Jan. 4 (UPI) -- As Congress reconvenes this month, America's relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia will be at the top of its agenda. The House and Senate will hold hearings and debate legislation on the war in Yemen, the death of Jamal Khashoggi, nuclear cooperation with the kingdom and a host of other issues.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will also consider President Donald Trump's nomination of Gen. John Abizaid as his envoy to Saudi Arabia. Moral outrage and "caterwauling" notwithstanding, the posting of an ambassador to Riyadh is long overdue.
The post has been vacant since January 2017, when President Barack Obama's representative, Joseph Westphal, departed. Since then, our bilateral relationship has been fitfully managed by a trio of officials -- the secretary of state, secretary of defense and presidential adviser Jared Kushner -- with decidedly mixed results. Whatever one may think of the current state of affairs, Saudi Arabia will continue to play an outsize role in the economic and security future of a region that is vital to U.S. interests. This is a reality that the United States must accept and work to influence.
Much of that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of our man in Riyadh. The job of an ambassador is to manage to the bilateral relationship in a way that advances U.S. interests. This is not something that can be done remotely. Periodic visits to capitals and telephone conversations just won't cut it. Preserving the stability of the kingdom, advocating for human rights, enhancing regional security, promoting commerce and protecting American citizens require "boots on the ground," or in this case, a capable and empowered diplomat who can speak truth to power, whether that be in Washington or Riyadh.
Abizaid is the right nominee for America at the right time. I had the privilege of working with him in 2003, when I served as the No.2 at the U.S. Embassy in Doha Qatar, and then Abizaid commanded CENTCOM's forward headquarters there. The United States had just moved its military forces from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia to Qatar's al Udeid Air Base outside Doha, which would be the control center for the air war against Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom began at about 2 a.m. on March 20, 2003; the first shots fired in that war were bombs dropped on the presidential palace in Baghdad by a U.S. aircraft that took off from Al Udeid.
A few hours earlier, at 6 p.m. the previous evening, Abizaid and I met privately with Qatar's crown prince to brief him on the imminent commencement of military operations. Even today, 15 years later, I remember that meeting clearly. Abizaid had everything you would want in a commander and an envoy. In laying out the plan of battle, he was calm, measured, thorough, direct and honest. More importantly, he showed respect for the sovereignty of our allies and expressed sincere appreciation for their contributions and sacrifices in support of the United States. It is thanks to professionals like Abizaid that the United States remains the greatest friend and most important partner for the countries of the Arabian Peninsula.
Abizaid will need all his skills as a commander and diplomat when he takes over as ambassador in Saudi Arabia. U.S.-Saudi relations are more troubled now than they have been at any time since 9/11. Precipitate actions by U.S. legislators or policymakers threaten long-term damage to a historic relationship that has for the most part served U.S. interests well. Conversely, Saudi Arabia's leaders need to understand, internalize and respond meaningfully to the depth of concern in the United States over a number of its more troubling policies.
There is no quick or easy solution for the present state of affairs. Taking a "our way or the highway" approach to the relationship that characterizes much of the current rhetoric over Saudi Arabia in Washington will prove counterproductive to cooperation that we need on a host of critical issues. Getting to yes with Saudi Arabia requires sustained, diplomatic engagement, not ultimatums, and this is where Abizaid's role as ambassador can prove dispositive.
As Dennis Ross, one of America's most knowledgeable practitioners of Middle East diplomacy, recently wrote in The Washington Post: "Now is the time to go to the king and the crown prince and say 'no more surprises.' Not only must Trump's pick for ambassador, retired Gen. John Abizaid, have access to the king and the crown prince when needed, but we also want to establish a channel for high-level, regular policy discussions -- every three months the secretaries of state and defense should meet with the crown prince, foreign minister and members of the royal court to discuss issues and concerns."
Saudi Arabia's leadership has serially failed to read the United States correctly. They may think they have Trump and his family in their pocket, but that would be a grave mistake. A successful ambassador is one who can impress upon our ally that power in the United States is derived from its people; it does not reside in the individual. And just as the American public holds its leaders accountable, so do they their allies.
Through frank but respectful counsel with our Saudi friends, Abizaid has the chance to succeed where until now we have failed: in effecting positive change in Saudi behavior while preserving America's equities in the region.
Adam Ereli, a career foreign service officer, served as U.S. ambassador to the kingdom of Bahrain from 2007 to 2011 and as deputy state department spokesman from 2003 to 2006.