What Khashoggi’s Murder Tells Us about U.S. Middle East Policy
As Washington reevaluates the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the aftermath of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it begs the question of how a close ally would reach the conclusion that taking such an action would not invite any repercussions. President Trump’s passive reaction to the murder hints at the deep problems in the relationship and why we shouldn’t be looking to the White House for any major changes.
The United States got to this point as a result of a badly mismanaged Middle East policy. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. strategic posture towards the region lacks balance and nuance, and as a result, lacks accountability for its allies. The two main hallmarks of this strategy are to greenlight our allies’ every ask and to end any opportunity for rapprochement with regional adversaries.
In the mid-20th century, the U.S. used a “twin pillar” strategy in the Middle East that balanced the region’s two main powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with one another. This gave the U.S. greater strategic flexibility in the region as both Riyadh and Tehran had their diplomatic doors open to Washington. However, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, which (among many other objectives) espoused greater independence from the United States, destroyed the “twin pillar” strategy. Since then, we’ve over-invested in our relationship with Saudi Arabia. From the Persian Gulf War to holding over $100 billion of U.S. debt and massive arms sales, America’s regional and financial strategy ran through Riyadh.
But under President Obama, the pendulum swung back ever so slightly. During a comprehensive interview at the end of his second term, Obama explained that the region’s U.S. allies and Iran “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace…[otherwise] we would have to start using our military power to settle scores. And that would not be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East.” In other words, Saudi Arabia and Iran sharing the neighborhood would benefit the interests of the United States and could even help stabilize the region. Just like the “twin pillar” strategy of decades ago, this would require Washington to have a diplomatic reach toward both Tehran and Riyadh. Of course, U.S. patronage is antithetical to the Islamic Republic of Iran, but this is a starting point to a smarter regional strategy that wouldn’t allow the U.S. to get pigeonholed with only one regional power.
This is another reason why the JCPOA was so important outside of the more straightforward selling point of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon: it also gave the U.S. greater diplomatic depth in the region. The U.S. would no longer have to rely solely on Saudi Arabia (or Israel). If a U.S. ally were to veer in the wrong direction, the U.S. had the option of using an open door with a regional rival.
Naturally, Saudi Arabia welcomed Trump’s animosity towards the JCPOA. It wasn’t because they didn’t realize the JCPOA prevented Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Even their strategic allies (i.e. anti-Iran) in the Israeli security establishment supported it. In reality, Riyadh feared they would lose the consistent and powerful support of the U.S. if diplomacy with Iran were to continue outside the nuclear realm. This is why Saudi Arabia snubbed Obama during a subsequent visit to Riyadh. The reasons are similar among Israel’s political establishment, which is why Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu tried to convince the U.S. Congress not to support the deal behind Obama’s back.
By swapping on our commitments under the JCPOA for short-term political goodwill with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. is actually now more isolated on the international stage. Our closest allies in Europe are pursuing strategies that circumvent the U.S. financial system – which could deliver a huge blow to American soft power hegemony – in an effort to preserve the Iran nuclear deal.
Another consequence is that the opportunities of having a diplomatic reach with Tehran that the JCPOA could have provided is now completely shut down. For example, while Russia, Turkey, and Iran are negotiating the future of Syria, the United States will have to sit it out. The same goes if a crisis were to arise in the Persian Gulf. When the Obama administration found out their sailors were captured by Iran after wandering off-course, they avoided a military confrontation because they had an open diplomatic door. Today, the U.S. does not have that option. The risks are now higher and the U.S. has diminished its influence.
To make matters worse, the Trump administration remained silent when Saudi Arabia abducted the Lebanese prime minister, implemented a blockade against Qatar, and continued to decimate Yemen. As MbS pushed the envelope, the only reaction Trump had was to withdraw from the JCPOA, losing the ultimate leverage: the possibility of the United States pursuing improved ties with Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Iran.
There is a similar case to be made in the context of Israel when Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem without acquiring a concession in the peace talks first. Our allies have taken the wheel of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy to the detriment of having any accountability for their actions.
It was only a matter of time before Trump’s Middle East policy backfires. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi shows a new level of audacity on the part of Saudi Arabia.
Clearly, they’ve become too comfortable with their superpower patron. A foreign policy strategy with “open doors” does not mean agreeing with every action that a country makes. It’s about balancing various powers so that the interests of the U.S. can be pursued with greater flexibility. Instead, the Trump administration chose to be in MbS’s “pocket.” This doesn’t make America greater – it makes America weaker.