NOT SINCE Franklin Roosevelt met Ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in 1945 had an American president courted Saudi Arabia as zealously as Barack Obama did. He visited the kingdom four times, more than any of his predecessors, and twice as often as he called on any other Middle Eastern country. On his watch America sold the Saudis $112bn-worth of arms and provided intelligence and jet fuel for their war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Yet Mr Obama left office a Saudi hate-figure. The Saudis loathed his attempted pivot to Asia, his attempted detente with Iran, and above all his enthusiasm for the pro-democracy Arab spring. Had President Donald Trump studied the contradictions in his predecessor’s record, his ambition to make closer Saudi relations the centrepiece of his Middle East policy might have stood a chance of success. By ignoring them—as part of his default effort to repudiate Mr Obama, as he thought—he has pitched America’s oldest Middle Eastern alliance into a far bigger crisis.
Mr Obama justly described United States-Saudi relations as “complicated”. The two countries share interests, including America’s desire for a predictable oil supply for the global economy, the Saudis’ for security, and both countries’ determination to peg back Iran. Yet they share no more values or political tradition than when Roosevelt met the kingdom’s first monarch on his way home from the Yalta conference. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that beheaded 48 people in the first four months of this year, and has just throttled and dismembered a Washington Post columnist in its Istanbul consulate. America is the world’s oldest democracy.
The result, over the past seven decades, has been a near-constant state of mutual incomprehension, cross-cutting interests and periodic blow-ups. The worst of these, writes Bruce Riedel in his recent history of the relationship, “Kings and Presidents”, constituted “near-death moments”. They include the Saudi oil embargo after the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 and a threatened second embargo during the second intifada in 2001. The fallout from Khashoggi’s murder, almost certainly on the orders of the kingdom’s crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, has the makings of another, more complicated, existential glitch.
A bipartisan effort in the Senate to censure MBS has become a broader repudiation of the relationship and Mr Trump’s heightened ambition for it. This reflects how integral the crown prince is to both. The administration—especially Mr Trump’s own entitled princeling, his son-in-law Jared Kushner—bet that by cultivating MBS’s relaxed view of Israel, he might be persuaded to get the Palestinians to negotiate. By encouraging his anti-Iran zeal, it hoped to pile pressure on the regime in Tehran. Mr Trump, who made his first overseas trip to Riyadh, is also fixated on the airy promises of billions in investment he received there. The Senate, led by Republicans such as Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio who are generally onside with the president, is unimpressed.
Mr Rubio predicted Khashoggi’s murder would “blow apart” Mr Trump’s Middle East strategy. Mr Trump’s subsequent effort to deny MBS’s responsibility for the killing, thereby contradicting America’s intelligence agencies, has riled Congress further. It recalls for many Republicans his effort to absolve Vladimir Putin of blame for election-hacking, an issue they feel anxious about but less able to counter the president on. An arcane foreign-policy row has thus become implicated in domestic political disagreements. That will make it harder to resolve.
This is something all of Mr Trump’s predecessors since Roosevelt sought to avoid, by two means. By coaxing the Saudis to improve their human-rights record, they tried to mitigate the main tension in the relationship. Only John Kennedy, who helped persuade them to abolish slavery in 1962 (the year the Beatles recorded “Please Please Me”) had much success with that. Yet paying lip-service to American values helped maintain bipartisan support for the relationship. By keeping relations fairly low-key, America’s leaders also sought to isolate that elite consensus from broader foreign or energy policy disagreements. As a result, every previous breakdown in the relationship has been between the kings and presidents of Mr Riedel’s book title. This in turn allowed for the possibility of a revivifying compromise, when the logic of shared interest kicked in again. To end the oil embargo, Henry Kissinger persuaded Israel to withdraw from a scrap of Syrian territory; in 2001 George W. Bush pledged his support for a Palestinian state.
Mr Trump ditched both time-honoured precautions. Instead of softening the transactional nature of the relationship, he celebrated it. Many believe MBS could not have ordered Khashoggi’s murder otherwise. Instead of keeping the alliance discreet, he trumpeted it, making the murder even more politically salient than it would otherwise have been. If Mr Trump ruled as a Saudi monarch, this might not matter. The Senate pushback shows he does not. And, to be fair, even monarchs need to be more cautious than MBS has been. His recklessness, of which Khashoggi’s murder is only the latest case, has been condemned by some Saudi allies, including Morocco, and may foster dissent in the kingdom. It is bad enough that the US-Saudi relationship is now hostage to American politics. It may not survive being hostage to Saudi politics, too.
The disaster has at least revealed how unrealistic the administration’s Saudi gambit always was. MBS is a mercurial figure. Yet the notion that the road to Middle East peace leads through Riyadh is a pipe-dream. Even royal dictators worry about public opinion, and in Saudi Arabia it is against compromise with Israel. The idea that the Saudis could help topple Iran’s mullahs was similarly exaggerated. The “Arab NATO” the Saudis have floated is a figment. And the notion that Saudi covert action is formidable was exposed, for all the world, by CCTV images of a bunch of Saudi thugs traipsing into Istanbul with a bone-saw.