Author: Doug Berger
The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has refocused attention onto the troubling relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. It’s a relationship that, at least on paper, seems bizarre. That the American government actively supports an absolute monarchy wedded to Wahhabism with a human rights record similar to that of international pariahs like North Korea is hypocritical at best.
The contradiction of the alliance has certainly not escaped the American public—a plurality views the Kingdom either as an unfriendly nation or an outright enemy, according to a recent online poll.
None of this, of course, goes very far in explaining President Trump’s response to the murder. Much ink has been spilled decrying his vacillating statements, which have run the gambit from denial to a resigned acceptance of Khashoggi’s murder, and occasional threats of limited action.
While Trump’s messaging style is undoubtedly unique, his lack of significant action is far from novel. It’s hard to imagine that the previous administration, which stood by as the Saudi Air Force used US-made bombs against civilians in Yemen, would have taken meaningful action over the death of a single journalist.
Most media commentary on our relationship with Saudi Arabia rightly addresses the 800 lb. hydrocarbon in the room but fails to address the core motivations at work. The prime directive of the President and our elected representatives isn’t grand strategy or security in the Middle East; it’s getting reelected. At the heart of that calculation is us, the American voter.
We should be wary of over-simplifying the gap between our government’s actions and the wishes of the people. An NPR article that ran earlier this year was titled “Saudi Arabia: The White House Loves it. Most Americans? Not So Much.” True, but misleading.
A little thought experiment may be in order. Which is more likely to get an American president voted out of office–revelations that military aid to a dictatorship was used to kill civilians, or a steep increase in gas prices? If the modern history of US Presidential Elections is anything to go by, it’s the latter. No administration is eager to relive the oil embargoes of the 1970’s.
Voters may not like Saudi Arabia, but they appreciate affordable gas—or at the very least won’t punish their elected officials for it. Oil markets are complicated, and Saudi Arabia is far from the only player, but its centralized control of its oil production and its commanding position as OPEC’s largest producer give it powerful influence.
American presidents don’t support Saudi Arabia because of any love for the country, nor because they lack in democratic ideals. They do so because this is the real-world implication of the public’s need for affordable oil. A change in administration won’t alter this calculation, only and end to America’s reliance on petroleum will.
Doug Berger is a senior at Tufts University.