The Trump team is now learning the hard way what happens when you signal that authoritarian regimes — even allies — can do whatever they want. It emboldens bad actors to do things the American people and their representatives in Congress just can’t ignore, such as killing journalists on foreign soil.
Many argue that the United States can’t afford to break ties with Saudi Arabia. The United States has invested too much in the Saudi alliance to give it up now, the argument goes. If you owe the bank $1,000, the bank owns you, but if you owe the bank $1 million, you own the bank. The Saudis think they have us where they want us. MBS would love the Washington debate to be between those who want to end the alliance altogether and those who want to give them a pass — since he is sure that Americans will always end up choosing the latter.
That’s a false choice. In fact, there is a middle ground Washington must pursue. We must take this moment as an opportunity to reset the U.S.-Saudi relationship — with some new rules. We need more intensive engagement with the Saudis, not a wholesale rupture of relations, and that engagement should be with all of Saudi society, not just the crown prince. Then we need to make sure MBS and any other leaders flirting with the Putin model understand that the United States will advocate vigorously for our interests and our values, because in the long run they are inextricably linked.