Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal was a strongly worded, combative and highly partisan defense of the Trump administration’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Echoing the president’s description of the oil-rich kingdom as a “spectacular ally,” Pompeo argued that downgrading the U.S.-Saudi alliance in response to the Saudi government’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi and its inhumane military campaign in Yemen would seriously jeopardize U.S. national security and vital American interests in the Middle East.

Having spent a combined 50-plus years working on Middle East policy at the Department of State, we understand the importance to America of Saudi stability and the need to maintain a relationship with Riyadh. But we don’t accept Pompeo’s over the top, Alice in Wonderland-like perceptions of the value of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, much of the op-ed describes the behavior of a country we can barely recognize.

Richard Sokolsky
Richard Sokolsky is a nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program. His work focuses on U.S. policy toward Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
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Saudi Arabia is not a U.S. ally no matter how many times the president, Pompeo, and other senior administration officials affirm it. Unlike traditional allies, such as Britain, Canada, France or Australia, the Saudis don’t share fundamental American values: respect for human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. At best, they are an occasional and often reluctant, half-hearted security partner and their interests, particularly under the influence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly known as MBS), only episodically align with ours.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal was a strongly worded, combative and highly partisan defense of the Trump administration’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Echoing the president’s description of the oil-rich kingdom as a “spectacular ally,” Pompeo argued that downgrading the U.S.-Saudi alliance in response to the Saudi government’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi and its inhumane military campaign in Yemen would seriously jeopardize U.S. national security and vital American interests in the Middle East.

Having spent a combined 50-plus years working on Middle East policy at the Department of State, we understand the importance to America of Saudi stability and the need to maintain a relationship with Riyadh. But we don’t accept Pompeo’s over the top, Alice in Wonderland-like perceptions of the value of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, much of the op-ed describes the behavior of a country we can barely recognize.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller is vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center, and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.

Saudi Arabia is not a U.S. ally no matter how many times the president, Pompeo, and other senior administration officials affirm it. Unlike traditional allies, such as Britain, Canada, France or Australia, the Saudis don’t share fundamental American values: respect for human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. At best, they are an occasional and often reluctant, half-hearted security partner and their interests, particularly under the influence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly known as MBS), only episodically align with ours.

Nor, as Trump and Pompeo have argued, can Saudi Arabia serve as the linchpin of America’s Middle East regional strategy. Indeed, the Trump administration has wildly exaggerated Saudi Arabia’s importance, inflated its capacity to play such a role and minimized the risks of our current relationship with MBS. The fact is, Saudi Arabia simply isn’t as important to the U.S. as it once was. The relationship needs to be reset and rebalanced to better protect American interests.

Here’s a close look at Secretary Pompeo’s dubious claims.

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“The Kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East”

No, it’s not. Under MBS, it’s a force for instability. Everything MBS has touched in the region—Yemen, Qatar, and Lebanon—has turned into a hot mess in a dumpster fire. It’s clear that the inexperienced and headstrong crown prince has never sworn allegiance to the diplomatic Hippocratic oath of “first, do no harm.” On the contrary, he seems determined to make the Middle East’s many problems worse.

Yemen is MBS’s war, and according to the U.N. the Saudis may have committed war crimes there. Since the Saudi-led military operation began in March 2015 and especially since MBS became the de facto ruler of the kingdom in July 2017, the Saudis and their allies have (with a lot of help from the Houthis) reduced Yemen to ruins. They have killed thousands of innocent civilians. The blockade the Saudis have imposed has caused famine and massive starvation, including an estimated 85,00 children, and contributed to the world’s deadliest outbreak of cholera. Another 14 million people may be close to starvation. The escalating violence has given both al Qaeda and ISIS greater space to operate. Yemen has become a quagmire for MBS—he cannot achieve military victory but will not admit defeat. The Trump administration should be doing everything it can to push Saudi Arabia toward the exit, instead of defending and enabling the crown prince’s intransigence. Maybe Congress will find a way to end it by pulling the plug on U.S. military support for Saudi operations; or perhaps the U.N.-sponsored peace talks due to convene this month will offer an exit ramp. But don’t bet on it. It’s going to take an atomic crowbar to separate MBS from his Yemen war; and we don’t see anyone or anything that’s going to provide it.

