RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There's been a lot of pressure on the Trump administration to take a harder line against Saudi Arabia after the death of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey. That's hard to do when you don't even have a U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia. There hasn't been one since President Trump was inaugurated back in January of 2017. Although, that could now be changing.
Yesterday the Trump administration tapped retired General John Abizaid for the post. Abizaid led the U.S. Central Command during the Iraq War. If confirmed, Abizaid will have to navigate one of America's most complicated diplomatic relationships. Here's NPR's John Ydstie.
JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: There has been strong rhetoric from Congress urging sanctions against Saudi Arabia. South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham added his voice on Fox News recently.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX AND FRIENDS")
AINSLEY EARHARDT: What does the president do, sanctions?
LINDSEY GRAHAM: That's up to the president. But what I would do - I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia.
YDSTIE: But there are several reasons a strong response to the Khashoggi killings is difficult for the U.S. Let's start with the most obvious, Saudi oil. The Saudis could respond to sanctions by turning off the spigot.
MICHAEL O'HANLON: We and the Western world in general, especially our allies in Europe and Asia, we need Saudi oil.
YDSTIE: That's Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. Despite America's shale revolution that has made the U.S. the world's largest oil producer, O'Hanlon says the global economy would suffer if the Saudis cut production. And he says the higher oil prices could hurt U.S. businesses and consumers too. Jean-Francois Seznec of the Middle East Institute agrees. And he adds, punishing the Saudis just as the U.S. is imposing sanctions on Iran is especially tricky.
JEAN-FRANCOIS SEZNEC: If we want to put pressure on Iran as we are trying to do now and cut their production, then we really need the Saudis desperately to produce even more oil than they're doing now.
YDSTIE: Of course, even before the Khashoggi affair, the U.S. relationship with the Saudis was fraught. The kingdom has one of the world's worst human rights records. Also 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. And a lawsuit alleges Saudi government involvement in the attack. But Seznec says the U.S. has embraced Saudi Arabia partly because the kingdom is a counterbalance to Iranian domination of the region.
SEZNEC: We cannot have enemies both in Iran and in Saudi Arabia at the same time. On the other hand, we cannot accept the murder of Khashoggi. I mean, it's just totally unacceptable.
YDSTIE: To counter Iranian power, the U.S. has provided the Saudis with sophisticated weapons, from aircraft to antimissile defense systems. In fact, the Saudis are the biggest purchasers of U.S.-made weapons. President Trump has expressed concern about losing those sales if sanctions are imposed. But Michael O'Hanlon says the arms sales actually give the U.S. some leverage.
O'HANLON: We need their oil. They need our military protection.
YDSTIE: So O'Hanlon and a colleague, Daniel Byman, suggest an approach that focuses on that Saudi dependence by applying pressure on the Saudis in Yemen, where they're using American weapons in a brutal war. The Saudis are targeting Houthi rebels backed by Iran. It's estimated 10,000 people have been killed in the war, many of them innocent civilians. Eight million more are at risk of starvation.
O'HANLON: A lot of people have watched this war long enough. And they're just fed up with the way in which it implicates America and its good name in a humanitarian debacle.
YDSTIE: O'Hanlon and Byman suggest dramatically reducing munitions sales to the Saudis and requiring U.S. approval for bombing raids in Yemen while also pressuring the Saudis to the negotiating table. There's support in Congress for this approach, and Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mattis have made a similar proposal, though not framed as sanctions for the Khashoggi killing. They've called for a cease-fire in Yemen and support for a U.N. effort to negotiate peace. O'Hanlon says the U.S. needs to act soon, before Jamal Khashoggi's death is forgotten. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.