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The Passive Foreign Policy President

How Donald Trump's hands-off approach to Saudi Arabia squanders the U.S.'s leverage in the Middle East

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty

The centerpiece of Donald Trump’s entire Middle East policy is Saudi Arabia. For the president, most roads run through Riyadh, whether it’s Iran, counterterrorism, or the Arab-Israeli conflict. Saudi Arabia was the first place he visited overseas as president. He assigned his son-in-law Jared Kushner to manage the relationship. When it comes to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as “MBS”), Trump is all-in, endorsing MBS’s power grab last year that consolidated his control over the kingdom.

The crown prince, who is visiting the United States this week, has reciprocated, calling Trump “the right man at the right time.” But overshadowing this visit is a daily stream of stories of intrigue and dysfunction in both the houses of Saud and Trump. The New York Times reported last week that MBS’s power grab, which his government has claimed is part of an anti-corruption drive, resulted in physical abuse of detained officials and the brazen seizure of their assets. Meanwhile, the White House has been embroiled in controversies ranging from the special counsel’s investigation to the Stormy Daniels affair. Kushner, in particular, had his security clearance downgraded amidst concerns about his financial dealings.

As the Saudi son rises and the U.S. son-in-law falters, a dangerous dynamic is taking shape: Washington is shying away from setting a regional agenda, while Riyadh feels emboldened to fill the void. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric masks a surprising passivity allowing others to rush in—Russia in Syria, Iran in Iraq, and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. The result is a disengaged U.S. in the Middle East, where a new contest for power and influence is playing out.

At the start of its second year, the main ingredients of the Trump administration’s Middle East approach seemed fairly baked: Downgrade conflict resolution and diplomacy, implement a silent surge of military operations against terrorists, and talk tough—all while telling key allies what they want to hear and writing them blank checks to shape the region as they see fit. In contrast to previous Saudi leaders, however, MBS has a more activist agenda in the region and beyond. These Saudi moves remain in very early phases and have yet to produce major results—but in several cases, most glaringly in Yemen, they have done more harm than good.  

The crown prince has undertaken a bold, risky effort to modernize and diversify Saudi Arabia’s economy—a political necessity given the kingdom’s burgeoning young population. Some observers have worried that perhaps MBS is moving too quickly with social reforms like finally allowing women to drive, but he may have a bigger challenge: not moving quickly enough for the millions of Saudi millennials, increasingly wired into the rest of the world, who want to raise their families in a country radically different from the one in which they were raised. 

MBS has pinned his fortunes to an ambitious domestic reform program under the banner of Vision 2030—an effort to diversify the Saudi economy and introduce more competition and transparency. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that MBS, like his American counterpart, has proven far better at announcing grand initiatives than carrying them through to completion. 

This presents the U.S. with a clear opportunity to broaden the U.S.-Saudi relationship beyond its traditional realms of arms sales, intelligence, and oil. Economic engagement focused on assisting Saudi reforms and advancing Saudi investment in the United States could benefit both sides: It could bolster America’s economic fortunes while reinforcing the Saudi effort to break its dependency on oil. But so far this effort has been more rhetoric than reality.

Furthermore, the ambitious economic and social reforms underway in Saudi Arabia are unlikely to produce sustainable results with sufficient political legitimacy if the basic rights of Saudi people are not respected. To give an immediate example, purges of Saudi economic leaders are unlikely to inspire confidence among investors. So the U.S. should be challenging Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights and religious freedom and rule of law. Even though the Trump administration’s own State Department has noted significant concerns about Saudi Arabia, it has done little to keep this in the dialogue. 

This is a shame, because Trump has bought significant bilateral goodwill with his unconditional embrace of Saudi Arabia and its crown prince. Now is the time to spend down some of that capital to press our partner to act more responsibly on key regional issues—especially Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. These countries have been fragmenting from internal conflicts that have morphed into regional proxy battles, sucking in outside powers. 

