Last week, Jamal Khashoggi—a Saudi national who regularly writes for the Washington Post—disappeared in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Speculation that he was murdered or kidnapped has provoked a bipartisan group of senators to call for sanctions on Saudis involved in the apparent abduction, and a few have even called for the suspension of military aid to Riyadh. Matthew Continetti cautions against acting rashly:
It would not benefit anyone, least of all the United States, if Iran ends up gaining most from the Khashoggi affair. Because Iran, while not mentioned in relation to Khashoggi, is nonetheless a factor in this story. . . .
Saudi Arabia has been the linchpin of America’s Middle East strategy for close to a century. That relationship has not been without costs. What would the cost be if the alliance fractured? The Saudis would be imperiled in Yemen, potentially endangering the free flow of traffic in the Gulf of Aden. An Iranian victory there would extend a Shiite crescent in the south to accompany the one running through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
Governments without democratic legitimacy are brittle and unpredictable—a fact highlighted not only by Khashoggi but also by recent Saudi actions against Canada and the crown prince’s delayed public offering of the oil giant Aramco. America has sustained and protected the Saudis for decades. Withdrawing such protection would open the regime to both domestic and international challenges. As President Trump put it recently, Saudi Arabia wouldn’t last two weeks without American support. The Middle East and Levant already are filled with examples of state failure. Is America prepared to risk another?
A Saudi meltdown would deprive the United States of a counterterrorist ally, roil energy markets, create pockets of instability in which jihadists and Iranian-backed militias thrive, and cause headaches for Israel. To forestall such a disaster, the Saudis, like others before them, might turn to either Russia or China for support. That would accelerate the waning of American influence in the Middle East. It would boost the very autocracies we condemn.
Punish the Saudis if it turns out they acted no better than Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, and Iran. And as you weigh the evidence and consider the form of reprimand, keep in mind the following: the penalty must fit the crime; neither democracy nor peace is likely to follow the end of the House of Saud; and the morality of cable news and the op-ed page counts for little in the ruthless, brutal, conspiratorial, and bloody Middle East.