When Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering a Saudi consulate in Turkey, the world rightfully responded with outrage. American observers, including allies of President Donald Trump such as Senator Lindsey Graham, echoed such sentiments. There is no clear conclusion as to what happened, but Khashoggi is almost certainly dead at the hands of the Saudi Arabian monarchy. This is not just a scandal for Saudi Arabia; it is a gross scandal for the United States.
It is dishonest to paint the president and his administration in the same light as an absolutist monarchy, but it is equally dishonest to ignore the inextricable link between these entities. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has grown his personal influence as the current American leadership has offered robust praise and political support. While the Saudi-American alliance may be a short-term necessity in fighting terrorism, the precedent of murdering of a self-exiled Saudi dissident severely undermines democracy and human rights in the long-term. Despite this, the president has already signaled his unwillingness to enact meaningful punishments.
More problematic than the U.S.’ bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia is its total abdication of global leadership. Championing values rarely succeeds in altering the behavior of adversaries; however, it can be extremely effective in nudging partners who are dependent on some form of American power. This tool is crucial to further American interests and values, although this administration’s National Security Strategy explicitly disavows its use. Along with the president’s continued vitriol against the press, America’s current leadership has given rise to a geopolitical environment where allies may ignore or even undermine American values.
When the House of Saud decided to target a prominent critic of their regime, they most definitely weighed their decision against the likelihood of falling out with their most important ally. We are yet to see the aftermath of their calculus, but the fact that the Saudi Arabian regime even considered merely harassing an American resident on foreign soil should be an alarming warning of a world without American leadership.