Elephants in the Room

Neither Side Gets the Khashoggi Debate Right

The tribalism infecting U.S. domestic politics has unfortunately crept deep into the foreign-policy discourse.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Dec. 13. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Dec. 13. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Watching the debate over the Trump administration’s response to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been dissatisfying—even depressing. Both the Trump administration and the majority of its detractors make arguments that fall short. But there’s a broader problem: the extent to which those weighing in have been unwilling to acknowledge the genuine difficulty of the issue, the good-faith merits of the other side’s case, or the real uncertainty over what course of action would actually best secure U.S. interests. The tribalism infecting U.S. domestic politics has unfortunately crept deep into the foreign-policy discourse as well.

What U.S. President Donald Trump is for, too much of the thinking goes, must not only be wrong, but corrupt, a sure sign not only of his preternatural attraction to the type of absolutism practiced by the Saudi monarchy, but also his personal reliance on Saudi wealth to underwrite the success of his family’s real estate business. As for Trump’s critics, if they’re not simply outright dupes, let’s just say it’s no accident that their insistence on punishing the Saudis puts them on the same side of the issue as the America-hating clerical regime in Iran. And on it goes.

At the risk of exacerbating the problem, I wanted to offer several observations about the discussion of the Khashoggi affair and U.S. policy.

Maintaining the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been a consistent priority of administrations from both parties. There may be much to dislike about Trump’s (let’s face it) bizarre Nov. 20 statement defending his decision to “stand with Saudi Arabia.” The exclamation points. The crass transactionalism. The gratuitous and inflammatory reference to Saudi charges that Khashoggi was “an enemy of the state” and a Muslim Brotherhood acolyte. The backhanded dissing of his own intelligence community’s assessment that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely had foreknowledge of the killing (“maybe he did and maybe he didn’t”).

All that aside, Trump’s bottom line—choosing not to rupture either Washington’s relationship with Riyadh or ability to continue working with Mohammed bin Salman, who will likely be leading Saudi Arabia for decades to come—should hardly come as a shock. It’s a near certainty that every one of Trump’s modern predecessors would have landed in more or less the same place. At the margins there would have been differences. Their language would have conveyed greater moral outrage. Some may have opted temporarily to suspend the sale of this or that weapons system. But the odds are very high that all of them would have been extremely leery of taking dramatic action that might risk destabilizing the relationship or the kingdom itself—much less seek to engineer the crown prince’s downfall. It would be healthy if Trump’s critics acknowledged that reality up front. To their credit, former officials Derek Chollet and Ilan Goldenberg, who worked in former President Barack Obama’s administration, recently did just that, in an essay for Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government section.

Trump has not given Mohammed bin Salman a free pass. Those enraged by Trump’s tone-deafness have, with varying degrees of stridency, suggested that the president has allowed Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudis to get away with murder. But that is simply not true. The imposition of sanctions against 17 Saudi officials, most with close links to the crown prince, is arguably the most ambitious non-Russia-related deployment of the Global Magnitsky Act to date—and against a longtime U.S. partner to boot. Targeting a senior member of Mohammed bin Salman’s inner sanctum—Saud al-Qahtani, as powerful a member of the royal court as there is—was a direct slap at the crown prince.

Add to that the rapid shift in the administration’s posture toward the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Khashoggi’s killing triggered sudden public pressure from both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis for an early cease-fire, which couldn’t have been welcomed in Riyadh. And the administration went on to end aerial refueling of Saudi bombers—a militarily significant withdrawal of U.S. support, albeit not a crushing one, for Mohammed bin Salman’s war effort.

One could argue that Trump needs to find ways to get even tougher. But it’s just not accurate to claim that he’s exacted no price from the Saudis and Mohammed bin Salman. As for those in Congress and elsewhere insisting that nothing less than the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Mohammed bin Salman himself will satisfy, it would be nice if they’d at least recognize how rare such a step would be in the annals of U.S. diplomacy. Targeting individual leaders of major nation-states, much less ones that have been close U.S. strategic partners for decades, has been the extreme exception, not the rule—a perhaps distasteful, but nevertheless long-standing feature of hardheaded U.S. statecraft in an anarchic world in which, like it or not, bloody-minded despots significantly outnumber virtuous democrats.  

Where’s the parallel campaign demanding that the U.S. personally target Russian President Vladimir Putin for using chemical weapons to assassinate dissidents in England, aiding and abetting genocide in Syria, or trying to sway a U.S. presidential election? How about Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has locked up as many as a million of his own Muslim citizens in brutally repressive reeducation camps? For that matter, why no similar drumbeat to have the Treasury Department personally designate Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for being the puppet master of the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism for nearly 30 years, with the blood of at minimum hundreds of U.S. soldiers on his hands? And these are leaders, mind you (unlike Mohammed bin Salman, for all his faults) who wake up every day with the purpose of systematically undermining U.S. influence and interests.

There really is an Iranian threat in Yemen. Again, let’s go ahead and stipulate: The war in Yemen is awful and should be brought to an end as soon as possible. The Saudi military campaign has largely been a disaster, mired in bloody stalemate with no end in sight while heavily contributing to what is now a humanitarian tragedy of epic proportions. But simply hammering the Saudis to end the war unilaterally at any cost makes no sense for U.S. interests. The fact is that Houthi rebels backed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah did illegally unseat Yemen’s internationally recognized government in 2015 while attempting to conquer the rest of the country by force—including control of access to key shipping lanes in and around the Red Sea that are vital to the global economy and for the United States. Houthi rebels, in emulation of their Iranian patrons, do chant death to America, Israel, and the Jews at public gatherings. The U.S. Navy does worry intensely about the IRGC gaining the ability to threaten freedom of shipping through the strategically critical Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The Houthis have acquired from Iran a significant arsenal of missiles and rockets with which to attack population centers and critical infrastructure not only in Saudi Arabia, but other important U.S. partners in the Gulf. All that simply can’t be ignored or wished away out of legitimate disgust with the Saudis.

