The Saudi Problem

The disappearance and suspected murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi might be the spark that finally lights the Saudi powderkeg the United States has been sitting on for decades. If you don’t know the story, check out the New York Times wonderful reporting on it.

The ascension of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been a mixed bag, to say the least. He loosened many regulations (famously allowing women to begin driving) and is an enthusiastic modernizer, which drew praise from international leaders and journalists (including Khashoggi). After a couple of dinners with Jared Kushner, Mohammed bin Salman agreed to buy $110 billion dollars worth of weapons from the US (the actual purchases have fallen far short due to conflict between the Saudi King and the US over moving our embassy in Isreal to Jerusleum and the typical Trumpian nature of the over-inflated sale number).

However, Mohammed has also displayed a nasty, violent, even murderous authoritarian streak. Because of this, Khashoggi became an outspoken critic of the regime, moving to the US (living in Virginia) and calling on the Crown Prince to ease up on his authoritarian tendencies. Some US legislators have questioned our ties to Saudi Arabia, in particular, because of their continued air strikes in Yemen.

Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Turkey with his fiance on October 2 to pick up documents they needed in order to be married. Khashoggi feared that something might be done to them, so he left his fiance outside with two cell phones and told her to call for help if he did not return.

What happened next is contested. According to Khashoggi’s fiance and the Turkish government, Jamal Khashoggi never exited the Saudi consulate. The Turkish government has cameras and surveillance on the consulate to verify. The Turks claim that the Saudis murdered Khashoggi, dismembered his body, and took him out of the complex in a series of briefcases.

The Saudis claim he left on his own and they have no idea where he went. They have not offered any proof to back up this claim and no one who knows Khashoggi has heard from him since.

The Saudis have no credibility. Fifteen of the nineteen terrorists involved in 9/11 were Saudis. Over 2500 Saudis have joined ISIS. The Saudi state promotes a violent and radical jihadist movement internationally. We have overlooked their role in terrorism, a horrible human rights record, and whatever regional violence they are engaging in (Yemen, at the moment) because they are an oil-rich nation whose royal family likes to spend money and hobnob around in the US.

Today, Senator Rand Paul has issued a public notice that he plans to introduce legislation that will cut off US arms sales to Saudi Arabia:

Furthermore, if America is not at war with Yemen—which, technically, we are not—why are we enabling Saudi Arabia to prosecute a war that has killed tens of thousands and left 8 million more “on the brink of famine,” according to The Washington Post? I’m not just talking about bombs being dropped on innocent civilians that bear the words “Made in the U.S.A.” Without American intelligence, logistics, training, and equipment, the Saudi war effort would have fallen apart long ago.

I have spoken out loudly on this for some time, and I’ve also introduced legislation to halt U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. I have been deeply disappointed with those of my colleagues in Congress who don’t seem to care that Yemenis are being massacred by U.S.-backed-and-armed Saudis.

But I’m giving them another chance. A chance to stand up to Saudi Arabia and say, “America will not tolerate these heinous acts.”

This week, I intend to introduce another measure to cut all funding, training, advising, and any other coordination to and with the military of Saudi Arabia until the journalist Jamal Khashoggi is returned alive.

This oppressive regime must be held accountable for its actions. The United States has no business supporting it, either directly or indirectly.

Paul’s call to arms would be more credible if he knew how to do his job as a member of the Senate. Instead of grandstanding fillibusters and op-eds, what Rand Paul should be doing is using personal relationships, across the aisle outrage, and good old-fashioned horse trading to get the votes he’ll need to pass such legislation. But Rand Paul never does that. Instead, I expect he’ll make a big show of his stance against “the establishment” on this issue and put it in his quiver for another failed Presidential run in six or seven years. “Remember that time I stood up to the Saudis after they murdered and dismembered a journalist? That was cool, right?”

I mean, we all know what a bang-up job Rand did with his 2016 Murphy-Paul resolution to curb arms sales to the Saudis…

There is little hope that Congress will act. Lindsey Graham can say there will be “hell to pay” if we find out the Saudis murdered Khashoggi, but his party’s leader, Donald Trump has already laid out the case against cutting off arms sales:

I think that would be hurting us. We have jobs we have a lot of things happening in this country.

You may recall that Trump’s first foreign visit was to the Saudis. Or that he immediately backed them in their conflict with Qatar, despite his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s objections. And despite growing domestic and international concerns over the death and possible famine about to hit Yemen, the US has done nothing to curb the Saudi campaign there.

According to reports, Jared Kushner has been our point-man with the Saudis. You are doing great, Jared. Really showing off that genius that Nikki Haley talked about the other day.

There is enough blame to go around here. The US has been in a toxic relationship with the Saudi government since the end of World War II. Both Republicans and Democrats have been complicit in this. Barack Obama tried to ease us out of the Middle East– it was a big part of his Obama Doctrine. For those who don’t remember, here are the four main takeaways of what Obama advocated for in the region:

  1. As our dependence on foreign oil has decreased the Middle East becomes increasingly less important to the US economy. Without oil, the Middle East holds little geopolitical value.

  2. Even if the Middle East was of high importance, there is almost nothing that the United States can actively do to improve/stabilize the region.

  3. Our interventionist tendencies manifest themselves in acts of war, deaths of US soldiers, contractors, and aid workers, high casualties among local populations, and decreased respect and credibility in the region (all of which have negative impacts on terrorism and internal US support for activity in the area).

  4. The irrational forces of tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and militarism will ultimately lose to the rational thought, diplomacy, and the expertise of technocrats and bureaucrats.

Extracting ourselves from the no longer high priority Middle East requires creating a geopolitical balance in the region that can ensure stability without constantly involving the US. This was a big part of why making inroads with Iran is necessary. In order to back out of our deep entanglement with the Saudis and given the instability of Iraq and Syria, there needed to be another Arab-Muslim power in the region that is part of the larger international commitment to peace in the area. If we are unable to credibly back other states, our “allies” effectively hold too much leverage over our policy in the region. This, along with nuclear proliferation, was an important reason not to scuttle the Iran deal and to piss away any headway we made on rapprochement between our nations. We have to start enticing states in the region to join a broad international community rather than continue the bi-polar US-Russia Cold War mentality that somehow survived for the last 30 years in a zombie state.

I have no faith that our congressional leadership has the backbone or skill to do anything about this. They have been impotent on international affairs for so long that I question if they even know how to do this anymore. I have even less faith in our executive branch. Having the wildly unqualified Jared Kushner run point on this is impossibly stupid. Trump, in that blunt way of his, already outlined the case against withdrawing support from the Saudis (there is too much money to be made!). And from a practical standpoint, backing away from the Saudis leaves us strategically weak in the region.

And yet I have hope. A large-scale humanitarian crisis rarely moves the needle in American politics. But stories of individual suffering, putting a human face on inhumane actions do. If the Saudis murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a man living in the United States, there should be dire consequences. If there are not, we are effectively telling the world you can kill people who live under the protection of the United States with impunity, so long as they are not on our soil at the time.

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