Now that the boy wonder Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has accelerated his ascent to the throne through a series of wide-scale purges last weekend and reckless foreign-policy moves abroad, both of us are feeling nostalgic for the good old days when the Saudis were scared of their own shadow.
During decades of service at the State Department, we longed for the day when risk-averse Saudi leaders would take greater ownership in solving their domestic and regional security problems and reduce their dependence on the United States. We were frustrated by their inaction and caution. Even former Secretary of State James Baker — who courted the Saudis for obvious reasons during the Gulf War — exploded in frustration after the Saudis failed to deliver a promised public statement on the Arab-Israeli peace process: “These guys could fuck up a two-car funeral.”
But now the dog has finally caught up with the mail truck. The Saudis have become everything we wanted them to be — and by the looks of things, maybe a lot more than we bargained for. Under Mohammed bin Salman, Riyadh has morphed into an independent force striking out aggressively at home and adventurously abroad, dragging Washington with them. Here’s why we have a serious case of buyer’s remorse — and why the Trump administration needs to hit the reset button with King Salman and his impetuous son.
In a string of pretty spectacular foreign-policy failures (see: Yemen, Qatar, and now Lebanon may not be far behind), Mohammed bin Salman’s most notable success abroad may well be the wooing and capture of President Donald Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Americans have long been infatuated with kings and the kingdom. But King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman seem to have set a new land speed record in convincing the Trump administration that they hold the keys to war, peace, and the transformation of the region.
It didn’t take much convincing. To be sure, the Saudis had some natural advantages over other possible partners that put points on the board in the White House: seeming stability and strength, an authoritarian streak, tons of money, and a desire to flatter and please. But above all, the new bromance reflected a timely coincidence of strategic imperatives: Trump was eager to distance himself from his predecessor’s pro-Iranian inclinations and repair U.S. tensions with Saudi Arabia and Israel from the Obama years; the Saudis, meanwhile, were determined to exploit Trump’s…