Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir now claims the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was a "tremendous mistake" by intelligence officers acting outside the scope of their authority, which set off an international firestorm. The result has been calls for harsh retaliation against Saudi Arabia that would risk America's interests and empower Iran. A wiser course of action would be to pressure the Saudis to cease persecution of dissidents.
Last week, Khashoggi was scheduled to take part in a conference in D.C. put on by the Gulf International Forum, a think tank reportedly funded by Saudi nemesis Qatar.
His inclusion in this conference, packed with inside-the-beltway luminaries such as former Obama-era Ambassador Anne Patterson, demonstrates that the D.C. elite saw him as one of their own.
Because of this, Khashoggi's murder created a media conflagration in a way that previously reported Saudi persecution, or arguably worse actions by China, did not. The brazenness of the deed, taking place at a foreign consulate of a somewhat hostile country, made it worse. So did the fact that Saudi Arabia claims it was a "rogue operation" seem implausible given the apparent involvement of individuals close to Bin Salman.
Nobody Knows What To Do About Khashoggi's Murder
There is a clear media and congressional consensus that action must be taken in response to Khashoggi's murder. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a frequent champion of the oppressed, correctly stated that, "There's not enough money to the world to buy back our credibility on human rights, if we do not move forward and take swift action on this."
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) went further, saying that Khashoggi's murder would "destroy" the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and called on Bin Salman to step down. Both senators signed a bipartisan letter requesting that the administration consider imposing sanctions.
The Trump administration has been cautious, refusing to cancel planned arms sales to the Saudis. But in light of the admission that Khashoggi was murdered, President Trump stated that "something will take place" in response.
In this moment, caution and prudence are called for. In spite of their atrocious human rights record, Saudi Arabia remains a vital ally. America should be careful about what measures it takes in retaliation. In addition to Saudi's obvious importance in international energy markets, Saudi is the linchpin of the growing anti-Iran coalition.
Saudi Arabia Is a Crucial Part Of The Anti-Iran Coalition
Iran, with its numerous terrorist proxies across the region, destabilizing nuclear program, and theocratic rulers with apocalyptic visions of the future, is the larger threat. Iran has a clear desire to use force against American allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, and is seeking nuclear capability. It thus remains the key regional priority.
The re-imposition of sanctions after Trump wisely exited the flawed Iran deal have left the Iranian economy in a tailspin, making the regime vulnerable. Saudi Arabia is vital to pushing back against Iran.
Moreover, the Saudis desperately need America to survive. To Saudi Arabia, Iran is an existential threat. Taking actions that risk the alliance or the anti-Iran coalition, such as sanctioning Saudi Arabia or its top officials, may be counterproductive.
The Saudi regime will do what it needs to survive, including partnering with even more repressive and dangerous countries or cutting deals with even worse actors in the region. This is counter to American interests and would lead to more repression.
It would be better to respond to Khashoggi's murder by pressuring the Saudi regime to release political prisoners currently imprisoned for crimes like "insulting Islam." People like blogger Raif Badawi, an internationally known freedom advocate who favors separation of mosque and state and has spoken out against theocracy, or Essam al-Zamil, imprisoned for criticizing the regime's financial plans.
Numerous others of a more truly reformist mindset than Khashoggi, who was openly sympathetic to the theocratic Muslim Brotherhood and opposed rapprochement with Israel, remain in Saudi jails. America should use its leverage over the Saudis to insist on freedom for these dissidents.
International relations often involve repeatedly choosing the lesser evil until you reach the best available outcome. Writing in Commentary, Sohrab Ahmari correctly points out that Saudi Arabia has "no tradition of constitutionalism, a minimal to nonexistent civil society, intense tribal and sectarian rivalries, a thousand ambitious princes and princelings, and an ultra-fundamentalist Sunni clerical class."
That isn't going to change overnight. But pressuring Saudi Arabia to release dissidents like Badawi could do a lot to restart incremental reforms, such as allowing women to drive, that were previously under way. This, rather than risking the alliance and the anti-Iran coalition, is in America's best long-term interests and those of the Saudi people.
Clifford Smith is the Washington Project Director for the Middle East Forum. His writings have been published in the Daily Caller, the American Spectator, PJ Media, and other outlets.