A Fatal Abandonment of American Leadership

The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi drives home the consequences of the Trump administration’s refusal to champion democratic values around the globe.

A security guard reaches out at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. (Petros Giannakouris / AP)

The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has shocked many in the United States, but it should not come as a surprise. Indeed, it is a logical outgrowth of the policies that the Saudi leadership has been pursuing for the past two years, and the support that it has found for its approach in the Trump White House and parts of the American establishment.

In April 2016, President Barack Obama was making his final visit to Saudi Arabia. He sat opposite King Salman, a septuagenarian battling illness who tended to sit stoic and staid throughout meetings. Despite the king’s poor health, the two of them went back and forth on various issues, many of which included disagreements—on the Iran nuclear agreement, the counter-ISIS campaign, Yemen, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On several of these issues, Obama counseled the Saudis to pursue dialogue with the Iranians instead of sliding further into the sectarian war that was engulfing the region. Then Obama raised human rights.

The Saudis had recently executed 47 prisoners, including a prominent Shiite sheikh, and imprisoned a high-profile blogger critical of the kingdom. In blunt language, Obama protested these actions, and warned the king that Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record was going to bring greater international isolation, since the United States and Europe wouldn’t defend the Saudis’ actions internationally. The sustainability of the U.S.-Saudi relationship was potentially at stake. I was sitting in a long row of U.S. officials along one side of the room and noticed one of the Saudis opposite me stirring irritably in his seat. It was the deputy crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman—widely known by his initials, MbS.

I sat in hundreds of bilateral meetings during eight years in the White House, and I never saw anything quite like what happened next. Usually, no one speaks except the heads of state, unless they call on an expert to offer a particular view—this is especially true in protocol-conscious places like Saudi Arabia. But even though he was seated about halfway down the row of Saudi officials from the king, MbS stood up and began lecturing Obama. You don’t understand the Saudi justice system, he said. He argued that the Saudi public demanded vengeance against criminals, and those who had been beheaded had to be killed for the sake of stability in the kingdom. He dismissed any concerns about jailed bloggers and journalists. With condescension, he offered to arrange for Obama to get a briefing on Saudi justice.

By this point, MbS was already on a rapid ascent. When King Abdullah died in 2015, MbS’s father—King Salman—was a natural successor. Mohammad bin Nayef, a similarly older and experienced member of the royal family, was also an unsurprising choice for crown prince, next in line for the throne. But it was unusual for there to be a “deputy crown prince”—second in line to the throne—particularly one so young. MbS was rumored to be in his 20s, about a half-century younger than his father and Mohammad bin Nayef. It was obvious that Salman was maneuvering to make his young son king as soon as possible, which was going to roil the royal family.

At first, this was a source of obvious concern for American policy makers. MbS was relatively unknown and clearly making a power play that was out of character for the kingdom, where the ruling family likes to govern from some sort of consensus. But then Mohammed bin Zayed, the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), stepped forward. Bin Zayed—similarly known by his initials, MbZ—was a favorite of the American national-security establishment among Arab leaders, and particularly effective at convincing Americans that he was offering them useful advice rather than simply advocating for his own interests (which is what he was usually doing). He started praising MbS to visitors as a visionary, a reformer, a man of energy and action, someone to be trusted and supported. Implicit in this campaign was the assurance that MbS was like-minded, an extension of MbZ in strategy and outlook.

The Emiratis are particularly good at steering American opinion. In addition to direct lobbying of the U.S. government, they wage savvy influence campaigns by cultivating former high-ranking American officials and military officers, members of Congress, scholars at prominent think tanks, leading opinion journalists, and CEOs. Many of these Americans benefit financially from their ties to the Gulf, through business deals, corporate boards, think-tank contributions, or lucrative speaking engagements. Before too long, the word was everywhere, including the internal meetings of the Obama administration: MbS was the man to watch. MbS deftly capitalized on this momentum, talking up his vision of much-needed reforms to the Saudi economy, and hinting at broader societal reforms. Modernization was the buzzword. And with MbZ’s backing, the message seemed to be that the desert kingdom was soon going to look like Abu Dhabi, where the economy was about more than oil, women could drive, and the authoritarianism was kept conveniently out of the sight of Western visitors.

But this was only part of the picture. MbS also came to echo MbZ in his belief in the twin evils of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood as threats to their rule, and in his loathing of Obama’s foreign policy. They resented the way that Obama had broken with Hosni Mubarak when he faced mass protests in 2011, perhaps seeing it as a harbinger for what would happen if protests of that scale came to their kingdoms. And they hated the Iran nuclear deal because it took the United States off a collision course with the Iranian government.