In July 2017, in another awful misjudgment, MBS thought he could use an economic blockade of Qatar—hardly a paragon of virtue—to bully the tiny Gulf state into accepting a list of unacceptable demands that would have severed Doha’s longstanding commercial and political ties with Iran, broken its ties with some nasty and violent Islamists, surrendered Qatar’s foreign policy independence, sacrificed much of its sovereignty and diminished its regional influence. But the scheme backfired spectacularly. Instead of knuckling under to Saudi pressure, the Qataris found ways of busting the Saudi blockade and other economic sanctions with a little help from their Iranian and Turkish friends. 

MBS was also the mastermind behind the bone-headed kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in November 2017. He had hoped to bring down the Hariri government in order to somehow weaken Hezbollah and ultimately force it from power. Instead, his brazen interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs weakened and humiliated Hariri, a friend of the U.S., and strengthened Hezbollah.

Some force for stability.

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“Saudi Arabia … recognizes the immense threat the Islamic Republic of Iran poses to the world.”

Sure. But far from containing Iran, the Saudis are helping it expand. Pompeo is at least partly correct: Saudi Arabia has legitimate reasons to fear Iran—a repressive, authoritarian regime with a profound sense of entitlement and aspiration for regional influence. But unlike Riyadh, Tehran actually does have the capacity to project its influence in the region. There’s no more important Saudi objective than convincing the world—and the Trump administration in particular—that Iran, which MBS has compared to Hitler and Nazi Germany, is the greatest threat to regional stability, drawing Washington into its eternal struggle of the Arabs against the Persians, and persuading the U.S. that Riyadh is a reliable partner in this enterprise.

But Saudi Arabia is too weak to contain Tehran and would rather let the U.S. do all the heavy lifting; and while it can throw around money in Syria and Iraq, it lacks the influence to create Iran-like proxies to do its bidding.

MBS has played the Iranian card to justify his concentration and abuse of power and rally Saudi nationalism. Paradoxically, the Saudis have pursued a number of regional policies—from the Yemen fiasco to the failed campaign to isolate Qatar—that have helped expand Iran’s influence in the region rather than contract it. Far from providing the bulwark against Iran as Pompeo and Trump maintain, MBS has been the great enabler of Tehran’s regional reach.

The last two years read like a serial record of MBS missteps that have been easily exploited by an opportunistic Iran for political and propaganda advantages and ignored by a seemingly dull-witted Trump administration. As a result of the kidnapping of Hariri, the economic siege of Qatar, and the disastrous military intervention in Yemen, MBS’s blundering has further entrenched Iran’s proxy in Lebanon; deepened Doha’s economic and political ties with Iran; undermined a united Arab and Gulf Cooperation Council front against Iran; delayed whatever hope Washington had for its anti-Iranian Middle East Strategic Alliance; deepened Iran’s influence with Yemeni insurgents; and dragged the U.S. further into the Yemeni quagmire. How Pompeo could praise MBS for taking action to “root out Iran’s destabilizing influence in Yemen” is beyond comprehension.

Some regional counterweight to Iran.

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“Saudi oil production and economic stability are keys to regional prosperity and global energy security”

Yes, but the Saudis act in their self-interest and not as a favor to the U.S. Saudi Arabia is still the No. 2 supplier of foreign oil to the U.S. (behind Canada), accounting for about 11 percent of total oil imports. But the U.S.—whose crude oil production hit 11 million barrels per day earlier this year for the first time in its history—no longer depends on Saudi oil like it once did. Although Saudi Arabia accounts for 13 percent of the world’s total crude oil production, its relative share of the global oil market has declined dramatically over the last several years and, along with it, Saudi influence over the global oil market. Indeed, the increase in U.S. domestic production has further diminished Saudi leverage.

A Saudi decision to dramatically slash oil production would cause enormous short-term economic dislocations until the market adjusted. But Saudi threats to cut production if the U.S. punished it for the murder of Khashoggi lack credibility.

