Liberty Expose: A Time for Choosing With Saudi Arabia
Two things can be true at once. In an age of partisan extremes, it is often expected that you should either take one side or another. Take your pick of controversies and you will find two sets of extremes being forward but two sets of partisans presenting two sets of ultimatums. The reality, that truth can be found somewhere in the middle is increasingly unpopular in a world in which every issue leads to apocalyptic endgames.
America is currently being put up against two more extremes: either sacrifice strategy for moral leadership or sacrifice ethics for strategic realism. This latest dilemma comes courtesy of the tyrannical regime in Saudi Arabia. On Oct. 2, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident journalist known for critiquing the royal regime, was caught on tape walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in order to obtain marriage documents for his upcoming wedding. He never walked out.
Rumors of Khashoggi’s death began to spread. The Saudis vehemently denied in foul place. They claimed that Khashoggi left the consulate, despite no video evidence supporting that claim. Evidence to the contrary began to manifest itself. Records showing that a team of Saudi forensic experts flew to Istanbul the night before Khashoggi’s disappearance began to circulate.
The Turks provided more evidence. Apparent audio footage of the murder was presented. The audio reveals that Khashoggi was tortured, killed, and then dismembered by the team of forensic experts. One of the said experts recommends listening to music as limbs were sawed off. Again, the Saudis denied, despite the evidence. That hasn’t stopped the leader of Saudi Arabia, 33-year-old Mohammad bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, to be anointed with the new title “Mr. Bone Saw.”
Western skeptics have questioned Turkey’s motive in the revelations. Turkey is no fan of Saudi Arabia: the Turks are close to Qatar, the Gulf State currently being blockaded by Saudi Arabia. And in the grand conflict between pro-American and anti-American governments, Turkey is comforting up to those who oppose America – one of the most prominent being Saudi Arabia’s arch-nemesis, Iran. Turkey itself has a deplorable record when it comes to press rights.
Turkey, under its increasingly dictatorial president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has jailed hundreds of journalists deemed inconvenient – with Americans among the imprisoned. But two things can be true at once: Turkey can be a rights violator seeking to undercut Saudi Arabia, and the information they provided can be true.
As of this writing, Saudi Arabia has all but admitted that they murdered Jamal Khashoggi. The current story is that the killing was an accident; Khashoggi tried to resist his torture but was killed in the process. According to the kingdom, this was all just a terrible mistake: the Saudis just simply wanted to torture Khashoggi, not kill him. The Saudis are currently scrambling to throw their hired guns under the bus in a fashion similar, but not morally equivalent, to Erdogan throwing the pilot that shot down a Russian aircraft under the bus.
This murder sacrifices any hope that the West had for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. MBS used to be seen as a reformer. In terms of human rights, Saudi Arabia was considered one of the most backward countries in the world. MBS sought to (somewhat) change that. As part of his “Vision 2030” plan to wean Saudi Arabia off oil dependency and diversify the kingdom’s economy by attracting foreign investors, MBS advanced landmark social reforms such as allowing women to drive and permitting the opening of movie theaters. Now after these reforms, Saudi Arabia, in terms of human rights, is one of the most backward countries in the world. Letting your wife drive you to see A Star is Born is meaningless if you know you can be scimitar’d after the movie for writing a mildly critical column in the Washington Post.
The Saudis have put the U.S. in an impossible position. America has traditionally frowned upon governments assassinating critics in other countries. Now that a close ally has done it, America must make a choice – and the world is watching.
There are some who think that it is finally time to cut ties with Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, they argue, has gone out of its way to antagonize Iran, it has blockaded Qatar for being friendly with Iran, and has executed a brutal war in Yemen in an attempt to roll back the influence of Iran. They also argue that America is a superpower, and now with increasing energy independence, Saudi Arabia does not pose the same economic threat that it once did in 1973.
America must be an indispensable moral leader in the world, and giving Saudi Arabia the boot is the best way to continue that tradition. Plus, if America turns a blind eye to this assassination, the U.S. might as well be greenlighting future assassinations. All of these arguments are mostly true, albeit some are too sympathetic towards Iran.
Others are not so fast to abandon America’s Middle East ally. Why abandon vital strategic interest because of the death of one man, they argue. America backs murderous dictators all the time, and in the great game of national interest, sometimes you must pick the less evil of two banal countries. The more allies we have in the Middle East, the harder it is for Iran to exert its influence in the region. All of these arguments have merit too.
But two things can be true at once: the United States should maintain a degree of moral leadership, but it also must take strategic interests into account. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has already hurt Saudi Arabia economically. The kingdom’s stock prices have gone down 7% since the news broke. Multiple Western companies have pulled out of an upcoming economic conference – which could mean the paternal loss of billions of dollars.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has also withdrawn from attending economic talks, and a potential multibillion-dollar arms sale to the kingdom is in jeopardy. This pressure is good, but Saudi Arabia is also an important ally who cannot be abandoned. This can be used as an opportunity to shape the kingdom’s behavior in the future. Saudi Arabia is still a tool against Iran. The severance of ties will only hinder the greater challenge to confront an, even more, aggrieve and intolerant regime. America must maintain the moral authority to come down of allies when they misbehave, but also be willing to shape their behavior and use them for greater interests. Two things can be true or once. Now the United States must do two things at once.