“I know what I’m going to do: I’m going to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.”
That’s what Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said last week, to the delight of Saudi Arabia’s detractors on social media. The man who only one week prior had been jeered by millions of Democrats for supporting Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation was seemingly redeemed among President Donald Trump’s critics.
There is a rare and growing bipartisan consensus in Congress about the need to smack Saudi Arabia with human-rights sanctions, or perhaps even tougher penalties, for its role in the death of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month but never walked out. Sanctions seem inevitable.
The only problem is that many of the same experts pushing for sanctions against Saudi Arabia have previously argued, in other contexts, that sanctions don’t work. That was the near-unanimous conclusion of top policy experts who supported the Obama administration’s decision to roll back sanctions on Iran, which had brought its economy to the brink of collapse, in exchange for a nuclear deal. It’s just one example of a broader trend: analysts suddenly discovering that the Middle East is more complex than they’d previously admitted.
The Washington Post, which now wants Saudi Arabia to pay a price for Khashoggi’s death, ran a piece just last year by Adam Taylor titled “Do Sanctions Work? The Evidence Isn’t Compelling.” Even the Post’s Jason Rezaian, who was held hostage by the Iranians and is now safely back in the United States, opposed more sanctions on Iran in a recent piece, arguing that they would only inflict more suffering on its population.
This logic is what prompted the Obama administration to engage the Iranian regime from a position of “mutual respect.” That was code for offering massive financial incentives in exchange for Iran dialing back its nuclear program. That effort began with cash payments to Iran for staying at the negotiating table. The administration then repealed sanctions in exchange for some tangible yet temporary nuclear concessions. For good measure, the Obama administration gave the Iranians more cash. That ultimately yielded a controversial nuclear deal, signed in 2015, that pressed pause on Iran’s mad dash for the bomb. Here’s the problem: By focusing exclusively on Iran’s nuclear problem, the deal effectively gave a green light to a range of other malign activity, like terrorism, missile proliferation, and support for other rogue states. In fact, that behavior only increased after the deal was signed.
That sort of policy—tying sanction relief to halting one problematic behavior, in a way that implicitly authorizes other misdeeds—is the last approach we want to apply to Saudi Arabia. And besides, it doesn’t really need the money.
But perhaps there are other elements of the Obama Doctrine we can deploy. The last administration negotiated with the second-tier leadership in Iran, in what it described as an effort to empower moderates and undermine the hard-liners. Respected European and American analysts supported this approach in influential publications from Foreign Affairs to Politico and beyond.
It quickly became clear, however, that the only real power in Iran is its supreme leader, Ali Khamenei (hence the title). The president and foreign minister, even with their smiles and charm, could do little to change the essence of the odious regime we sought to influence. Hence Iran’s sustained radical behavior, even if some nuclear activity was put on ice.
Sure, we could try to engage some of the more junior princes in Saudi Arabia. But it’s the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who calls the shots. And that sort of approach is never going to satisfy those anti-Saudi hordes that want to punish Riyadh for the Khashoggi murder.
At this point, it’s hard not to feel like our options are narrowing. It might even prompt some to give up trying to influence bad actors in the Middle East. After all, why does America need to be the world’s police? In fact, a flurry of articles by experts in recent years suggests that we should return to a more transactional approach to this dysfunctional region.
Except we actually have tried this transactional approach to the Middle East in recent years. Washington ignored its own redlines in Syria. It similarly shrugged at the carnage in Libya and Yemen. And our leaders ignored Iran’s campaign of mayhem. Surprise! The Middle East is messier now than it used to be.
If that doesn’t convince you that a transactional foreign policy is a bad idea, try this on for size: This is basically Trump’s foreign policy. And that won’t sit well with most Democrats these days. Ditto for many Republicans.
Resolved: We can’t give up on American exceptionalism. Saudi Arabia is where we need to take our stand.
Maybe what we need is some good, old-fashioned regime change. Lindsey Graham seemed to threaten as much when he looked at the TV camera last week and said,“Saudi Arabia, if you’re listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose, but MbS has tainted your country and tainted himself.”
But should America tell other countries who their leaders should be? It wouldn’t be difficult to find a few hundred pundits who contend that President George W. Bush, when he unseated Saddam Hussein, inadvertently set Iraq on fire. In fact, they argue, that’s how we got into this mess in the first place. (Really, it couldn’t have been the radical ideologies, rogue states, and deep-seated anti-Americanism that characterized the region for decades.)
Those same pundits would also argue that Bush’s democracy agenda was wrongheaded. After all, we can’t go around imposing democracy on countries that haven’t built up the institutions to support them. As one Brookings Institution scholar noted, it’s a “delusion.” And that doesn’t even begin to address what has been described as the racist or colonialist underpinnings of such ventures.
Fine. Let’s scratch regime change and democracy promotion in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps we should just cut off arms sales. Plenty of smart people are calling for that right now. Yes, the Saudis have agreed to buy $100 billion in American weapons, and that could translate to more jobs and prosperity. But money isn’t everything. We can tough it out. Just like we could probably tough out surging oil prices if the Saudis decide to curtail production in response to tougher American policies.
Let’s admit it. This sounds scary, too. In fact, all of it does.
Implementing effective policies in the Middle East is complicated. If nothing else, that’s now clear. We may never get justice for Jamal Khashoggi. But we would be lucky if this incident yielded a little more humility and a little less cocksure certainty among the pundit classes. Analysts who are enamored of their own wisdom and who routinely sneer at challengers in condescension have suddenly discovered that their tweets haven’t aged well. Sanctions are not always bad, engagement is not always good, and transactional policy cuts both ways.
Is this a teachable moment for Washington’s Middle East experts? One can only hope.
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