SINGAPORE: The United States’ perennially controversial relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been rocked over the past few weeks by the explosive allegation that the Saudi regime orchestrated the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
According to Turkish government sources, on Oct 2, Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government, was murdered and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a hit squad that the Saudi regime had dispatched prior to his scheduled meeting at the facility.
Although this news has unleashed an international media frenzy and sparked a bipartisan outcry in Congress, the Trump administration’s reaction has been conspicuously low-key.
Most notably, President Trump has refused to suspend tens of billions of dollars’ worth of planned arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
According to the president, not only would such a move be economically “foolish”, but even more importantly, it would also jeopardise America’s geopolitical interests in the Middle East, where “Saudi Arabia has been a very important ally of ours.”
Trump’s reluctance to interfere with the flow of arms to Riyadh is especially concerning in light of credible reports that since its 2015 invasion of Yemen, the US-armed Saudi military has engaged in a ghastly range of war crimes against Yemeni civilians.
TRUMP’S NOT SO IDIOSYNCRATIC POSITION
Several critics have attributed Trump’s position to idiosyncratic factors, such as the president’s peculiar affinity for dictators, his enmity towards the media, or the Trump Organisation’s rumoured indebtedness to the Saudis.
While these possibilities cannot be ruled out, it nevertheless bears noting that all presidential administrations since the end of World War II have downplayed and ignored Saudi Arabia’s consistently wretched human rights record.
In doing so, they were able to ensure sufficient domestic support to enlist and retain the oil-rich kingdom as an ally of convenience against a succession of shared adversaries.
These have included the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Gamel Abdel Nasser’s Egypt during the 1960’s, revolutionary Iran during the 1980’s, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 1990’s, Al Qaeda after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and most recently, both the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Iran again.
More broadly, during times of extreme danger to US national security, American presidents have exhibited extraordinary cynicism in whitewashing some of modern history’s most barbarous massacres by their autocratic partners.
At the height of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt helped quash appeals by the Polish government-in-exile in London to investigate the massacre of over 20,000 Polish officers by Soviet occupation forces at the Katyn Forest in April 1940.
Similarly, Richard Nixon visited Beijing in 1972 to inaugurate an anti-Soviet rapprochement with communist China, even though its regime was responsible for the death of millions of Chinese citizens during its prior campaigns of forced industrialisation (“the Great Leap Forward”) and national ideological purification (“the Cultural Revolution”).
Although Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong had copious amounts of blood on their hands, US leaders considered alliances with them to be a lesser evil than the respective alternatives of a Nazi victory in World War II and a Soviet victory in the Cold War.
LOW STAKES IN THE MIDDLE EAST
By contrast, the current geopolitical stakes for the United States in the Middle East are low. First, Saudi Arabia’s envious position as the world’s most important, “swing producer” of oil has deteriorated over the last several years owing to the increased diversification of global oil production.
This deterioration is most dramatically underscored by the United States’ recent displacement of the Kingdom as the world’s leading oil producer. Second, the jihadi terrorist threat that has emanated from the Middle East (and which Saudi Arabia did much to engender), has receded dramatically owing to the annihilation of Al Qaeda and then Islamic State (IS) at the hands of the US military and its allies.
Third, although brokering on-again, off-again peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians has been a high US priority since the early 1990’s, neither Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories nor Palestinian terrorism against Israelis constitute even a remote threat to the security of the United States.
Even the most compelling geopolitical rationale for maintaining the alliance with the Saudis, namely, the need to contain Iran, is extremely dubious.
Over the course of its nearly two years in office, the Trump administration has relentlessly demonised Iran for its interventionism in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, as well as its proliferation of ballistic missiles and undiminished support for terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
These hostile activities belie the reality that Iran remains a weak, underdeveloped state that can be readily counterbalanced by its many surrounding enemies. These include all of the Sunni Arab states, and the Middle East’s predominant military power, Israel, which possesses the region’s only nuclear arsenal.
To wit, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Iran’s US$14 billion military budget in 2017 (as measured in constant 2016 US dollars), was dwarfed by the combined defence spending of its two foremost regional enemies of Saudi Arabia and Israel, which amounted to S$85 billion.
A WAKE-UP CALL FOR US GRAND STRATEGY
The Khashoggi scandal should serve as a wake-up call, not only for decades of US obsequiousness towards its unsavory Saudi ally of convenience, but also and more importantly, for America’s drifting grand strategy.
Since 9/11, successive administrations have focused their attention and resources overarchingly on the Middle East. By comparison, they have been habitually distracted by events in the Asia Pacific, which is the only part of the world that hosts a viable peer competitor capable of threatening the survival of the United States, namely a rising and expansionist China.
Even the Obama administration, which ostentatiously embarked on a grand strategic “rebalance to Asia,” nevertheless found itself surging tens of thousands of troops into the unnecessary and still ongoing war in Afghanistan and redeploying thousands of troops to Iraq to combat IS.
It would behoove the Trump administration to consider the Khashoggi killing an opportunity to finish the job that Trump’s predecessor failed to complete. Even before the Khashoggi scandal, Trump had already taken the several important steps in this direction.
In November 2017, he undertook a 12-day trip to Asia, the longest visit to the region by a US president in over a quarter century. Then, in June, he became the first US president to meet with a North Korean leader, holding a summit in Singapore with North Korean President Kim Jong Un to discuss that country’s denuclearisation.
Additionally, since taking office, the Trump administration has explicitly referred to China as a “revisionist” power intent on “eroding American security and prosperity,” and has raised tariffs on the importation of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese products.
Trump has also ordered the US Navy to conduct twice as many provocative Freedom of Navigation Operations in the vicinity of Chinese-claimed islands in the South China Sea as Obama authorised during both of his terms in office.
Irrespective of the prudence of these measures, they indisputably reflect a sharpening US focus on China.
By attaching onerous new conditions to any future US arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the administration would send yet another important signal that it is ready to detach its grand strategy from the increasingly peripheral Middle East to the increasingly integral Asia Pacific.
Evan Resnick is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the United States Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is the author of the book Allies of Convenience: A Theory of Bargaining in US Foreign Policy, which is forthcoming from Columbia University Press. An abridged version of this commentary appeared in RSIS Commentary.