For over three years Saudi Arabia has been fighting a war in Yemen with little regard for civilian suffering. The war itself has been deadly for thousands of bystanders, but far worse has been the famine the conflict has brought about, which has killed some 50,000 people already and has the potential to kill millions. The arms with which the Saudis are fighting the war have been supplied by the United States. Our policymakers have blood on their hands.
But neither the civilian casualties of war nor the tens of thousands killed by famine have moved Washington to re-examine its relationship with the House of Saud. Instead, a rupture has been brought about by the murder of just one man. On October 2, Jamal Khashoggi, an influential Saudi who had lately been living in exile in the U.S., entered a Saudi consulate in Istanbul to receive documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancée. He never came out—at least not alive or in one piece.
The Saudis at first said he had left by the back door—and it turns out a Saudi goon even dressed up in the dead man’s clothing and wandered around outside the Blue Mosque to create an alibi that, in the event, Saudi Arabia was never able to use. The Turks knew exactly what had happened in the consulate, and they wasted no time in releasing lurid yet unofficial reports of torture, dismemberment, and murder. (In that order: The Turks whispered that Khashoggi had an unpleasant encounter with a bone saw while he was still alive.)
The Saudis changed their story several times, desperate for an angle that wouldn’t incriminate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. President Trump, at a time when relatively few facts of the case were confirmed, wondered whether the murder might not have been the work of “rogue killers.” That seems improbable, given the particular killers that the Turks have identified—15 people in all, including bodyguards of Bin Salman and the head of the Saudi Scientific Council of Forensics, a fellow with a noted expertise in high-speed autopsy. If the hit squad acted without Bin Salman’s authorization, the Crown Prince has a much weaker grip on his country than anyone has hitherto suspected.
Gruesome as Khashoggi’s killing may have been, why should it outweigh all the other horrors of the Saudi regime, including those currently being inflicted upon Yemen? The answer is twofold. First, by slaughtering Khashoggi, the Saudis committed a kind of lèse-majesté against Washington, D.C.’s own opinion elite. Khashoggi was a Washington Post columnist and well known among what used to be called the Georgetown Set. Khashoggi should have been under a protective halo of Washington prestige. By showing just what little protection that amounts to against a bone saw, the Saudis profaned a sacred myth. The opinion elite itself has little power but possesses a degree of personal sway with those who do. The Saudis failed to recognize the injury they were doing to an influential community’s pride.
Second, the Khashoggi murder creates a paradox for American foreign policy. That policy is habitually justified in moralistic terms—in the language of human rights or exporting democracy or liberating this group or that group from oppression. The moral propaganda is indispensable. Yet Saudi Arabia’s cooperation is also indispensable, in everything from providing overflight rights to granting a facade of Islamic legitimacy to American interventions. The Kingdom claims to be a necessary supplier of intelligence on radical Islamist movements, which the Saudis understand far better than we do. At the same time, there is a usually implied but clearly understood threat: If the U.S. does not maintain good relations with the Kingdom, the Saudis might just push Islam toward further radicalization.
Two pillars of American Middle East policy are thus shaken by the Khashoggi affair. To dismiss the killing, amid all the stink that has been raised in the national media—and, more importantly, in Washington’s media and think-tank community—would undermine the moral fairy tale on which Middle East meddling depends. But to punish Saudi Arabia and Bin Salman for their cruelty would alienate a needed accomplice. How is Washington to resolve this dilemma?
For now, the answer seems to be to deplore Bin Salman without actually denouncing him or weakening ties to the Kingdom, and to push instead for a concession on a different matter: the war in Yemen. Congressional criticism of the war, including from Sen. Rand Paul, has been persistent and lately growing. If Bin Salman were to scale back his campaign or conduct it more discreetly, a moral victory could be claimed for the U.S.-Saudi relationship. And however hypocritical that might be, an end to the war, even a mere de-escalation, would be good in simple human terms and in the long-run national interest of the United States, which is only harmed by being seen as an abettor of brutality against Muslims.
But an end to the war in Yemen is not enough. What is most of all in America’s interest is an end to our involvement in all the intrigues and atrocities of the region. Khashoggi was no mere journalist; he was a close associate of former Saudi intelligence chief Turki bin Faisal, had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and was invited by Osama bin Laden in 1987 to interview him about the mujahideen war in Afghanistan. The Turks, of course, are no defenders of press freedom. And the Iranian mullahs who are the real target of many of Bin Salman’s policies, including his Yemen campaign, are needless to say no friends of America. Bin Salman himself is an Islamist autocrat, ruling a kingdom dependent on its oil, a commodity whose strategic value is not what it once was. (The advent of fracking has made America more energy self-sufficient than at any other time since the early 1970’s.) There are no angels whose side America should take in the Middle East, and we have no core national interests to defend there. The war in Yemen and the hideous fate of Khashoggi are just two more reminders that America would be better off without so many dirty friends.