Walter Russell Mead’s recommendations for how to handle Saudi recklessness are typically myopic:
But to do what the Iran-deal chorus and the Erdogan and Muslim Brotherhood apologists want—to dissolve the U.S.-Saudi alliance in a frenzy of righteousness—would be an absurd overreaction that plays into the hands of America’s enemies. It could also stampede the Saudis into even more recklessness.
It is difficult to see how downgrading the U.S.-Saudi relationship could possibly “play into the hands” of our enemies when the Saudi government has been working overtime to play into the hands of their rivals at the expense of our interests. The war on Yemen has not made Saudi Arabia and the UAE more secure, it has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis while failing to achieve any of its objectives, it has strengthened Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and it has led to a modest increase in Iranian influence in the country. The war has implicated the U.S. in coalition war crimes and made us an accomplice to the creation of a famine that could threaten the lives of 13 million people. The Qatar crisis is another Saudi-led blunder that has managed to deepen Qatar’s ties with Turkey and Iran while fracturing the GCC and creating a massive headache for Washington. The U.S. has never been in any danger of overreacting to Saudi crimes and blunders. At the very least, the U.S. shouldn’t be in the business of enabling them, and ideally it would be criticizing and opposing them.
By any measure, the signature policies of the current Saudi leadership over at least the last three and a half years have been bad for U.S. interests and America’s reputation, and they have failed on their own terms as well. The Saudi government has not done anything significantly constructive or helpful for the U.S. in at least the last decade, but it has been racking up quite the list of costly, destructive errors in that same period. This so-called “alliance” is bringing the U.S. nothing but problems, grief, and liabilities, and it yields hardly any discernible benefits. Demands to reassess the U.S.-Saudi relationship are not the product of a “frenzy of righteousness,” but come out of a sober calculation of what the Saudi relationship costs the U.S. versus what it gains us. In Mead’s flawed reckoning, the U.S. should stick with a bad client no matter what. That’s not even a serious attempt at analysis. It’s just mindless support of a corrupt status quo.
To restore balance and sobriety to its foreign policy, Saudi Arabia needs to calm down, and only the U.S. can provide the assurances to make that possible.
This gets things exactly backwards. U.S. assurances have encouraged the Saudi government and Mohammed bin Salman in particular to pursue one reckless policy after another in the confidence that Washington’s support will never be withdrawn. U.S. support for the war on Yemen ostensibly began as an effort to “reassure” the Saudis and Emiratis that the U.S. could be relied on. Three and a half years later, we can see what a horrible mistake it was to reassure these reckless clients that they could count on our backing. The U.S. has been endlessly providing assurances to the Saudis and other clients in the region, and they have understandably interpreted this as a blank check to do as they please. There won’t be anything like “balance and sobriety” in Saudi foreign policy until the architects of the current disasters are forced to pay a significant price for their blunders, and the U.S. has considerable leverage to extract that price.
The fatal weakness in Mead’s column is his failure to propose a single action that the U.S. might take that might change Saudi behavior for the better. He says that the Saudi government needs to “calm down,” but never spells out what that means. If they refrain from assassinating critics in their overseas consulates, will that be sufficient to satisfy Mead? Does he think they should stop doing other things? We have no way of knowing, because he doesn’t bother to offer any specific suggestions. He concludes vaguely by saying that Pompeo “must give Saudi authorities the confidence that sober and sensible policies will bring continuing American support for the kingdom’s independence and reform,” but if there are no consequences for pursuing reckless and senseless policies what incentive does Mohammed bin Salman have to change course? Mead’s argument amounts to calling for a slap on the wrist for murder and then getting back to what I’m sure he would call business as usual. It’s the wrong response with feeble supporting arguments to back it up.