DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The alleged murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a disaster for U.S.-Saudi relations. Whereas Saudi authorities could dismiss Saudi involvement in the Sept. 11 terror attacks by arguing that the hijackers were al Qaeda and hence a mutual enemy, there is no shirking responsibility for what happened in the Saudi consulate: If the Turkish information is true, it was a Saudi death squad acting on the commands of the Saudi crown prince who ordered the hit.
Already in Congress and the White House, talk has turned to retaliation. Senators now talk not only about scaling back U.S. aid to Saudi Arabia’s disastrous campaign in Yemen, but also about cutting off all military aid to Saudi Arabia. PresidentTrump, for his part, promises “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia was responsible. Overnight, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has gone from A-list to pariah; he could not be less popular in Washington if he had Ebola. Authorities in Riyadh may believe they can wait for the storm to blow over. Washington, after all, will soon be consumed by midterm elections. Yet the stink associated with Crown Prince Mohammed may linger. Even seasoned American officials and longtime friends of Saudi Arabia question his judgment. Frankly, the only hope for any quick repair in bilateral ties may come only with the crown prince pushed aside and replaced by a man not only ambitious but wise.
It’s important, however, not to punish allies of Saudi Arabia for the misdeeds of Crown Prince Mohammed, or to throw the strategic baby out with the bathwater. Consider Yemen: The imprecision of Saudi bombing is a huge problem, but Yemen is far more complicated than the bellicose Saudi vs. peaceful Yemen narrative would hold. The Iranian-backed Houthis seized the government. They too impede the free flow of food and aid to a needy civilian population. Their acquisition of ballistic missiles and their use against Saudi targets such as the international airport in Riyadh cannot be excused. Should anyone launch missiles at an American airport, the response would be far more devastating than Saudi Arabia’s. Would it be best if the Saudis stopped their bombardment, and the Houthis ceased their ties to Iran, withdrew from the capital, and laid down their arms? Yes. But Houthi ambition and overreach is not Saudi Arabia’s fault; it is the fault of the Houthis and their Iranian backers.
But, put aside the Saudi vs. Houthi narrative: The Yemen war is much more complicated than Western media portrays. While the Saudis oppose the Houthis in northern Yemen, the Emiratis have taken lead on battling al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in southern Yemen. And, while the Saudis have floundered, the Emiratis have not. They have ousted al Qaeda from southern Yemen’s ports, and driven them inland. While al Qaeda once successfully recruited against the foil of the Houthi rise and Iranian influence, a string of losses at the hands of the Emirati military has tarnished their reputation and led many opportunistic recruits to go home. If Osama bin Laden once said everyone loved a strong horse, then the Emiratis have convinced much of the Yemeni population that al Qaeda was a hobbled pony.
More broadly, Saudi Arabia is Bahrain’s largest partner. During the Pearl Monument uprising, it was Saudi Arabia who came to Bahrain’s defense to protect the monarchy against outraged protesters. And while Bahrain’s Shiite community has legitimate grievances, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has co-opted many opposition groups and poses a very real threat to Bahrain’s security and stability. Intercepted Iranian weapons shipments and improvised explosive devices do not lie.
Here’s the point: Crown Prince Mohammed should not get away with murder, but Saudi Arabia is not alone in countering Iranian influence or fighting al Qaeda. It’s easy for journalists and maybe even some diplomats to lump Saudi Arabia with allies like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, but they are not carbon copies. They may face similar threats and act in coordination with each other, but they are not the same. Anger at Saudi Arabia may be real and it is essential to hold Saudi to account but, at the same time, it is important to reduce the collateral diplomatic damage to other regional allies who, regardless of what happens in Riyadh, face very real threats.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.