The United States Should Give Saudi Arabia a Choice
Stop the surprises or suffer the consequences.
You know the Trump administration’s efforts to salvage its approach toward Saudi Arabia are in trouble when Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the president’s closest allies, threatens to shut down all Senate business over what he deems as a “not acceptable” response that has him “pissed.” And it might get worse this weekend if President Donald Trump, as is his wont, ignores his advisors’ warnings and warmly embraces Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man who most likely gave the order to murder journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at the G-20 summit in Argentina.
The Trump administration seems determined to stick with the erratic crown prince no matter what, arguing that oil and money are more important than protecting U.S. values. But despite Trump’s wishes, it’s clear that it will be much harder, if not impossible, for Saudi Arabia to gain support for arms sales or any other kind of assistance that requires approval from the U.S. Congress. Finally, the crown prince will remain politically radioactive—there is little chance he could make a high-profile trip to the United States to be feted by the likes of Oprah and Mark Zuckerberg anytime soon.
Yet in the long term, perhaps the only silver lining of this crisis is it is forcing the United States to reassess the fundamental rationale of the relationship with Saudi Arabia in a way it hasn’t since the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, or, before that, the 1973 oil shock. A common refrain in Congress has been that there should be no more “business as usual.” So what should the new business look like?
It is tempting to file for a divorce, just as Trump has gone all in on a full embrace. Yet that would be unwise. Instead, the United States must offer Saudi Arabia’s leaders a choice: They visibly shift to policies defined by “three noes”—no further intervention in Yemen, no more fighting with Qatar, and no more surprises—or face a significant downgrade of the relationship.
Trump has already decided. Yet his exclamation point-filled statement proclaiming the essentiality of the relationship got it backward: The United States matters much more to Saudi Arabia than Saudi Arabia does to the United States.
The administration claims it needs Saudi Arabia in order to counter Iran. But it is Saudi Arabia that needs the United States, not the other way around. The United States is a global superpower that can cope with a threat by a country halfway around the world with a GDP similar in size to Maryland’s. For Saudi Arabia, Iran is a country three times its size right across the water with a long history of strategic competition. So, who needs whom more?
Then there is the economic relationship. There’s no need to shelve American values and bend to Saudi requests because of their oil reserves. They’re not going to stop selling oil if Washington drops its patronage of Riyadh. It’s in their interest to sell oil, and the United States is better insulated from fluctuations in the energy markets than it has ever been.
If the United States needed Saudi Arabia that desperately, then Trump would certainly not be picking trade fights with China and the European Union, whose impact on the U.S. economy dwarf that of Saudi Arabia. Of course, Saudi money can be good for the U.S. economy and helps the U.S. defense industry. But it is not uniquely vital.
One can only speculate why Trump sticks to his mistaken assumptions—maybe it is his personal financial interests, or his contrarian instincts, or the fact that most of his views on geopolitics seem stuck in the 1970s and ’80s, or simply because the House of Saud’s gilded, autocratic patriarchy feels very familiar to the House of Trump.
Whatever the reason, the green-light policy has proved to be a failure. The United States has not ended up with a close partner in the Middle East but with a rogue ally drawing America into unnecessary quagmires and hurting its interests. The question is what to do about it.
It might feel good for the United States to turn its back on the Saudis, but that won’t enhance U.S. interests or save lives. The United States has leverage it must use, but that has to be carefully estimated.
A divorce will not cause the Saudis to walk away from the war in Yemen or make up with the Qataris. If anything, the end result will be the Saudis will be less restrained, because they will no longer feel the need to acquiesce to U.S. requests. They will certainly feel the loss of sophisticated American weaponry, but the Russians will step in and supply them with less accurate weapons that will likely just kill more in Yemen (for evidence of that, consider Syria). The United States will no longer be complicit in problematic Saudi behavior, but that behavior won’t stop.
Moreover, there is some truth to the argument that Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism, countering Iran, managing oil prices, and investing in the U.S. economy are important benefits, even if they do not matter as much as Trump thinks they do.
Instead, the United States has to offer the “three noes” deal. It starts with no surprises. The message should be clear: Washington welcomes the fact that Saudi Arabia is willing to take on more responsibility for its own security, but it needs to be consulted on big strategic initiatives, especially those that implicate U.S. interests. This would mean that, going forward, the rash decision-making of the past two years that has been so harmful to both Saudi and U.S. interests would stop.
Part of this deal must also include Saudi shifts on two issues: no more fighting with Qatar and no escalation of the war in Yemen. On Qatar, the Saudis should be pressed to walk back the unrealistic “13 demands” they, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain have put to Qatar to a much more manageable set of requests. This is what the United States has tried to do in its mediation efforts over the past year, but now it must be made absolutely clear to the Saudis that the United States expects more from them if the relationship is to remain unaffected.
On Yemen, Washington should demand Saudi leaders urgently work toward a political solution. This seemed to be where Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were heading before Trump pulled the rug out from under them. Now that the U.S. Senate has voted to take a step closer to cut off support for the Saudi campaign—something the Democratic-controlled House will take up next year—the administration must use this to press Riyadh to agree to an immediate cease-fire and ensuring humanitarian access to the port of Hodeidah, through which most of Yemen’s imports flow.
This could come with a carrot: The Saudis should review with the U.S. Defense Department in detail their battle plans, doctrine, and strategy, allowing American military officers to have a seat at the table with them and taking advice on fundamentally shifting the approach to one more in line with U.S. values. This would also make the Saudi fight more effective. In exchange for a willingness by the Saudis to shift their approach, the United States would commit to maintaining military support.
Here’s where leverage comes in. The United States must also make clear what happens if Saudi Arabia does not accept this offer. This is not simply about arms sales, which the Saudis care about but not enough to change their behavior, and the U.S. defense industry can live without (although it would understandably prefer not to make this choice). If Saudi Arabia is going to be an erratic, unpredictable partner, the United States doesn’t want to be as closely tied to them.
This would mean scaling back goals regarding Saudi Arabia. It would mean less military cooperation and more modest economic relations. It would mean fewer higher-level visits to kowtow to them. It would also mean less strategic ambition.
For years the United States has worked to promote stronger regional cooperation with Riyadh at the center—it was a worthy goal, and both of us were part of these efforts during the Obama administration. Yet without a change in behavior, this has to be set aside while continuing to invest in partners like the UAE, Qatar, and Israel. In this sense, the U.S. approach toward Saudi Arabia would be akin to the relationships with Egypt, Pakistan, and even Turkey—important security relationships, but deeply troubled ones.
Trump is unlikely to take this opportunity. But what members of Congress of both parties—and 2020 presidential aspirants—must do is make clear that Trump’s green-light policy will not be around forever, and paint a picture of what the new “business as usual” will be.
It should be the Saudis, not Americans, who will have to choose. The choice is simple: Work with the United States in genuine responsible partnership, and together, American and Saudi interests can prosper. Or continue their current approach—in which case, the United States will be fine without them.