These critiques—while sometimes overstated—did speak to real differences, and we couldn’t simply subcontract our positions on democracy protests or the Iranian nuclear program to the Saudi and Emirati view. Instead, over the course of 2015, Obama worked hard to reassure the Saudi and Emirati leadership that we were committed to confronting Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East, while we were also waging war against ISIS—the most violent perversion of Islam in politics. Indeed, during that 2016 visit to Saudi Arabia, we were having a second summit between the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which was focused largely on strengthening their capabilities to confront Iran and wage war against ISIS.

But while the diplomatic niceties endured, the subtext was clear: MbZ and MbS were the ascendant voices in the Gulf, and they didn’t care for Obama or his policies. He was someone to be tolerated and waited out. You could also see this in the collection of people they were cultivating in the United States: opponents of the Iran nuclear deal; advocates for a more interventionist foreign policy in the Middle East; business leaders who had chafed a bit at Obama’s tax and regulatory policies; opinion journalists and members of Congress who had become disillusioned with Obama’s cautious approach to the conflicts roiling the Middle East.

Still, in the last year and a half of the Obama administration, we experienced firsthand the direction that was being set. MbS’s first foray into foreign policy as defense minister was a war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen—a war that seemed to have no clear objective other than confronting an Iranian-supported faction. Repeatedly, the Obama administration had to put restrictions on the weapons we provided in support of this effort or apply diplomatic pressure on the Saudis and Emiratis to show restraint, as the war escalated and civilian casualties continued to mount. In Libya, the UAE was backing a strongman in the East—Khalifa Haftar—who was similarly pursuing a more aggressive approach that was doing little to make the country more stable. We also had to intervene to restrain a Saudi and Emirati effort to isolate Qatar from the rest of the GCC based on Qatari ties to Islamist political movements across the region. Within Saudi Arabia, we were careful to engage Mohammad bin Nayef even as we built a relationship with the younger deputy crown prince who aspired to replace him.

When Donald Trump took office, any effort to restrain the Saudi regime disappeared. Instead, Trump and his team fell comfortably into the full embrace of MbS and MbZ. These men understood well the mind-set of a transactional, egocentric, New York real-estate developer who cared little for universal rights or the liberal international order that the United States had built. Indeed, Saudis and Emiratis have invested in New York real estate for decades, and Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric about Iran and the nuclear deal was music to their ears. Here was the opposite of Obama, the analytical, deliberate, and idealistic leader whom they found so frustrating.

Most U.S. presidents make their first foreign trip to our neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Trump went to Riyadh, where he was lavishly flattered and feted. He deputized his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to manage the relationship with the Gulf states, which were more than willing to mentor the young presidential aide in the ways of Middle Eastern diplomacy while dangling the ever elusive proposition of Gulf support for Israel (which they still do not recognize). Trump touted the potential for tens of billions of dollars in Saudi investment in the U.S., and heaped praise on the Saudi leadership. In a picture that seemed to capture perfectly the way in which the dynamic in the Middle East had changed, Salman, Trump, and the Saudi-backed Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi placed their hands on a glowing orb as if they were masters of the globe. The days of Egyptian democracy and of diplomacy with Iran were a thing of the past, and so were any U.S. restraints on Saudi foreign policy or attention to complaints about human rights.

What followed was the full expression of all of the policies that had been sources of tension under Obama. In the absence of any U.S. pressure related to the conduct of the war in Yemen, the conflict escalated, and a humanitarian crisis spiraled out of control with no political endgame in sight. A Saudi-led GCC blockade of Qatar initiated a pointless diplomatic crisis between the countries that similarly had no clear objective beyond a list of demands that the Qataris were never going to meet. In a bizarre episode, the prime minister of Lebanon—Saad Hariri—appeared to be held hostage for a number of days in Riyadh, as the Saudis sought to push back on Iranian influence in Lebanese politics. All of these policies were assertive and confrontational; all of them ran against the type of caution that Obama had favored, and revealed the real-world consequences of criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy that echoed from Riyadh to Washington. But it wasn’t clear what ends they were aiming to achieve beyond that.

Meanwhile, MbS consolidated his power. In June 2017, Mohammed bin Nayef was stripped of all his posts and MbS was elevated to crown prince. Under the guise of confronting corruption, dozens of senior members of the Saudi royal family and business elite were detained at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh—an unsubtle message that those who crossed MbS were going to be cut out of Saudi Arabia’s future, and potentially face even worse consequences. Positive, incremental reforms were announced, including lifting the ban on women driving. But they were clearly coupled with a shift to an even more authoritarian and unitary form of governance driven by one man.

