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End the Dangerous Saudi Relationship Now

We have seen over the last few years what happens when Washington gives the Saudis uncritical backing and protection, and everyone is worse off because of it.
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Jason Rezaian observes that the Trump administration missed its opportunity to change the relationship with Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s murder two years ago, and he spells out what the U.S. needs to do now:

When MBS arrived on the scene, many observers were overly optimistic about the prospects of his promised reforms to Saudi Arabia. They easily ignored the pointless and catastrophic war he has waged on Yemen. They have also looked past the growing list of human rights abuses that have become more egregious on his watch.

Now that we know the predictions of modern reform were wrong, the United States must correct course. We must push to hold MBS accountable — not only because it is the correct and moral thing to do, but also because it could ensure that we don’t remain entangled and dependent on a despotic leader motivated by a blind and violent thirst for power. That remains the ultimate threat to our interests and national security.

Trump’s enthusiasm for catering to Saudi preferences has been unusually strong, but before 2018 the conventional wisdom in much of Washington had been that the U.S. had not been as supportive of the Saudis as it should have been. The extensive lobbying network acting on behalf of the UAE and Saudi Arabia made sure that this is how people viewed the final years of the Obama administration. The false promise of Mohammed bin Salman’s “reforms” notwithstanding, there was a great willingness in D.C. to indulge and “reassure” the Saudis. This is ostensibly why the Obama administration backed the attack on Yemen in the first place, and it is why opposition to U.S. involvement in the war was so muted in Congress until it became identified with Trump’s sword-dancing, orb-grasping spectacle in Riyadh. When Trump became president, his determination to curry favor with the Saudis and the UAE weirdly aligned him with what lots of people in Washington thought the U.S. should be doing. But then the war on Yemen continued to drag on and the Saudi coalition repeatedly slaughtered innocent civilians with airstrikes, and Saudi agents murdered Khashoggi. It was telling that it was the latter that registered far more in Washington, where the victim was known personally, but the backlash against the Saudis that followed served to rally more support behind the effort to end U.S. involvement in the war. Covering for the Saudis as he has done for the last three and a half years, Trump vetoed every resolution that would have stopped U.S. involvement and cut off further weapons sales, and for the last year and a half U.S. involvement in the indefensible war has continued despite broad opposition to it. The conventional wisdom about the Saudis has changed significantly, but Trump and his allies are still acting as if the last two years never happened.

The administration remains wedded to the fiction that its involvement in the war on Yemen has reduced the harm to the civilian population, but there is no evidence that this is so. A recent New York Times article said that the “rationale” for U.S. involvement was “fraying,” but it would have been far more accurate to say that it was never credible and had been debunked over five years ago. It never made sense that enabling and supporting an indiscriminate bombing campaign would lead to fewer civilian casualties. The idea that U.S. advice or training would somehow make Saudi coalition attacks more precise took for granted that the coalition was trying to avoid civilian targets, but the overwhelming evidence of the last five years is that they wanted to take out vital infrastructure, target food production and distribution, and wage war indiscriminately on the entire population. It is this record of war crimes and the thousands of innocents killed in these attacks that should define Mohammed bin Salman’s legacy more than anything else, since he was one of the chief architects and drivers of the war. He has demonstrated what a reckless and aggressive government Saudi Arabia now has, and we should expect nothing better from him in the future. That calls for not just accountability for him, but also a complete reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship and an end to all arms sales to their government. If the crown prince is held accountable for one murder, but his thousands of Yemeni victims are forgotten, that won’t be justice. The crown prince should be seen and treated as a pariah and war criminal, and his government should be kept at arm’s length for as long as he is the de facto ruler. Mohammed bin Salman has acted so aggressively and criminally in part because he has assumed that he can act with impunity, and it is important for the next administration to show him that this is no longer the case.

Downgrading the relationship isn’t just the right thing to do because of the Saudi government’s crimes, but it is also a long overdue correction to our policy in the region. Whatever U.S. interests were served by the unduly close and cozy ties with Riyadh in the past, it no longer serves U.S. interests to continue that relationship now. Our role in the region has been far too militarized and far too imbalanced, and the connection with the Saudis has been a big part of both of those excesses. If we want a reduced military footprint and a more evenhanded foreign policy in dealing with all of the states in the region, the current relationship with the Saudis has to end. Bruce Riedel recently testified before Congress about the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and he made it clear that the relationship cannot remain what it has been:

“Saudi Arabia today is more a danger to the United States than it is an ally,” he said.

The U.S. should stop shielding and arming a despotic government whose interests increasingly diverge from ours, and it should stop whitewashing the crimes and abuses of the Saudi government against its own people. We have seen over the last few years what happens when Washington gives the Saudis uncritical backing and protection, and everyone is worse off because of it. It is past time to choose a different path.



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