Home/Daniel Larison/The U.S. Doesn’t Need a Reckless Saudi Client

The U.S. Doesn’t Need a Reckless Saudi Client

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman believed to have ordered Khashoggi kidnapping (Al Arabiya screenshot)

John Allen Gay makes the case for a more balanced U.S. approach to the Middle East, starting with downgrading the relationship with Saudi Arabia:

The United States can—and should—downgrade its relationship with Saudi Arabia and treat it like a typical autocratic country. Because there is no imminent threat to our own vital interests in the region, there is no need for a “necessary evil” alliance with the Kingdom.

Our government’s excessive attachment to the Saudi relationship is driven to a large extent by threat inflation and what Washington called inveterate antipathies. The combination of the grudge held against Iran wrongs committed long ago and the tendency to exaggerate the danger that Iran poses to the U.S. have trapped us in bad relationships with reckless clients for decades. Just as our government overstates the threat from Iran, so it exaggerates the importance of these clients to the United States. A more accurate and realistic appraisal of the former would make it much easier to make a sober reassessment of the latter.

Emma Ashford describes the relationship with Riyadh in a separate article as a “failing marriage of convenience,” and I think that sums up the nature of the relationship much better than thinking of it as an alliance. There is no formal obligation to come to Saudi Arabia’s defense, and they aren’t obliged to come to ours. Our interests increasingly diverge, and it does not serve our interests to treat their regional rivals as our enemies. Our governments have cooperated on certain things in the past when it was mutually beneficial, but the relationship has been yielding diminishing returns for a long time and has become a liability for the U.S. in recent years. Mohammed bin Salman’s destructive behavior has been a curse for the region and a threat to Saudi Arabia’s stability, but it has made it easier to acknowledge how bad for America the U.S.-Saudi relationship had become even before he came to power.

As Saudi Arabia becomes more of a destabilizing regional menace, it makes sense for the U.S. to distance itself from them. In practice, that should mean an end to military assistance and arms sales, and it means giving up on building an anti-Iran “alliance” that would serve as little more than an umbrella for Saudi troublemaking. The U.S. would stop shielding and covering for the Saudis when they commit outrages against their neighbors and their own citizens, and it would treat them as it would any other despotic regime. Instead of the warped and noxious relationship that we have now, it would be a normal, businesslike bilateral relationship. That would keep the U.S. from becoming entangled in Saudi Arabia’s regional feuds and schemes, and it would allow our government to act as a more effective diplomatic mediator when the occasion arises. Above all, it would mean that our policies in the region are determined by what is in the best interests of the United States rather than distorting those policies and harming our interests to satisfy the preferences of an increasingly repressive and irresponsible despot.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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