Yet I’ve lost count of how many articles have appeared demanding that the Trump administration compel the Saudis to stop fighting in Yemen without even a mention of the Houthis or their Iranian and Hezbollah patrons. It’s as if they didn’t exist at all. Trump’s critics ought to at least feel required to wrestle with the potential implications of their recommended course of action for the very real Iranian threat that now exists on the Arabian Peninsula. Even if you grant that the war has enabled the IRGC to deepen its influence over the Houthis and expand its ability to destabilize Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t necessarily now follow that forcing the kingdom to abandon the fight unilaterally will make the situation better. On the contrary, there’s at least a significant risk that it could make it worse, even much worse. Remember Iraq: The United States’ 2003 takedown of Saddam Hussein and the blunders that followed created unprecedented opportunities for Iranian meddling and influence. But the unilateral decision to withdraw U.S. troops in 2011 unintentionally ended up increasing the power of not only Iran, but what would go on to become the Islamic State as well.

Always treat friends better than enemies, but don’t indulge self-destructive behavior that undermines U.S. interests. As I’ve noted, Trump’s decision not to break with the Saudis or Mohammed bin Salman is basically the correct one—frustrating as it may be. But that shouldn’t mean overlooking the damage that Mohammed bin Salman’s more ill-considered policies are increasingly inflicting on both the kingdom and U.S. interests. Stand by friends? Definitely. Risk letting them play the United States for chumps? Never. On the contrary, Trump ought to be ruthlessly exploiting the Khashoggi crisis and his readiness to throw Mohammed bin Salman a lifeline to push the crown prince onto a much more constructive path. Bluster aside, Mohammed bin Salman remains in a defensive crouch and desperately in need of the president’s continued restraint in the face of the tsunami of criticism that he’s currently facing, not only within the U.S. Congress and internationally, but from factions within the House of Saud as well. Trump shouldn’t be selling his restraint cheap. He needs to put Mohammed bin Salman deep in his debt and make clear what he expects from him going forward.

The to-do list should start with cleaning up some of the messes that the crown prince’s blunders have created. That includes demonstrating an unprecedented seriousness of purpose in working to de-escalate the Yemen war through U.N.-led negotiations that reconvened this month; letting the United States mediate a rapid resolution of the dispute with Qatar that allows the Gulf Cooperation Council to refocus its energies on countering Iran; repairing relations with Canada, which a Mohammed bin Salman temper tantrum ruptured last August; and freeing the Saudi human rights activists who were unjustly imprisoned over the last few years. Further, Trump should insist that the Saudis put in place procedures and processes—including a schedule for sustained consultation with the United States—that provide adequate reassurance that targeted killings of the Khashoggi variety never happen again.

Don’t distort the intelligence. After the CIA assessment of Khashoggi’s murder was leaked, Trump, Pompeo, and Mattis all spoke about it in ways designed to cast doubt on its conclusion that Mohammed bin Salman was very likely witting of the plot. Better that they would have refused to comment at all on such highly classified matters. The lame excuse that the intelligence contained no smoking gun was blown out of the water within days when CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed a select group of senators on the agency’s findings, detailing the overwhelming circumstantial case pointing to Mohammed bin Salman’s culpability.

The perceived readiness to dissemble for the Saudi autocrat backfired horribly. It damaged the Trump administration’s credibility and enraged members of Congress who charged cover-up and redoubled their efforts to defy the White House by punishing the kingdom. The wiser course almost certainly would have been to acknowledge Mohammed bin Salman’s responsibility for the malign actions of officials under his direct command while nevertheless defending the necessity of a more measured response to protect U.S. interests in the Middle East.

More broadly, the suggestion that the intelligence necessary for informing key questions of national security must rise to the standard of a smoking gun is a dangerous distortion. Perfect information may be the ideal in statecraft, but it is rarely ever attainable. Critical decisions affecting war and peace must often be made on considerably less. The administration does neither itself nor its successors any favors if it leaves the American people believing that the president somehow can’t act decisively to defend U.S. interests absent some foreign despot’s taped confession.       

National security professionals should always be outraged when intelligence assessments are leaked. I’ve frankly been shocked by the lack of concern expressed by both sides of the Khashoggi debate over the repeated leaks of the CIA report about the murder. One media story after another has detailed information about U.S. sources and methods. The Saudi phone calls that the United States is listening to. The electronic messages that the United States is intercepting. It’s a cliché, but these are among the crown jewels of U.S. national security policy. It’s hard not to think that at least some of them will now be lost in the wake of the leaks.

Yet in the days after the news of the CIA report first broke, I watched one former head of U.S. intelligence after another discuss the leaks without once condemning them as a dangerous and illegal breach that would compromise U.S. security. Haspel is reportedly infuriated, but why don’t Trump, Pompeo, and Mattis ring the alarm bells and raise holy hell? Where are the leaders of Congress? There was a time when such brazen disregard for protecting the nation’s most sensitive intelligence would have been a central preoccupation of foreign-policy and defense experts from both parties. But in all the ink that’s been spilled on the Khashoggi tragedy in the past several weeks, you could search a long time before finding any sustained discussion of the problem.

Today, it’s all about whether the leak advances or hinders one side or the other’s ability to win the immediate argument. And therein, I’d humbly submit, lies no small part of the current problem.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.
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