The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi has laid bare once again the problem we face in dealing with the complex Middle East problem where everything seems to be connected to everything else, few if any leaders who share our values, and there are only “least bad” options. In choosing our relationships with these nations, we are equally constrained. it is much like having to choose among Mafia dons. Faced with such a choice, the Godfather, Don Corleone, doesn’t look all that bad.
In responding to the Khashoggi assassination, we are faced with finding a set of actions that doesn’t make the problem worse, while also not compromising our basic values. The answer cannot be an empty set.
As more evidence is leaked and reported, there is less doubt that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)ordered the assassination. In spite of a charm offensive to paint him as a visionary who will transform Saudi Arabia and by extension reshape the Middle East, he is a tyrannical autocrat who, like our President, has little self-restraint and seems incapable of seeing beyond the here and now. Consequences — both long-term and short — do not enter into his calculus.
So how should we respond? We clearly do not want our response to have the effect of a tilt that strengthens Iran’s hand or gives Russia even more influence in the region. Nor should we risk further destabilizing Saudi Arabia and the economic impact of its vast oil reserves. Similarly, Saudi Arabia can’t afford to dismiss our concerns. President Trump is concerned about losing our military sales and weakening our support of Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the ruling regime in Iran. The Saudis cannot easily walk away from their ties to our weapons systems. Their military capabilities are built and dependent upon US weapons systems and technology.
The current situation is analogous to two scorpions in a bottle who have to find a way to avoid stinging each other.
The range of options might be greater if there was a united allied response. But our allies have been unusually silent, perhaps reflecting a reaction to their treatment by President Trump and their desire to maintain their current relationships with Middle East countries. Whether or not allies individually or collectively act to sanction Saudi Arabia, the US cannot afford to blink. Our slow response to Putin-directed assassinations in foreign countries may have contributed to MBS believing that there would not be a strong response to the Khashoggi assassination.
The assassination clearly has to be treated as crossing a red line. Congress needs to act if the President won’t. And hard as it will be, we need to find a way to get our allies to join us because it will be in their own self-interest to do so.
Whether MBS remains the de facto ruler in Saudi Arabia is probably being debated and contemplated within the House of Saud and by the many enemies he has already made. Independent of the outcome, the long-term strategic outlook for the Middle East remains ominous; hence it requires a robust strategy built on the reasons why the US and our allies have to remain engaged.
Remaining engaged doesn’t mean ignoring actions that violate civil society norms. We have seen the consequences of indifference in Syria.
In addition to whatever actions are taken by the President and Congress and hopefully in conjunction with our allies, consideration should be given to actions that will lessen the choke hold of Middle East oil. One option would be to impose a targeted liquid fuel tax. That would give a boost to the global decarbonization that is already underway. Although the world is not going to walk away from oil-based fuels anytime soon, we can do more to further reduce our dependence on oil imports from unstable regions–and so can our allies.
A liquid fuel tax, sized to reflect a risk premium, could reduce import demand and further reduce CO2 emissions by stimulating new technology. The proceeds could be used to provide much-needed funds for our highway system. We also need to work with our allies to make sure that the IEA plans for addressing an oil shortfall are up to date and can be quickly implemented.