U.S. global engagement and the military is this month’s Global Minnesota “Great Decisions” dialogue. It’s also among the essential questions regarding the Jamal Khashoggi case, which has spiraled into a foreign-policy crisis for the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi who wrote critical columns about the monarchy for the Washington Post, was killed in his country’s consulate in Istanbul. The kingdom initially denied complicity, but on Friday said he died after a fistfight. Sources close to the Turkish government, however, allege that he was kidnapped, interrogated, tortured, slain and dismembered by a Saudi security detail of 15 men, including one who brought his own bone saw.
On Sunday, Turkey’s president said that on Tuesday the truth “will be revealed in full nakedness.” The fig leaf Saudi Arabia already offered Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when he went to Riyadh last week was insulting. But so too was Pompeo’s performance, especially when he said, “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts” after his grip-and-grin meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince who is the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler.
Lawmakers, livid over the lies and the act itself, have already set the congressional clock ticking by triggering the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which gives Trump 120 days to decide on sanctions. Many in Congress want to go even further and delay or block weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. But Trump’s transactional nature is resisting what would be a rare display of the U.S. putting values above interests. “I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion — which is an all-time record — and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money,” Trump said on Oct. 11.
On a technical point, it’s highly unlikely that the Saudi military would switch weapons systems, particularly because its forces are so closely intertwined with the U.S., its ally.
On a more fundamental point, Trump is incorrectly reading the leverage and, more profoundly, the values equation.
“The U.S. has tremendous leverage over Saudi Arabia, and I think that sometimes it’s portrayed as if the Saudis have more leverage and we’re the ones who have to be very careful about straining the relationship; this gets things completely backward,” Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, said even before the kingdom’s cover story emerged last Friday.
But while the U.S. may in fact have the leverage, it doesn’t necessarily have the high ground.
“In terms of Saudi Arabia, the U.S. is in a slightly difficult position right now, as we have been for decades, because human-rights abuses with the Saudis are not new,” said Cécile Shea, a nonresident senior fellow on security and diplomacy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Speaking before the kingdom’s quasi-confession, Shea, a former Foreign Service officer, acknowledged that Riyadh had been an ally amid a tough neighborhood. But “their behavior in other ways had been very harmful to national security — particularly with the way they export their brand of extremist Sunni Islam.”
The most important aspect of arms sales, Shea said, “is equipping our friends and allies to be able to secure themselves and to work with the U.S. in a time of conflict.”
For that and other reasons arms sales to Saudi Arabia may continue, said Mathew Kroenig, deputy director for strategy at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Speaking before the kingdom’s acknowledgment of Khashoggi’s death, Kroenig was quick to say that those responsible for “this heinous crime” should be held accountable. But, Kroenig continued, arms sales to pernicious regimes raise “a perennial question in foreign policy: What takes precedence — interest or values? It would be nice if we can always put our values first, but I think that would be dangerous in an anarchic international system.”
And yet, jettisoning these values amplifies the anarchy. So Congress could send a strong signal not just within Washington, but in capitals worldwide.
“I actually believe that the world would like to see a return to a more robust checks-and-balances system in the U.S. government, which has really been lacking in the last few years,” Shea said.
Hamid concurs. Congress acting “would also show the world that there are different elements of U.S. foreign policy, and it’s not entirely dependent on the president, that there are actions Congress can take even when we have a president who is unwilling to do the right thing or take unnecessary action,” he said.
Whether the president is willing to uphold bedrock, bipartisan human-rights standards is still unclear. Trump has veered in his response, at times seeming to provide the kingdom cover, and then, on Saturday, telling the Washington Post that, “Obviously, there’s been deception and there’s been lies” and that “Their stories have been all over the place.”
So have Trump’s. Just two days prior, in Montana, Trump sent another inconsistent, incoherent global message when he rallied a rowdy crowd by lauding Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte’s body-slam of a Guardian reporter.
Congress can show the world different — or rediscovered — American values. Should it fail to do so, Hamid said, “I think it would confirm some suspicions that U.S. politicians are good on rhetoric but not very good on anything beyond the symbolic.”
Shea agrees. The message, she said, “is that we continue to be more concerned about oil and money than we are about human rights and proper behavior.” Arms sales, Shea continued, “are important, but they aren’t the core of who the U.S. is. At the core, the U.S. is a country that supports and encourages values around the world, that believes in respect of the person, that believes in the rule of law, and that believes that there are things more important than making money, including our own national security, which the Saudis have been very uneven in supporting us on.”
That’s the America Khashoggi chose to live in and write from after fleeing Saudi Arabia.
In his last, poignant piece for the Post, Khashoggi commented on pan-Arabic press repression and wrote, “These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation, quickly followed by silence.”
The United States should not be silent regarding Jamal Khashoggi’s fate, but rather speak clearly and confidently by taking strong action.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
Once a month, the theme of this column is determined by the “Great Decisions” dialogue on foreign policy, conducted in partnership with the nonprofit citizen engagement organization Global Minnesota. Want to join the conversation? Go to globalminnesota.org.