oc­to­ber 12, 2018

Eli Lake

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