At the top of the list is Yemen, where the Saudi-led war has ground on with no end in sight. Three years in, the Yemen war has proved a disastrous venture, costing the Saudis blood and treasure, ravaging Yemen’s population, and strengthening Al Qaeda’s grip. Heightened congressional pressure over Yemen is overdue and welcome.

Instead of signaling unstinting support for the Saudis, the Trump administration should wield its leverage to press the Saudi government both publicly and privately to end the war as soon as possible. One way to do this would be to hold out a finite period of continued U.S. security cooperation as an incentive, dependent on Saudi Arabia jumpstarting and following through on a credible peace process that leads to conflict resolution in Yemen. Indeed, some of these talks are already underway, but they need more steadfast support—and U.S. pressure. 

Saudi Arabia has legitimate concerns about Iranian-supplied missiles and defense of its territory, and will arrive in Washington with fresh announcements of new humanitarian and reconstruction aid for the Yemeni people. But this is not enough: Saudi Arabia, with America’s help, tried and failed to bomb the Houthis into submission. Now the United States needs to make clear it will not support an indefinite military campaign. Alongside a zero-tolerance policy for blocking humanitarian supplies, the administration must signal the importance it places on ending the war—and should draw on the current congressional ferment to underscore that Saudi Arabia’s current approach is untenable. Yesterday’s vote to end the U.S.’s support for the Saudi campaign may have failed, but it should be a useful indication of rising congressional discontent with the Saudi-led war and the risk it poses to the kingdom’s standing in Washington.   

Another area that has cast doubt about MBS, even within the Trump administration, is its blockade of Qatar and other moves to isolate the country. But the U.S. has sent mixed messages, instead of pushing Saudi Arabia to find a resolution to the dispute. If the blockade keeps up, the U.S. risks normalizing a fracture between two key American partners. 

There are serious signs that Trump may pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal soon. Such a move would make critics of the deal like Saudi Arabia happy, but it would amount to unilateral disarmament, getting rid of a key tool that blocks Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.

MBS deserves recognition—and positive reinforcement—for reengaging Saudi Arabia with Iraq. Saudi Arabia’s engagement can help Iraq carve out a foreign policy that is more balanced and more independent from Iran, helping the United States to engage and compete for influence in that country. As Iraqi elections approach, both Washington and Riyadh need to exercise their influence as political brokers, to act constructively and concertedly as a counterweight to Iran’s unflagging pressure. But there’s a risk that, as Trump dismantles the State Department and shakes up his staff, that there simply isn’t the senior-level bandwidth or interest to get it done. 

On Syria, Trump has reportedly asked for a $4 billion Saudi contribution to reconstruction in the areas of Syria east of the Euphrates River held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (no word yet on the Saudis’ response). But the nature of the U.S. political and security commitment to this region’s future—not to mention the odds Saudi money actually arrives—remain remarkably undefined given the current U.S. military investment and what is being asked of the Saudis. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s policy messages range from Trump’s “we’re there for one reason ... to get rid of ISIS and go home” to a more ambitious effort to turn Syria into a bulwark against Iran.

Trump deserves some credit for bridging the two-way trust deficit between the United States and Saudi Arabia that had intensified in the years prior. But so far he has done so by indulging bad habits instead of fostering good ones: offering a blank check to partners instead of demanding responsibility in exchange for support; focusing on flashy photo-ops over follow-up; relying on family ties at the expense of institutional wisdom; and initiating fights instead of finding strategic, sensible ways to resolve conflicts in a region already on fire.  

But it would be a mistake for America to simply disengage in revulsion at Trump’s warm embrace of Saudi Arabia or even the disastrous war in Yemen. A Saudi Arabia unmoored from America, or one in which MBS’s reforms fail disastrously, is unlikely to benefit United States interests. The U.S has genuine leverage to influence Saudi actions in the region and at home. A smarter middle path would be to use that leverage and have a tough, strategic conversation with the Saudis about a full range of concerns, while seizing on opportunities to improve the relationship on multiple fronts and steer them in a constructive direction.