The world may be just waking up to the autocratic ways of the Saudi Arabian royal family, but the Pentagon certainly is not.
Pentagon leaders’ silence this week on the reported murder of a U.S.-based journalist by Saudi officials could be taken as customary and proper deference to the formal poles of American foreign policy: the White House and the State Department. But the Pentagon has long supported a U.S.-Saudi relationship that largely turned a blind eye to the kingdom’s human rights abuses, political imprisonments, internal family coups, fundamentalism, and terrorist financing in return for access to oil, a regional bulwark against Iran, and a checkered record of help fighting extremists. Separate statements by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford this week seem to indicate that the Pentagon’s current uniformed and civilian leaders aren’t likely to react to this latest Saudi authoritarian move unless forced to.
Simply, military and intelligence relations with Saudi Arabia outweigh the oligarchy’s abuses because only one thing matters most to Washington: security. American security. On television for the past two weeks, journalists and politicians have screamed outrage at the Saudi kingdom over the reported killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, threatening to cut off arms sales, severely curtain diplomatic relations, adopt sanctions, and even calling for a regime change from within. But not at the Pentagon.
Washington’s national-security blob has been debating for years whether tight relations with Riyadh remain “indispensable.” But the debate it seems has not made it out of think tank row to penetrate the Tank, the Pentagon’s secure meeting room for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Mattis and Dunford this week have declined to say much on Saudi Arabia. Both leaders, in previously scheduled meetings with reporters, were asked about the kingdom and what effect the killing of Khashoggi may have on U.S.-Saudi relations. Both men deferred to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and said they were waiting for him to return to the U.S. with more “facts.” And they both implied that any related changes to Trump administration foreign policy would be given to them, not made by them.
“It's a fair question, although I'm not prepared to discuss it yet,” Dunford told reporters Tuesday upon emerging from an annual meeting of foreign defense chiefs on counterterrorism operations at Joint Base Andrews. “Any change in our military-to-military relationship would be a policy issue, but I think it's very premature to speculate on what may happen, so I don't have any more to add on that today."
That same day, reporters flying with Mattis to Vietnam asked him about the apparent murder’s effect on U.S.-Saudi ties. He said, “The implications of everything going on extend far beyond our defense relationship. So, the president and the secretary of state are currently dealing with this issue. I'm not going to speculate until I have a better understanding of what happened.” When reporters asked him to say more, Mattis noted that Pompeo was en route to Riyadh and replied, “I need to have the facts first. I know it's unusual at times in government circles. Some people talk quickly.”
Hours later, Pompeo emerged from his meetings with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and said that no facts were discussed. But Wednesday, after meetings in Turkey, Pompeo made it clear he was looking at a bigger picture, too.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him in Brussels, Pompeo said: "I do think it's important that everyone keep in their mind that we have lots of important relationships - financial relationships between U.S. and Saudi companies, governmental relationships, things we work on together all across the world - efforts to reduce the risk to the United States of America from the world's largest state sponsor of terror, Iran. The Saudis have been great partners in working alongside us on those issues. I could go on about places where the Saudis and the Americans are working together. Those are important elements of the U.S. national policy that are for - are in Americans' best interests. We just need to make sure that we are mindful of that as we approach decisions that the United States Government will take when we learn all of the facts associated with whatever may have taken place."
President Trump, meanwhile, has been giving the Saudis as much cover as humanly possible, Over the weekend, he floated the idea that “rogue killers” dispatched Khashoggi, and on Tuesday, he told the Associated Press, "Here we go again with, you know, you're guilty until proven innocent. I don't like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I'm concerned."
On Capitol Hill, some Republicans and Democrats have deployed a mix of rhetorical outrage and threats to cut off arms and aid to Saudi Arabia. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said arms sales should not be “off the table” when pressuring Saudis to tell the truth on Khashoggi’s alleged murder.
Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., has notably pushed a harder line than the president, taking to television to threaten the Saudis with “severe consequences” if they killed Khashoggi. It’s perhaps the first foreign policy spotlight moment for Graham since the death of former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain. Graham knows well the importance of the Saudi military and intelligence alliance with Washington.
“Saudi Arabia, if you're listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose, but MBS has tainted your country and tainted himself," Graham said, on Fox. He later said on Fox Radio, “this is not rogue killers, this is a rogue crown prince,” and that it is "game over for me with MBS," according to CBS News.
Many Democrats joined the calls for retribution. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, took a more nuanced stance. Reed said U.S. weapons should continue to help defend Saudi Arabia from Iran-backed attacks out of Yemen, but he questioned how Saudis are using American arms in Yemen itself.
“I think you have to look at all of these — you don’t want to make the mistake of being blinded by the forest and not see the trees,” Reed told defense reporters Wednesday. “Recognize that the Saudis are being attacked by missiles emanating from the Houthis” in Yemen. “Defending an ally from offensive operations, missile attacks, is legitimate. If we’re talking about providing them air defense systems, that’s a little bit different than providing them offensive weapons which they’re using in the region in a way which we not only can’t control but can produce dire consequences.”
“I don’t think the Saudis would be particularly happy about it but that’s not the point,” Reed continued. “The point is we can’t tolerate the kind of behavior that seems to be directed by the Saudis with respect to Khashoggi. We don’t want to see our weapons systems used offensively in a manner that’s inconsistent with our concept of the norms of warfare and international law. And those issues are greater than the displeasure of the Saudi regime."
Note Reed’s separation here of the Saudi ruling regime and the country’s strategic importance to the United States.
"I think in a practical matter, there is a lot that we still have common relationships with — economic issues, etc. And also in the region, we provide a significant deterrent to an even more aggressive Iran in the region,” Reed said. “So those factors would be considered. The Saudis could be upset about that, but that’s not as important as the other issues."
Until Pentagon leaders articulate what they may be willing to change or give up in their Saudi partnership, recall how some former senior military leaders rushed to Saudi Arabia’s defense just three years ago, as the Obama administration worked to open relations and cut a deal with Iran on its nuclear weapons development, a deal critics said wasn’t hard enough on Iran’s missile and terrorist-financing threat to the region. Just three years ago, Defense One ran an editorial from retired Lt. Gen. Chuck Wald, who had served as deputy commander of European Command, which oversees all U.S. forces in Europe. He was writing to pre-empt President Obama’s pending visit to the Middle East and the new nuclear deal by saying the U.S. needed to reassure Saudi Arabia, which Wald called “a longstanding force for regional stability and a crucial counterweight to an enriched and emboldened Iran.” Listen to how Wald describes Saudi Arabia, then:
“For seven decades, Saudi Arabia has been our close strategic partner, steadying world oil supplies and prices while helping to maintain peace and stability. From the Cold War to the present, Saudi interests have aligned not only with the U.S. but also with our friends in the region, including Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the other Gulf States – and even, at times, Israel.
But preserving the Saudi partnership is a matter of necessity, not nostalgia. With the growth of ISIL and the strengthening of Iran, the Kingdom’s strategic role in the region is more essential than ever.”
Is the Saudi partnership still a matter of necessity? Should it be? That’s not likely the question Mattis and Dunford are asking for the near term. For them, the answer is yes. But for the long term, it’s a question for them, Pompeo,and Trump. It’s a question of whether “Saudi interests” under bin Salman still align with American interests, or just with American military and intelligence interests.
This week, national security press has been inundated with commentaries asking if the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been worth the cost. At the Pentagon, no matter the outcome of the Pompeo fact-finding trip or the Khashoggi investigation, the answer is most likely going to be a resounding yes.
Katie Bo Williams contributed to this report.