When it comes to Saudi Arabia and the Jamal Khashoggi affair, everyone needs to take a deep breath.
I know, I know: That’s an almost impossible ask given the heinousness of the crime and the Saudi regime’s feckless efforts to dodge responsibility for it. The apparent extrajudicial, extraterritorial killing of a reporter by the kingdom’s security services has reminded Americans of how much they loathe the Arab monarchy whose economy they float with petrodollars and whose security they guarantee.
The incident has also cast a cold light on the figure of Muhammad bin Salman, the young crown prince who had dazzled America’s opinion class—yours truly very much included—with his energy, his reformer’s zeal, his resolute posture against Iranian expansionism in the Middle East. Now MBS, as he is popularly known, appears reckless and sinister, “a wrecking ball,” in the words of Senator Lindsey Graham, who on Tuesday called on the prince to resign.
An alliance that withstood the melting heat of the 9/11 attacks, carried out by a team of mostly Saudi terrorists, now appears on the verge of collapse over the fate of an op-ed columnist. The Obamans and members of a liberal foreign-policy establishment that have long favored Tehran over Riyadh are cheering the prospect. So, too, are reporters scandalized by the barbarous treatment meted out to one of their own. To call for sobriety at such a moment is to invite their wrath.
But sobriety must prevail, given the sensitivity of the region and the Saudi-American relationship. Before endorsing calls to scrap that relationship, keep in mind the following considerations:
First, the Saudis can be terrible friends. But they are friends in a region full of enemies. What Riyadh did to Khashoggi was awful and appalling. The Saudis do lots of other awful and appalling things, too. Beheadings. Judicial amputation. Discrimination against the Shiite minority. Outright bans on the practice of religions other than Islam. The global promotion of an especially literal and intolerant brand of Sunni Islam. All of this was well-known before Khashoggi walked into the consular trap the Saudis set for him.
Even so, Saudi Arabia isn’t a sworn, systemic enemy of the U.S. or the American-led order in the Middle East. Saudis don’t actively wage war against our forces and interests in the region. Their state is not founded on the mantra of “Death to America, Death to Israel, Death to Britain” (that would be the Islamic Republic of Iran, Riyadh’s archenemy). Washington can’t afford to make another enemy in a part of the world that is already full of them. Remember, too, that if the Saudis can be terrible friends, they can be even worse enemies.
Second, destabilizing Saudi Arabia would be an enormous folly. Tightening the diplomatic screws on the Saudi regime could have deeply unsettling effects on the country, and for what? What do the proponents of maximal pressure imagine would follow the House of Saud in a country with no tradition of constitutionalism, a minimal to nonexistent civil society, intense tribal and sectarian rivalries, a thousand ambitious princes and princelings, and an ultra-fundamentalist Sunni clerical class? As the outcome of the so-called Arab Spring taught Western elites, order is paramount in the Arab world. Don’t flirt with a destabilizing rupture with Riyadh unless you are prepared to countenance state failure, an Islamist takeover, and/or further Iranian encroachments.
Third, the Saudi-Israeli thaw represents a world-historical opportunity for peace. Isolating Riyadh would almost certainly doom the diplomatic rapprochement between Jerusalem and Riyadh, among the most astonishing—and welcome—global developments in recent years.
After six decades of unremitting hostility against the Jewish state, the Saudis under MBS are bandwagoning with Israel, even going out of their way to please Jerusalem. At one point, MBS pressured Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to accept peace on terms that would have made Menachem Begin blush. Fear of Iranian hegemony impelled the Saudi volte-face, to be sure, but it also helped that the House of Saud felt secure in its domestic position. Would MBS continue to pursue peace with the Jewish state if he felt isolated and pressed by the West? Are his palace rivals as eager to shake Jewish hands?
None of this is to suggest that Saudi authorities should be allowed to get away with murdering Khashoggi at their consulate on foreign soil. That would set an unacceptable precedent, all but guaranteeing open season on dissident journalists in a region where they are already an endangered species. But the Western response must be measured. We must be mindful that a cruel order is still better than disorder, that a bitter friendship is still better than enmity and friendlessness, and that no Jeffersonian democrats are waiting in the wings among the Saudis.