I’d call this a wrist slap, but it’s really more like telling someone they deserve to have their wrist slapped without actually doing it.
The Kingdom is the most influential Sunni power in the Middle East, a longtime U.S. ally (God help us), a partner on counterterrorism (no, really, God help us), and a key player in containing the threat from Iran. If the United States sanctions the crown prince for ordering the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, all of that risks going down the tubes. A chronically unstable region will be further destabilized, with the Saudis capable of mischief locally and globally via energy markets.
What’s the proper action to take in that circumstance? Sanction the prince for murdering a U.S. resident, or merely embarrass him internationally by releasing the 2018 intelligence report and hope that it gets him to think twice the next time he’s thinking of hacking up a journalist?
Team Joe chooses door number two:
President Biden has decided that the price of directly penalizing Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is too high, according to senior administration officials, despite a detailed American intelligence finding that he directly approved the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident and Washington Post columnist who was drugged and dismembered in October 2018.
The decision by Mr. Biden, who during the 2020 campaign called Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state with “no redeeming social value,” came after weeks of debate in which his newly formed national security team advised him that there was no way to formally bar the heir to the Saudi crown from entering the United States, or to weigh criminal charges against him, without breaching the relationship with one of America’s key Arab allies…
For Mr. Biden, the decision was a telling indication of how his more cautious instincts kicked in, and it will deeply disappoint the human rights community and members of his own party who complained during the Trump administration that the United States was failing to hold the crown prince, known by his initials M.B.S., accountable for his role.
Human-rights groups wanted travel sanctions on Mohammed bin Salman, at least. Instead the White House is giving them an informal pledge that he won’t be invited to the U.S. anytime soon. “Let’s say MBS murdered another American,” asks Zaid Jilani in light of Biden’s response. “Would he escape sanctions again? Is there a limit to the amount of Americans he can murder?”
Instead of sanctioning the crown prince, which would be an insult to the Kingdom as a state, the State Department is sanctioning lower-ranking officials. They’re rolling out a new policy called the “Khashoggi ban,” which would withhold visas from anyone who participates directly in targeting dissidents, including journalists like Khashoggi. Seventy-six Saudis have already been penalized under it — although of course not MBS. The Treasury Department is also sanctioning the Saudi Rapid Intervention Force, the prince’s protective detail that allegedly participated in Khashoggi’s murder.
Good enough? Foreign-policy types are underwhelmed:
I'm afraid that on this, I think the WH blinked. By not specifically sanctioning MBS they send the message that top officials worldwide have impunity in the eyes of the US. They also imply that we need the Saudis more than they need us…which is untrue. An error. https://t.co/X6ohW4rmgB
— David Rothkopf (@djrothkopf) February 26, 2021
Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel demands sanctions against MBS in wake of DNI report. "If we don't sanction him, we lose all our moral standing. We have to review our whole relationship with Saudi Arabia and the Middle East" on @camanpour LIVE
— Sarah Leah Whitson (@sarahleah1) February 26, 2021
The White House may impose other penalties too. They’ve temporarily halted all weapons sales to the Saudis, with chatter this afternoon that they may permanently ban sales of “offensive” weapons like bombs while allowing sales of “defensive” weapons like missile-defense systems. They also withdrew U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen earlier this month, although that decision seems to have emboldened Iranian-backed rebels to move on the oil-rich city of Marib, with millions of locals potentially caught in the crossfire.
That’s what makes this situation so sticky, writes Graeme Wood at The Atlantic. If U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia and Iran is a zero-sum game then any penalty on one awful regime risks benefiting the other.
The Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen, a humanitarian catastrophe perpetrated in part with American weapons, needs to end as soon as possible, and one way to punish Mohammed bin Salman would be to pressure him to let it end with an Iranian victory. The consequence of that will probably be more Houthi missiles raining down on civilian airports in Saudi Arabia. A Houthi victory would also confirm the wisdom of Iran’s policy of waging war in its near-abroad—a policy that has (to date) left Syria, Yemen, and Iraq littered with corpses. The United States assassinated this policy’s architect, Qassem Soleimani, a little more than a year ago. Nudging bin Salman out of Yemen would honor his legacy.
A decisive move by the U.S. towards rapprochement Iran would imperil America’s relationship with Israel and other Sunni powers, which makes me wonder whether last night’s interestingly-timed bombing of Iranian-backed rebels in Syria wasn’t Biden’s way of showing the Saudis and others that he’s not taking sides, knowing how the release of today’s report might be interpreted. Even if the White House succeeded in pressuring the Saudi king to boot MBS out of the line of succession, which seems unlikely given how bin Salman has sidelined his rivals, Wood notes that that would risk undoing some of the modest moves towards social liberalization inside the Kingdom that bin Salman has championed. Would a more Wahhabist Saudi Arabia without MBS at the helm be better for America than a somewhat more modernized Saudi Arabia with Khashoggi’s murderer in charge? There are rarely good policy choices in the Middle East. This is no exception.