But this frame represents a misreading of both the incident and the last several years of Saudi foreign policy. It’s also likely to encourage the wrong policy response. The hard reality is that the Khashoggi murder is one in a series of recent Saudi actions that have set back U.S. objectives in the Middle East—and Saudi ones as well. Continued partnership with Riyadh is possible and even desirable, but only if Saudi Arabia changes its approach.
Danielle Pletka: The U.S. needs to put its values back at the center of its foreign policy
The most prominent example of recent Saudi misfires is the grinding war in Yemen. Launched as a short-term operation to marginalize then-limited Iranian support for Houthi rebels, the conflict has dragged on for more than three years, with no end in sight. Riyadh and its Emirati allies have failed to reinstall the ousted government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and Iranian influence in Yemen is greater today than it was before the war began. As the conflict drags on, the belligerents have produced countless civilian casualties and induced famine and cholera. The war redirected Saudi and Emirati bombers away from the U.S.-led effort to hit Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, and it has undermined our shared aim of containing Iran’s regional expansion.
The Saudi-initiated embargo of Qatar proved no wiser. Accusing Doha of supporting terrorism and sympathizing with Iran, Riyadh—with no warning to Washington— joined the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain in severing diplomatic links, closing travel routes, and cutting off trade ties. The Saudi government issued public demands, apparently believing that combined pressure would induce Qatar to cave. But Doha didn’t fold, and the embargo only drove it closer toward Iran, which sensed economic and geopolitical opportunity in the Arab Gulf vacuum. Now Washington struggles to maintain productive relations with Qatar, host of the largest U.S. military base in the region, as well as its security partners in the Saudi-led bloc. The net result, as a State Department spokesperson put it, is an American “desire to see the Gulf dispute eased and eventually resolved, as it benefits Iran.”
Another false step was the Saudi kidnapping and forced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, again after no consultation with Washington. Riyadh’s purported goal was to sideline Hezbollah—part of Hariri’s coalition government—as well as its Iranian sponsor. After being lured to the kingdom, Hariri resigned on Saudi television under obvious duress. As demanded, he blamed Iran. When a Houthi missile from Yemen landed near Riyadh, the Saudis went on to accuse Beirut of an act of war and order the evacuation of Saudi citizens from Lebanon. Yet the effort stemmed from a deep misunderstanding of Lebanese politics, and all of the measures backfired. Hariri regained power within weeks, and in the aftermath of the peculiar affair, Hezbollah emerged stronger than before. The result was the empowerment of a terrorist organization explicitly hostile to the United States and Israel.