November 1, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads: How President Trump Should Confront Saudi Arabia


It has been a month since journalist Jamal Khashoggi died in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But answers about his murder have not been forthcoming, as James M. Lindsay and I explain in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune this week:

The latest Saudi explanation of what happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi—that his murder was premeditated by his assailants—is no more acceptable an explanation than the earlier versions, that he died accidentally in a fistfight or that he left the Saudi consulate in Istanbul without leaving a trace. It defies belief that this operation wasn’t ordered at the highest level. . . .

It wasn’t all that long ago that an American president, faced with such a horrendous abuse of power and gross violation of human rights, especially by a close partner, would have made clear his outrage and acted accordingly. Indeed, America’s traditional global leadership role—as leader of the free world—would have dictated a very different response than we have seen so far.

What might such leadership entail?

• First, Washington could turn to the United Nations Security Council and demand an international investigation, including the full cooperation of the Turkish and Saudi governments, to find out what happened to Khashoggi. Given the denials and obfuscations from Riyadh, no Saudi investigation can be considered conclusive.

• Second, until such an investigation has been completed and those guilty are brought to justice, the United States should suspend all arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and convince its allies to do the same. The kingdom depends almost entirely upon US, British and French arms supplies, including for maintenance and training. That provides real leverage. The Saudis have too much invested in US and Western weapons to quickly switch to Russian or Chinese substitutes.

• Third, the time has come to pressure Riyadh to end its indiscriminate bombing and brutal war in Yemen. Prince Mohammed started this ill-fated military mission two years ago, ostensibly to prevent Iranian inroads onto the Arabian Peninsula. But the conflict has done little to blunt Iran while killing tens of thousands of Yemenis, wounding hundreds of thousands of others and leaving millions destitute, facing wide-scale famine and disease with no help in sight. Without US intelligence and weapons supplies, the Saudi and United Arab Emirates bombing effort would quickly end.

Real leadership would begin with Washington reminding Riyadh that the US-Saudi relationship isn’t one of equals. The White House holds most of the cards, and it is high time to use them. Doing anything less will embolden Prince Mohammed to continue his reckless behavior—and risk triggering an even greater crisis—while deeply damaging America’s credibility as a defender of human rights.

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The Tragedy of Saudi Arabia’s War

Declan Walsh and Tyler Hicks / The New York Times

“Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni allies have imposed a raft of punitive economic measures aimed at undercutting the Houthi rebels who control northern Yemen,” writes Declan Walsh in the New York Times. “But these actions … have landed on the backs of civilians, laying the economy to waste and driving millions deeper into poverty,” he adds. Accompanied by haunting photographs of starving Yemenis, the report is an important and moving account of the crisis in Yemen—a crisis which has been overlooked for far too long.

The Myth of the Modernizing Dictator

Robert Kagan / The Washington Post

“Dictators do what dictators do,” writes Robert Kagan in the Washington Post. Yet this lesson has all too often been forgotten, he adds. After all, Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler were each once admired as a “modernizer” by some Americans, Kagan writes. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia is just the latest such “modernizer” seen, as Kagan explains, as a “reforming autocrat” preparing “societies for the eventual transition to democracy by establishing the foundations for liberalism.” Alas, it doesn’t work out that way, Kagan notes. To believe otherwise is simply giving in to self-serving deceptions.

The Long Struggle for Supremacy in the Muslim World

Yaroslav Trofimov / Wall Street Journal

“When Americans say of something, ‘That’s history,’ they mean it is irrelevant,” George Will once explained. Nothing could be further from the truth in the greater Middle East. The recent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has stirred up a long history of antagonism and competition between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as Yaroslav Trofimov explains in the Wall Street Journal. Look no further than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent proclamation that his “is the only country that can lead the Muslim world,” Trofimov writes. That vision for Turkey is at odds with the leadership role that Saudi leaders have long seen their country as holding.

Crossed Wires: Why the United States and China Are Struggling to Reach a Trade Deal

David J. Lynch and Gerry Shih / The Washington Post

“Chinese officials were accustomed to American presidents who campaigned on tough talk and then moderated their views once in office,” explain David J. Lynch and Gerry Shih in the Washington Post. Instead, they write, Trump has hit Beijing with tariffs and, for the past two months, has seemed unwilling to make a deal with China. Now tensions are only getting worse. “The White House has not provided Xi, who has built his domestic image as a tough nationalist, with a face-saving path to offer concessions,” Lynch and Shih write. As a result, all eyes are on the upcoming meeting with President Trump and President Xi at the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires to see whether it ends in greater clarity or more confusion.

How to Win a Cold War with Beijing

Seth Cropsey / Wall Street Journal

“For starters, the US Navy needs to expand its fleet,” writes Seth Cropsey in the Wall Street Journal, as he details how the United States can deter Chinese expansion. “An accelerated naval buildup would give China proof of US intent to resist its regional ambitions,” Cropsey explains. The naval build up is one of several suggestions for a stronger US presence in the Pacific. It is important, Cropsey concludes, for the United States to follow the more aggressive tone Vice President Mike Pence displayed toward China at the Hudson Institute in early October with a more aggressive policy.

Right Idea, Wrong Approach by Trump on Nuclear Pact

Hal Brands / Bloomberg

“Trump is right that this Cold War-era pact, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, no longer suits American interests,” Hal Brands writes in Bloomberg. “But he’s wrong if he thinks that simply walking away will improve the US competitive position.” Instead of simply withdrawing, Brands argues, the White House should initiate a “dual-track” approach that both researches and develops INF-capable missiles with NATO allies and makes a strong diplomatic effort to bring Russia back (and perhaps even China) into compliance with the INF Treaty.

Trump Is Not Doing Badly Abroad

The Economist

There’s the updated versions of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the trade deal with South Korea. There’s also the bipartisan-supported economic pushback against China. There’s NATO allies spending more on defense, and the demise of the Islamic State in Syria, too. All the Trump administration can notch as a successes, explains the Economist. In fact, President Trump’s foreign policy team is working quite a lot better than would be expected. Yet, more of the same success is not guaranteed. “More resistance to his presidency at home, if the Democrats take the House of Representatives, would probably therefore lead to more foreign-policy turbulence, not less,” the Economist explains.

I’m a Child of Immigrants. And I Have a Plan to Fix Immigration.

Sonia Nazario / The New York Times

“For anyone who actually wants to work to resolve the immigration issue—not just use it to bludgeon the other side—I have a plan,” writes Sonia Nazario in the New York Times. Her plan is to ensure due process for asylum seekers that want to enter the United States, but also empower the US government to deport those who lose their asylum cases. Also, Nazario adds, violence prevention programs should be expanded in places such as Honduras. The plan has elements unappealing to both liberals and conservatives, she writes. Yet it is also a plan that would do a lot to stem the caravans making their way to the US border.

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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