That’s because a sudden spike in oil prices would benefit Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy Iran, inflict serious reputational harm to the kingdom’s role as the world’s central banker for oil, cause the Saudis to lose market share and produce a massive loss of oil revenues. It’s not surprising that the Saudis backtracked quickly from their threats.

Despite what the secretary of state would have us believe, the Saudis have no alternative to exporting oil at a price that will maximize national revenues and preserve market share—and that means not allowing prices to spike too high or dip too low—and they will make these decisions irrespective of American preferences.

The Saudis no longer have us over the oil barrel.

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“The Crown Prince has moved the country in a reformist direction”

Sure, while creating the most brutal, authoritarian and repressive regime in Saudi history. MBS has introduced changes in Saudi Arabia unthinkable just a few years ago and made it look like he was a true modernizing reformer. What’s so stunning is how the Trump administration seemed to ignore or acquiesce in—and perhaps even lend behind the scenes support to— the repressive and brutal nature of his systematic crackdown as the price of his innovative reforms. In his rise to power, he eliminated all sources of opposition by replacing key royals in positions of power.

In the last year and half, MBS has imprisoned, threatened and in some cases tortured those whom he wanted to bilk out of billions—all under the guise of a crackdown on corruption—and launched a crackdown on civil society activists, journalists and bloggers. The message was clear: The crown prince would not tolerate criticism of his policies and all change would be dictated from the top down.

The Trump administration’s pathetically supine reaction to the killing of Khashoggi has persuaded MBS that he can get away with murder, literally and figuratively. The argument that he needs to crackdown now to appease his conservative base, as if he’s going to liberalize down the road, makes little sense.

That Secretary Pompeo can laud MBS as a reformer without mentioning his brutality is either willful dissembling or self-delusion.

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“Saudi Arabia is establishing stronger ties with Israel.”

Yes, but its importance in selling an administration peace plan is overblown. There is a real emerging alignment of interests between Israel and the Sunni Arabs, especially in the Gulf, driven by fear and loathing of Iran and Sunni jihadists. The Trump administration has sought to build on this alignment in an effort to create a united front against Iran and to make progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Saudis would love to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but they are not going to sell out the Palestinians in the process and hand Iran and its other enemies a propaganda windfall.

The Trump administration has yet to fully face up to the reality that Saudi and Arab state support for its peace plan will turn on whether its positions on substance, including Jerusalem, borders and refugees, pass muster in the Arab world.

Unless there are real surprises in the works, A Saudi embrace of the Kushner peace plan is not in the cards.

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It’s time to rethink U.S.-Saudi relations

Saudi Arabia simply doesn’t matter as much to the U.S. as it did in decades past. The oil-for-security bargain is coming apart: We are far less dependent on Saudi oil and they no longer trust the U.S. for their security. The relationship is worth preserving, if only because an unstable Saudi Arabia or its collapse would deal a big blow to global prosperity, upset the balance of power in the Persian Gulf, and give free rein to Sunni jihadists and Iran. The U.S.-Saudi counterterrorism relationship also benefits American security.

But by far the biggest danger to Saudi Arabia is itself. MBS’s repressive policies at home and his misadventures abroad have made Saudi Arabia a lot less stable, increased Iranian opportunities for troublemaking and undermined U.S. interests and influence. The Trump administration seems clueless and paralyzed. Right now, we have a bizarre role reversal: The Saudis are acting as if they’re the senior partner in the relationship—and have convinced Trump that the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia more than it needs the U.S. and what the Saudis do for the U.S. requires great sacrifice on their part and isn’t in the Saudi national interest. Nothing could be farther from reality. Why the administration is unwilling or unable to use the leverage it possesses to alter Saudi Arabia’s damaging behavior is not clear—but it’s not good for America.

The U.S. should support a truly reform-minded Saudi leader pursuing wise policies at home and abroad. But it should not abide a brutal, reckless and manipulative one who seems to care little about U.S. interests or a more reciprocal relationship. The U.S. can’t manufacture the former and it has no business empowering and placating the latter. We simply cannot understand or imagine why the administration doesn’t recognize the difference.

This article was originally posted in Politico.