The U.S. Needs to Rein in Its Reckless Saudi Client
Bruce Riedel reviews destabilizing Saudi behavior and the increased volatility inside the kingdom following Mohammed bin Salman’s purges:
Saudi foreign policy, typically cautious and risk averse, has become aggressive and dangerous, sometimes reckless. As the main architect of its failures, Muhammad bin Salman must bear the consequences, and the question is will he learn from his mistakes?
The answer seems to be that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) doesn’t even realize that he has been making mistakes. Whenever he has had an opportunity to correct a poor decision, he has opted to persist in his misguided course of action. The crown prince has been rewarded so far with increased power and influence after each costly error he has made, and he has not had to pay any penalty personally for his mistakes. His reputation is linked to his foreign misadventures, and that makes it even harder for him to admit failure and correct course because it would amount to accepting that his critics were right that he didn’t know what he was doing.
The crown prince isn’t likely to face sufficient international pressure to change anytime soon, either. Despite being one of the chief architects of an atrocious war and a war criminal, he mostly receives positive and sometimes glowing coverage in international media, and he has managed to win over Trump so completely that the president will apparently never say a word against him or his agenda. MBS might reasonably conclude from the indifference to and whitewashing of his record that Western governments don’t care about the failures of his foreign policy initiatives, and as a result he can keep behaving as recklessly as he likes. Failure in one place has not dissuaded him from blundering elsewhere, and his fixation on opposing Iran makes him oblivious to the negative consequences of his actions. This isn’t someone who will change course on his own. He will have to be reined in, or he will continue his pattern of destabilizing behavior.
Riedel recommends that the U.S. use its leverage with Riyadh to put MBS in check:
Rather than handing over a blank check to Riyadh, Washington should be urging a more conservative approach. Privately the message must be stern because America’s interests are at stake and damaged by misadventures like the Qatari dispute. Washington should be urgently trying to find an early end to the Yemeni catastrophe, both to save lives and prevent escalation.
That would be a start in the right direction, but I fear that the current administration is very unlikely to do these things. Trump already gave Riyadh a blank check in May when he visited there, and we have seen the aftermath over the last six months. Unless Congress does something significant to challenge Trump, such as voting down new arms sales, I wouldn’t expect the U.S. to stop indulging its most reckless client.