American leaders have peered into Vladimir Putin’s eyes to sense “his soul,” have praised him as “very straightforward and trustworthy” or even a “genius.” They have “reset” relations, tolerated invasions of Georgia and Crimea, averted eyes from atrocities and even gone so far as to blame “U.S. foolishness” for strains in Russia-American relations — because they wanted a steady relationship, and Putin was unmistakably in control of an important country.
But as the weekend upheavals in Russia underscored, dictators are forever, until they’re not. In retrospect, ignoring Putin’s provocations wasn’t savvy realpolitik, but naïveté.
So where else are we making the same mistake, empowering a dictator instead of confronting him? My candidate for tomorrow’s Putin is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, better known as M.B.S. President Biden and his aides have been courting M.B.S. and trying to reset relations with him — even as he seeks a “civilian” nuclear program. This is as misguided and morally bankrupt as our mishandling of Putin over the last two decades.
“M.B.S. is a wannabe Putin,” said Dr. Khalid Aljabri, a Saudi cardiologist who previously worked as a clinician for the Saudi counterterrorism agency. Aljabri, who has a brother and sister imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for political reasons, lives in the United States and is frustrated that the crown prince has, as he puts it, played Biden “like a fiddle.”
Not everyone is comfortable comparing M.B.S. to Putin. “I don’t want to make this comparison because I don’t want to make M.B.S. happy,” said Alia al-Hathloul, a Saudi living in Europe. Her Nobel Peace Prize nominee sister, Loujain, was imprisoned and tortured for championing women’s rights.
Hathloul added that Western leaders should have learned a lesson from Russia that applies to Saudi Arabia: “Do not rely on crazy people; you will regret it.”
The crown prince specializes in crazy. He effectively kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister and started a war with Yemen, causing what the United Nations described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. He provoked a split with Qatar, a crucial American partner. He is widely believed to be behind the murder and dismemberment of a Washington Post columnist, my friend Jamal Khashoggi — leading critics to say that M.B.S. actually stands for “Mr. Bone Saw.”
In short, this is a Putin-like pattern of bamboozling Western leaders eager for a partner. And this is a leader we might trust with a nuclear program?
Yet that may be in the cards. The Biden administration is reportedly pursuing a deal in which the Saudis would recognize Israel, a diplomatic coup that might help Biden in the 2024 elections. As his price, M.B.S. is said to be demanding security guarantees from the United States and acceptance of a “civilian” Saudi nuclear program involving enrichment of uranium.
America historically opposed enrichment, and such a deal should be a non-starter. For the same reasons we don’t want extremists in Iran to have nuclear weapons, we shouldn’t want extremists in Saudi Arabia to be on a path to get them.
How do we say we’re confronting Putin in Ukraine because we believe in the rule of law when Biden exchanges fist bumps with a Saudi ruler who also invades a neighbor and governs even more tyrannically at home, without even the fig leaf of sham national elections?
Defenders of M.B.S. say that he is popular at home, because he has loosened social and cultural restrictions. Yes, that’s true. But remember that Putin also improved life in Russia in the 2000s and remains popular there.
One of the most baffling elements of the Saudi-American relationship is that both sides act as if M.B.S. has us over a barrel.
Last year, Mohammed cut back the flow of oil in a move that helped Russia and may have been intended to show us who is boss. He implicitly or explicitly threatens to turn to China and other countries for weapons or support. And just this month, the M.B.S. aide who apparently organized the killing of Khashoggi reappeared in public — a message from the crown prince to “shove it in the Biden administration’s face,” according to Sarah Leah Whitson, of Democracy for the Arab World Now, a human rights organization.
In fact, we’re the ones with leverage, for M.B.S. depends on America for his survival. Saudi Arabia’s armed forces are so pathetic that they couldn’t defeat even a ragtag army in Yemen, and no country other than the United States can assure M.B.S.’s security. And if push comes to shove, how are the Saudis going to get spare parts for their fancy American military equipment?
We should aim for a civil, working relationship with Saudi Arabia, and officials should meet with M.B.S. But we needn’t let ourselves be pushed around by a two-bit dictator.
Whitson notes one difference between Saudi Arabia and other dictatorships: Russia, China and Iran don’t ask us to arm them or protect them, yet M.B.S. insists that we do all this for him — and so far, we’ve gone along.
If we have learned anything from a quarter-century of miscalculations with Putin, it should be that thuggish dictators are unreliable partners.
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Nicholas Kristof joined The New York Times in 1984 and has been a columnist since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur. You can follow him on Instagram and Facebook. His latest book is “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope.” @NickKristof • Facebook
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