The crisis in United States-Saudi relations precipitated by the brazen murder of Jamal Khashoggi raises a critical question that the Trump administration plainly wants to avoid: Can the United States continue to cooperate with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? The young princeâs almost certain culpability in Mr. Khashoggiâs killing underscores his extreme recklessness and immorality, while exposing him as a dangerous and unreliable partner for the United States.
No astute observer should be surprised to discover that Prince Mohammed is capable of such action. Yes, we may be shocked by how heinous Mr. Khashoggiâs murder was, and by how blatant the many lies told by the Saudis have been. Of course, many Americans, from Silicon Valley to the editorial pages of our leading papers, were snowed by the crown princeâs promises of reform and the deft marketing of his leadership. But, for those willing to see past his charm offensive, Prince Mohammed had already revealed his true character through numerous impulsive and vicious actions.
The deadliest exhibit is the war in Yemen, which has cost tens of thousands of lives and killed countless civilians, including children, because the Saudis arrogantly refuse to employ responsible targeting techniques. It has been a Prince Mohammed operation from the start.
The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen shares direct responsibility, along with the Houthi rebels and Iran, for the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, while the United States has continued shamelessly to provide support to their bloody war. Although the Obama administration initiated support to the coalition to help defend Saudi territory from Houthi incursions, it finally moved to curtail arms sales when the aims of the war expanded and the constraints we tried to impose were flouted.
At home, the crown prince has locked up civil society activists. He imprisoned for months hundreds of members of the royal family and other influential people in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton and demanded they surrender huge sums of money and valuable assets in exchange for release. He has forced out rivals and close relatives, including former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. And, as the Khashoggi case suggests, he has undertaken a global purge of Saudi dissidents wherever they reside.
The crown prince kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister and denied it. He imposed a spiteful, full-blown blockade on neighboring Qatar, another important American partner, and has sought to goad the United States into conflict with Iran. Stung by two mildly critical tweets by the Canadian foreign minister, Prince Mohammed abruptly downgraded diplomatic ties with Ottawa, yanked 7,000 Saudi students out of Canadian universities and limited transport and trade links.
As this litany of lunacy shows, Prince Mohammed is not and can no longer be viewed as a reliable or rational partner of the United States and our allies. If we fail to punish him directly and target only those around him, the crown prince will be further emboldened to take extreme actions. If we do punish him, which we must, Prince Mohammed, petulant and proud, is equally likely to behave more irresponsibly to demonstrate his independence and exact retribution against his erstwhile Western partners. Either way, the Trump administration must assume that Prince Mohammed will continue to drive his country and our bilateral relationship over the proverbial cliff.
Unfortunately, King Salman seems unwilling or unable to rein in his rogue son. With critics cowed into submission and rivals pushed aside, there is no obvious alternative-in-waiting who might provide Saudi Arabia with sober, responsible leadership.
Absent a change at the top, we should brace ourselves for a future in which Saudi Arabia is less stable and more difficult to govern. In this scenario, the potential risks to American security and economic interests would be grave. The United States was wrong to hitch our wagon to Prince Mohammed, but we would be even more foolish to continue to do so.
Looking ahead, Washington must act to mitigate the risks to our own interests. We should not rupture our important relationship with the kingdom, but we must make clear it cannot be business as usual so long as Prince Mohammed continues to wield unlimited power. It should be United States policy, in conjunction with our allies, to sideline the crown prince in order to increase pressure on the royal family to find a steadier replacement.
We should start by leading the push for an impartial international investigation into Mr. Khashoggiâs killing. We must be consistent and public in our judgment that the United States believes the killing could not have occurred without Prince Mohammedâs blessing or, more likely, his order.
Next, we should terminate all military support for the misbegotten Yemen campaign and pressure the Saudis to reach a negotiated settlement. We should immediately suspend all American arms sales to the kingdom and conduct a careful, comprehensive review of any future deliveries, halting all but those we determine, in close consultation with Congress, advance United States national security interests.
Finally, we should stop following Prince Mohammed down blind alleys and bring a healthy skepticism to our dealings with him, particularly any that require relying on his word or judgment.
We need to stop privileging Jared Kushnerâs relationship with the crown prince, and finally fill the vacant ambassadorship to the kingdom, to engage with a broader range of senior Saudi officials. President Trumpâs inexplicable infatuation with Prince Mohammed must end, and he must recalibrate American policy so that it serves our national interests â not his personal interests or those of the crown prince.