The US-Saudi relationship must be preserved – our national interest demands it

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The concerted efforts now underway to derail the improved relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia established by the Trump administration are unhelpful at best and dangerous to America’s national and economic security at worst.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a reformer trying to modernize his country. The steps he has taken so far are unprecedented. Letting that progress fall victim to mistakes by his government and attacks from opponents would be a massive mistake.

The death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi – a critic of the Saudi government, who has not been heard from since he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago – was a tragedy. If the facts show the government of Saudi Arabia was responsible for his death it should be held accountable.

But the death of Khashoggi does not outweigh U.S. strategic concerns, which require that we maintain good relations with the Saudi government. We must react accordingly – not as a favor to the Saudis, but in our own national interest.

In the Middle East we must keep our eyes on the biggest threat in the region – the dangerous and virulently anti-American government of Iran, which poses a military danger to its neighbors and our ally Israel.

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We must work with and strengthen the burgeoning coalition of our Arab allies to counter the Iranian threat.  And the Saudis play a vital role in that Arab coalition.

The Washington Post is understandably upset and angry about the death of its columnist. Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt said that reports of Khashoggi’s killing, if true, represent “a monstrous and unfathomable act.”

Consequently, the Post has taken a lead role in promoting the call for U.S. action against the Saudi government – action that would harm us as well as the Saudis in three areas: military cooperation; keeping oil flowing from Saudi fields; and providing jobs for U.S. workers who produce arms and other exports purchased by the kingdom.

The Post said in a wrongheaded editorial published Monday night: “The reality is that Saudi Arabia, which, as Mr. Trump himself has pointed out, would not survive without U.S. security support, has everything to lose from a break in relations, while the United States no longer needs the kingdom as much as it once did.”

The Post fails to point out that the U.S. has as much to benefit from a good relationship with the Saudis as they do.

If U.S. action results in the fall of the current leadership of the kingdom, we will see a return to power of the Saudi hardliners who supported terrorism and oppression. That is in nobody’s interest.

Apart from the death of Khashoggi, a major complaint by many against the Saudis is their ongoing fight against the Iranian proxy fighters in Yemen – a group called the Houthis. But the Saudi fight against the Houthis is vital to prevent Iran from shutting down both major sea lanes for the export of oil from the region.

The Iranians already sit perched on the Straits of Hormuz and threaten regularly to stop oil traffic there. If the Iranians can consolidate their position in Yemen via the Houthis, they will then have the Bab al Mandeb Strait in their sights as well. The Iranians have already attacked Saudi vessels and that will happen more often if the Houthis are allowed to win the civil war in Yemen.

Iran fostered the Yemen civil war and should bear the blame for any humanitarian crisis happening there. The Iranians are supplying arms – including missiles – to the Houthis and have joined the Houthis in firing those missiles into Saudi Arabia.

The famine and other shortages in Yemen can be ended as soon as Iran wishes. Saudi Arabia has been the largest supplier of food to Yemen for the past 30 years and will continue to do so. But we cannot stop the fight against Iranian proxies who can kill massive numbers of people in the region and threaten vital U.S. interests, including the free flow of shipping.

I can already hear critics of my view saying the Saudis are paying me or the think tank I head, the Security Studies Group, to support their government. But in fact, the Security Studies Group has never taken a dime of foreign money and the Saudis are not paying me either.

We as a group support the opportunity a modern Saudi Arabia presents to its people, the Middle East and to the United States. I personally have not seen a better chance to change the dynamic in the region during my lifetime.

The Trump administration and Congress should resist calls to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia and even worse to stop supporting the crown prince – calls like those made by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.,  on “Fox & Friends” Monday.

Destroying our relationship with the Saudis would result in far more deaths and suffering in the region than keeping our relationship strong. And such a move would be a great gift to the mullahs who rule Iran and lead their people in chants of “Death to America” and boast of their plans to wipe Israel off the map.

In the Middle East we must keep our eyes on the biggest threat in the region – the dangerous and virulently anti-American government of Iran, which poses a military danger to its neighbors and our ally Israel.

If America acts against Saudi Arabia with such extreme measures that we topple the government we would gain nothing but a return to failed policies and extremism of Saudi Arabia’s recent past. We would lose a golden opportunity to move the kingdom forward into modernity.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met with Saudi leaders Tuesday, presumably had a frank discussion with Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudi high-ranking officials about the death of Khashoggi and some of the other issues dividing our nations.

Pompeo, President Trump and other U.S. officials have an obligation to give the Saudis an unmistakable message that if the Saudi government was responsible for killing Khashoggi that was an unacceptable action, as would be other such killings in the future.

But rather than turning our backs on the Saudi government we must work to push the country to make further reforms, institute a greater respect for human rights and the rule of law, and continue to defend against Iranian aggression.

The U.S., the people of Saudi Arabia and the entire Middle East will be better off if we work with the Saudis instead of turning against them.