The U.S.-Saudi Partnership Is Vital
Secretary of State
We don’t condone Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. But the kingdom is a powerful force for Mideast stability.
The Trump administration’s effort to rebuild the U.S.-Saudi Arabia partnership isn’t popular in the salons of Washington, where politicians of both parties have long used the kingdom’s human-rights record to call for the alliance’s downgrading. The October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey has heightened the Capitol Hill caterwauling and media pile-on. But degrading U.S.-Saudi ties would be a grave mistake for the national security of the U.S. and its allies.
The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is working to secure Iraq’s fragile democracy and keep Baghdad tethered to the West’s interests, not Tehran’s. Riyadh is helping manage the flood of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war by working with host countries, cooperating closely with Egypt, and establishing stronger ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia has also contributed millions of dollars to the U.S.-led effort to fight Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. Saudi oil production and economic stability are keys to regional prosperity and global energy security.
Is it any coincidence that the people using the Khashoggi murder as a cudgel against President Trump’s Saudi Arabia policy are the same people who supported Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Iran—a regime that has killed thousands world-wide, including hundreds of Americans, and brutalizes its own people? Where was this echo chamber, where were these avatars of human rights, when Mr. Obama gave the mullahs pallets of cash to carry out their work as the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism?
Saudi Arabia, like the U.S.—and unlike these critics—recognizes the immense threat the Islamic Republic of Iran poses to the world. Modern-day Iran is, in Henry Kissinger’s term, a cause, not a nation. Its objectives are to spread the Islamic revolution from Tehran to Damascus, to destroy Israel, and to subjugate anyone who refuses to submit, starting with the Iranian people. An emboldened Iran would spread even more death and destruction in the Middle East, spark a regional nuclear-arms race, threaten trade routes, and foment terrorism around the world.
One of Mohammed bin Salman’s first acts as Saudi crown prince was an effort to root out Iran’s destabilizing influence in Yemen, where the Tehran-backed Houthi rebels seized power in 2015. Tehran is establishing a Hezbollah-like entity on the Arabian Peninsula: a militant group with political power that can hold Saudi population centers hostage, as Hezbollah’s missiles in southern Lebanon threaten Israel. The Houthis have occupied Saudi territory, seized a major port, and, with Iranian help, improved their ballistic-missile targeting so that they can shoot at Riyadh’s international airport, through which tens of thousands of Americans travel. Meanwhile, Tehran has shown no genuine interest in a diplomatic solution to the Yemen conflict.
The Trump administration has taken many steps to mitigate Yemen’s suffering from war, disease and famine. We have exerted effort to improve Saudi targeting to minimize civilian casualties, and we have galvanized humanitarian assistance through our own generous example.
The U.S. is pleased to announce it is providing nearly $131 million in additional food assistance for Yemen, bringing total humanitarian aid to more than $697 million over the past 14 months. The funds are being provided to the World Food Program and other organizations working to feed the Yemeni people.
Without U.S. efforts, the death toll in Yemen would be far higher. There would be no honest broker to manage disagreements between Saudi Arabia and its Gulf coalition partners, whose forces are essential to the war effort. Iran has no interest in easing Yemeni suffering; the mullahs don’t even care for ordinary Iranians. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has invested billions to relieve suffering in Yemen. Iran has invested zero.
Yemen is also an important front in the war on terror, and has remained so across presidential administrations of both parties. The group now known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula launched its first major attack on Americans in October 2000, when its operatives bombed the USS Cole while the destroyer was berthed in Yemen’s Aden harbor. The attack left 17 sailors dead and 39 wounded.
AQAP has since attempted multiple attacks on the U.S. homeland and allied interests, from Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, en route from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas 2009, to the 2015 massacre at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris. ISIS also maintains a presence in Yemen, from which it seeks to attack the U.S. and our allies.
Abandoning or downgrading the U.S.-Saudi alliance would also do nothing to push Riyadh in a better direction at home. Much work remains to be done to guarantee the freedoms for which America and President Trump always stand. Yet the crown prince has moved the country in a reformist direction, from allowing women to drive and attend sporting events, to curbing the religious police and calling for a return to moderate Islam.
The U.S. doesn’t condone the Khashoggi killing, which is fundamentally inconsistent with American values—something I have told the Saudi leadership privately as well as publicly. President Trump has taken action in response. Twenty-one Saudi suspects in the murder have been deemed ineligible to enter the U.S. and had any visas revoked. On Nov. 15, the administration imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis under Executive Order 13818, which builds on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. We’ve worked to strengthen support for this response, and several countries, including France and Germany, have followed suit. The Trump administration will consider further punitive measures if more facts about Khashoggi’s murder come to light.
Critics of the U.S.-Saudi alliance would do well to revisit Jeane Kirkpatrick’s seminal 1979 essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” which analyzed the Carter administration’s failure to distinguish between autocrats friendly to U.S. interests and those who are implacably opposed. Mr. Carter’s ideological predilections had blinded him to U.S. national-security interests and inhibited him, to borrow a phrase, from putting America first.
“Liberal idealism,” Kirkpatrick observed, “need not be identical with masochism, and need not be incompatible with the defense of freedom and the national interest.” What a timely reminder for critics of President Trump’s pragmatic—and correct—approach to the U.S.-Saudi relationship today.
This writing constitutes a “work of the United States Government” as that term is defined under Federal copyright law, and first appeared in published form as an op-ed in the November 27, 2018 edition of The Wall Street Journal.