On Oct. 3rd, the Washington Post reported Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance. A Saudi Arabian journalist and columnist for the Post, Khashoggi was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul the previous day. Despite the cover stories disseminated by Saudi officials— including the evolving, mutually exclusive, and altogether ridiculous claims that he left the consulate alive, that he instigated a fist fight with numerous armed Saudi guards, and that he was killed by a rogue operation— the truth seems hard to avoid, even for the most naïve observer. Khashoggi did not disappear; he was murdered.
Considered in the Saudi context, his murder is by no means an aberration. While Crown Prince bin Salman’s rise to power in 2017 was widely seen as an opportunity for reform, the West’s optimism has been based on little more than wishful thinking. In the last year, Mohammed bin Salman has pursued a brutal war in Yemen, failing to discriminate between civilian and military targets and causing an ongoing famine that claimed the lives of 50,000 children in 2017. Domestically, he has continued to imprison dissidents without trial and inflict barbaric punishments. Even after granting women the right to drive — and ushering Saudi Arabia into the 20th century — the Crown Prince incarcerated the women who fought for it on ludicrous charges. In that context, Khashoggi’s murder is a wake-up call. It is an opportunity for the United States to fundamentally rethink its alliance with Saudi Arabia. I am not arguing that the U.S. should sever all ties with an important ally in the Middle East. However, failing to hold the Kingdom accountable in a meaningful way for its latest barbarity would be a momentous blunder.
Many argue that the U.S. cannot afford to punish the Saudis because our relationship with them is too important, and their response would be catastrophic. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead warns against overreacting to the crime in a “fit of righteousness.” While his claim that ending the alliance would play into the hands of America’s foes is a sound one, it is hard to believe that a tough but measured response, aimed at signaling to the Kingdom that brazen violations of international law will not be tolerated, would so easily shift a decades-old alliance. On the contrary, the opportunity cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action. Inaction would signal that “anything goes” and, hence, would ultimately create more friction between the two countries in the long run when Saudi Arabia murders the next dissenter. In an Oct. 14 op-ed in Al Arabiya English, Saudi journalist Turki Aldakhil, who is close to his country’s political establishment, argues that in response to potential repercussions, the Kingdom could turn to Russia and China for military assistance and even rekindle relations with Iran. Setting aside the deep religious roots of the Saudi-Iranian conflict, the notion that Saudi Arabia will, in tumultuous times, abandon the reliable guarantor of its national security in search of untested alliances, inferior military technologies and risky readjustments, seems like an unwise geopolitical gamble.
In the same vein, Aldakhil argues that Saudi Arabia could respond to U.S. action by implementing an oil embargo and drastically increasing the price of oil or by halting large arms deals and hurting the U.S. economy. His threats are as blunt as they are hollow. First, the U.S. relies much less on Saudi oil than it once did. As Jeff Colgan argues in the Post, the majority of the oil the country consumes is produced at home and only 10 pecent of imports come from Saudi Arabia. Second, the benefit of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia has been misleadingly inflated. The New York Times reports that military exports to Saudi Arabia remain a “small slice” of the U.S. defense industries and, besides, they are used to pursue alleged war crimes in Yemen. Third—and most importantly — the Saudis need America more than America needs the Saudis. They will be the ones most hurt by a decrease in their share of the oil market, fewer weapons sales and a relatively greater need for military and intelligence assistance. This tactic is called leverage, and punishing murder is a good way to use it.
A different argument against action is concerned less with its consequences, and more with its inherent justifiability. At its core, this argument is rooted in a realist view of global affairs: all states are self-interested and compete for power. It makes no sense to make moral or legal judgments that transcend borders. In this case, a realist would argue that the U.S. has its own problems and should not insert itself in issues from which it has nothing to gain. But do we really want to live in a world where monarchs can murder journalists on foreign soil and get away with it? While the realists might be right that sovereignty is important and each country ought to be primarily concerned with its own ordeals, the international community has agreed that sovereignty must be subject to international law so that the rights and liberties of people all over the world are protected.
Moreover, in response to those criticizing a unilateral approach, the United States has a unique ability to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the Khashoggi’s murder given the Kingdom’s dependence on U.S. support.
Failing to hold an ally accountable for heinous crimes signifies, at the very least, an acceptance of those crimes. While I am not certain how exactly the U.S. ought to punish Saudi Arabia (decreasing arms sales or applying economic sanctions would be viable options and would hurt the U.S. much less than many might think), sending a signal that U.S. support is contingent on good behavior is indispensable.