Touting his package of reforms—Vision 2030—which was long on ambition and short on details, MbS then made a triumphant visit to the United States in March 2018. Despite his belligerent approach to foreign policy and his brand of authoritarian politics, he was enthusiastically embraced once more by Trump. Beyond that, though, he was feted by all the elements of the American establishment that he had courted: a business elite eager to profit off of the Saudi economy; parts of the national-security establishment that appreciate a harder line on Iran, respect the application of power, had made an industry of opposing Obama’s approach, and were enticed by the potential for some alignment among the Gulf states and Israel; opinion journalists who chose to see MbS as a reformer and modernizer while looking past the rough edges on display, from bombed-out Yemeni schools to the high-end prison at the Ritz; and an entertainment industry that anticipated Saudi investment.

Just over a month later, Trump rewarded Saudi Arabia and the UAE by pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement. As with the approach that MbZ and MbS had taken in the Middle East, it was an aggressive and confrontational act devoid of any larger strategy to deal with Iran or its nuclear program. Its only organizing principle was opposition to Obama and alignment with MbS, MbZ, and the Netanyahu government in Israel. Beyond Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Jerusalem, the withdrawal was universally opposed around the world, and to this day European powers are continuing their efforts to keep the agreement alive. However, MbS—it seemed—had succeeded in shaping events; instead of incremental pushback from an American president, he was in the driver’s seat, with an American president riding shotgun, and powerful American interests along for the ride.

Over the past few days, we have perhaps witnessed where this journey is leading. In September of last year, Jamal Khashoggi offered a dissenting view on MbS in The Washington Post. “All I see now,” he said, “is the recent wave of arrests.” He implored his American audience: “I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.”

To read his commentary now is to hear a rising cry of warnings. He could acknowledge that some of MbS’s agenda was necessary; he supported casting off a more restrictive brand of Islam and diversifying the oil-dependent economy. But, he cautioned, “replacing old tactics of intolerance with new ways of repression is not the answer.” Looking at the increasing death toll in Yemen, he argued that “the longer this cruel war lasts in Yemen, the more permanent the damage will be.” Of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been vanquished in Egypt, he wrote: “The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regime.” He spoke with pain of the choice he had made to leave his country so that he could speak out against its leadership. “I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice.”

Now, it appears, that voice has been silenced. We may never know exactly what happened, though if the reports are accurate, it appears that the U.S. government knew in advance that Saudi authorities were going to harm Khashoggi, and chose to do nothing. Chillingly, what seems like negative press for the Saudi leadership may be exactly what they want: a global warning sign that critics are not safe, wherever they are, the same message that Vladimir Putin has sent in poisoning opponents abroad. Trump, who has been harder on Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel than Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman, has chosen to emphasize that Khashoggi is not an American citizen, as if that absolves him from any responsibility to do something, while noting the Saudi investment in the American economy. And so we are seeing, once more, what happens when the world’s oldest democracy abandons its role of promoting democratic values around the globe.

Sadly, we know where this is likely to lead: a further consolidation of power under MbS in Saudi Arabia, and a decisive victory for the counterrevolution that has carried the day since the early days of the Arab Spring; more danger for journalists around the world, who can no longer count on the support of the world’s most powerful nation from a president of the United States who has branded journalists the “enemy of the state”; more sectarian conflict in the Middle East, potentially culminating in a conflict between the United States and Iran.

Looking back, I wonder what we might have done differently, particularly if we’d somehow known that Obama was going to be succeeded by a President Trump. In hindsight, we were wrong to think that cautious and at times conditional support for the war in Yemen would influence Saudi and Emirati policy, or help shape the actions of MbS, particularly given the turn American politics took with the 2016 election. This speaks to a broader point that is relevant today: It’s wrong to start from a presumption that our need for support or investment from the Gulf states is greater than the benefit they receive from their relationship with the United States. Indeed, as the global economy moves away from fossil fuels, Saudi leverage on the United States should be lessening, not growing. Yet in his approach to MbS, Trump acts as if the Saudis are the stronger partner in the relationship, not like the superpower that we are.

It’s not too late to heed Khashoggi’s warnings—to understand that while Saudi Arabia is a historic partner of the United States, our interests are not totally aligned with the Saudi leadership’s, and our values are most definitely not. We should cease all support for the war in Yemen, and lead an effort to address its humanitarian crisis. We should balance our principled opposition to the Iranian regime’s nefarious behavior with a return to the diplomatic agreement that prevents that regime from obtaining a nuclear weapon. We should resume an aggressive transition away from a reliance on fossil fuels. We should support countries like Canada that have been bullied by the Saudis when they spoke out on human-rights issues. We should cease military sales until the truth about Khashoggi’s disappearance comes out, and make clear that our support going forward is not without conditions. And we could once more stand up for universal rights, even if it means inviting the opposition of those who have a very different view of justice.