U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s decision to back out of Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative, “Davos in the Desert,” is the first smart move the Trump administration has made in the aftermath of the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Trump promised a foreign policy guided by a strategy of “Principled Realism,” yet his administration’s handling of the crisis has been neither principled nor realist.
Instead of working to reassure the Saudis and sweep this issue under the rug, a more realist policy would take advantage of Riyadh’s mistake to stand up for our interests and values, bring balance back to our relationship, and get a better deal for America.
Many of Trump’s advisors seem to operate under the illusion that America is in a weak position in dealing with the Saudis. (Thus, Secretary of State Pompeo’s short-notice trip to Riyadh and the caution with which the administration has reacted to the killing; thus, the warnings that America could lose Saudi investments if it doesn’t play nice; thus, the indulgence of the new Saudi narrative: that the attack was ordered by a regime insider gone rogue.)
But do the Saudis really have America over a barrel?
Power in negotiations comes from alternatives—or, as candidate Trump put it in 2016, “When the other side knows you’re not going to walk, it becomes absolutely impossible to win…you just can’t win.” America’s alternatives here are solid. The United States enjoys a very strong position in the region. Our vital interests there are to ensure that no a regional hegemon arise to disrupt the global oil market and that no transnational terrorists threaten America.
No state in the region has the all the building blocks of regional hegemony. Iraq is a wreck. Saudi Arabia and its friends in the United Arab Emirates have too few people. Iran’s economy is too weak, its military outdated and defensive. If any one of these states tried to go after the others, its neighbors have the wherewithal and the self-interest to keep them at bay.
America can get what it needs from the region without doing much. Moreover, our strategic position is getting stronger—we’re producing more oil at home than ever before. And as China rises, the cost of keeping American power bogged down in the Middle East instead of focused on East Asia is growing. All this means we can afford to play hardball with the Saudis.
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.
Instead of picking sides in messy, no-win conflicts with bad actors on all sides, the United States should play hard-to-get with Middle Eastern capitals, strengthening our position as each tries to outdo the others for our favor.
We’d no longer be stained by our participation in a Saudi intervention in Yemen that has killed thousands and caused widespread starvation. We’d no longer have to keep up the charade that Iran is uniquely menacing or the source of all the region’s troubles. Saudi Arabia, after all, allegedly bonesawed a journalist, blew up busloads of schoolchildren, and kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon. Mohammad bin Salman would have to live with the price of his mistakes. And we could pursue balanced, limited relationships with both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
This realist policy would produce better moral outcomes.
If it were truly in America’s interest to remain so closely aligned with Saudi Arabia—it’s not—a realist approach would take advantage of Washington’s leverage and extract concessions from Riyadh. America would show its displeasure with the Saudis and force them to come begging for continued U.S. support. Mnuchin’s withdrawal from the conference would be step one. A much stronger step would be to cut off U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Officials at every level would let the Saudis sweat, making clear that a real change in the relationship is possible.
Alternatives create leverage for America. Picking sides creates leverage for Saudi Arabia.
It is not surprising the administration has mishandled this opportunity to stand up for American values and enhance our standing. Trump’s team has largely frozen out actual realists, especially on Middle East policy. Trump promised to “look for talented experts with approaches and practical ideas, rather than surrounding myself with those who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Yet his administration has elevated the lost-wars crowd. Many have close ties to the movement that led the rush to war in Iraq—a war that Trump has rightly and repeatedly called “the single worst decision ever made.”
The result of this retreat from realism has been a continuation of the status quo, an ideological approach that has sought confrontation with Iran and justified turning a brutal autocracy into an “ally.” This approach hands leverage to Saudi Arabia. America has committed to roll back the Kingdom’s main enemy—their problem, not ours—and sees close relations with Riyadh as essential for taking on Tehran. This strategy has continued to move forward during the Khashoggi affair, undermining any effort to distance ourselves from Saudi atrocities.
Thus, on Monday, Secretary of State Pompeo published a long essay in the new issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “Confronting Iran.” The essay praises Reagan’s “moral clarity and diplomatic acuity” in dealing with the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Pompeo was making his way to Riyadh to meet with a man accused of having a journalist carved up. The Secretary and the Crown Prince greeted each other warmly and grinned ear to ear. Outside the palace, his spokesperson, beaming, posed for an Instagram photo. Pompeo’s message was allegedly tougher than his demeanor, but the Saudi official press ran with the smiles. Pompeo spoke favorably about the Saudi plan to investigate itself for the journalist’s killing. So much for moral clarity.
Back home, the Treasury Department was rolling out new sanctions on Iran for human rights abuses, and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley took to the floor of the Security Council on the same subject. This sent the same message as the smiles: Washington’s anti-Iran, pro-Saudi strategy was still on. Trump’s team managed to destroy its own leverage. So much for diplomatic acuity.
President Trump would be wise to learn from this.
Pretending that the Persian Gulf is a land of good guys and bad guys is naïve. Iran is bad. So is Saudi Arabia. But we can and should seek balance, and continue productive engagement in the region to protect America’s economic and security interests. But backing one side in the absence of a threat to vital American interests is strategically and morally bankrupt. America needs little from the Middle East, and therefore has great leverage in dealing with Middle Eastern states. The brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi is a chance for Trump to turn toward a wiser, realist policy before we end up in yet another disastrous war.