Last month’s decision by the members of OPEC+ to cut oil production by 2 million barrels per day sparked outrage in Washington. Prominent Democrats were furious, arguing that Saudi Arabia sought higher oil prices in order to weaken US-led sanctions on Russian fossil fuels, and also to benefit Republicans by inflating the cost of gasoline before the midterms.
The Saudis insisted that the production cut merely reflected an effort to prevent a future dip in oil prices and denied any intent to fill Vladimir Putin’s war chest or doom the Democrats’ electoral chances.
As it turns out, Democrats did better than expected in the November 8 voting. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia’s conduct should still spur Congress to take action to reevaluate the US-Saudi partnership.
Of particular importance: pressure to end Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the brutal war in Yemen, which has continued for over seven years at the cost of nearly 400,000 lives. Following the recent expiration of the UN-brokered truce, Saudi Arabia could decide to restart air strikes, which it conducts with US assistance.
Unfortunately, despite Democrats’ heated calls to punish Saudi Arabia—whether by withdrawing US troops from the kingdom, pausing weapons sales, or passing the “No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act of 2021” —it is unlikely that congressional ire will result in legislation being passed via the traditional route. By contrast, a War Powers Resolution focused on ending unauthorized US military support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen would both have privileged status and require prompt congressional action. It is the best way forward if the goal is to call Saudi Arabia to account. A War Powers Resolution is waiting to be brought to the floor, with the support of well over 100 members of Congress from both houses and parties. However, these cosponsorships will disappear once the 118th Congress convenes: The time for congressional action is now.
For its part, the Biden administration initially promised “consequences” for Saudi Arabia’s recent actions, but has since reasserted the importance of US-Saudi ties. It is quite possible that the kingdom and its de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman will get away—yet again—with a slap on the wrist. This is because neither the Biden administration nor a substantial portion of Congress wishes to antagonize a long-standing partner, especially one with such power over the global oil market. Similar to the short-lived fury that followed the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the current umbrage may dissipate, leaving the fundamentals of US-Saudi policy unchanged. The status quo serves the interests of the defense industry, which spent over $27 million in donations to Congress in this election cycle alone: Saudi Arabia remains its most important customer.
But this outdated approach makes American citizens and elections vulnerable to the whims of the House of Saud.
When the United States represented the most powerful state in the global order, partner countries had no choice but to play by America’s rules. But now the Saudis, along with much of the rest of the world, have adjusted their behavior to a new, multipolar reality.
Under this new order, useful military hardware can be purchased from a growing list of manufacturers, including China, Turkey, or Iran; Asia and Africa have replaced North America and Europe as the world’s largest consumer markets; China and Russia increasingly challenge America’s all-powerful self-image. Partners like Saudi Arabia will hedge their bets, maintaining ties with the US, Russia, and China, while also increasingly asserting their own independence and influence on the world stage.
For now, however, Saudi Arabia’s military remains dependent on US weapons and spare parts. It would take years, if not decades, to switch to an alternate supplier, giving Washington considerable potential leverage over Saudi behavior with respect to Yemen, for example. It was arguably the threat of a War Powers Resolution that helped pressure the Saudis to accept the UN brokered truce that held from April to October, as the Saudis wished to avoid the embarrassment of losing the ability to fly their own planes without the assistance of US military contractors.
The United States should adapt to the new diffusion of power in the world by pursuing a more realistic foreign policy. Part of this reassessment must involve decoupling the interest of the US arms industry in reaping profits from sales to repressive regimes from US decision-making about what best serves the interests of peace and stability in key regions like the Middle East.
Instead however, the Beltway’s knee-jerk reaction to the end of American global dominance has generally reflected a desire to recreate the conditions under which other countries acceded to US preferences: the ballooning Pentagon budget reflects this impulse, an urge to spend our way back to supremacy. The US military budget is already larger than the next nine countries combined, and far higher than at the peak of the Cold War, yet countries like Saudi Arabia increasingly act contrary to US preferences.
As part of a new, more realistic approach to foreign policy, the Biden administration would be wise to impose real consequences for Saudi actions on oil prices and the war in Yemen by cutting off all military support and arms exports until Riyadh curbs its destructive behavior, most importantly by ending US complicity in Saudi military intervention in Yemen.