The Trump administration continues to send disturbingly mixed signals about whether it will hold Saudi Arabia’s rulers accountable if it’s proved that they’re responsible for the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
It has been two weeks since the Washington Post contributor and Virginia resident, a critic of the current Saudi leadership, entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork he needed for his marriage. He was never seen again. According to Turkish officials, audio recordings show that Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured and killed by Saudi intelligence officers inside the consulate. The officials add that his body was cut up with a bone saw and removed from the building. On Wednesday, the New York Times, citing a recording described by a Turkish official, reported further that Khashoggi’ s fingers were severed before he was beheaded and dismembered.
It also reported that one of the men identified by Turkish officials in Khashoggi’s disappearance was a frequent companion of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, and that three others are linked by witnesses and other records to the crown prince’s security detail. The crown prince has denied any knowledge of what took place at the Istanbul consulate, a denial relayed by Trump on Twitter.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Trump suggested that the Saudi rulers were being judged “guilty until proven innocent” — just like Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh!
Such evasions, though, won’t work for long. The evidence is mounting, and the U.S. needs a plan for when a story that now seems very likely to be true is finally proved beyond a doubt. What punishment will the U.S. mete out if it becomes clear that one of our closest allies in the region is torturing and dismembering journalists merely for criticizing the government? Surely even President Trump, though he’s known for his transactional approach to relationships, can’t allow this to pass.
Or maybe he can. On Wednesday, Trump denied that he was “giving cover” to the Saudis, and said that the United States had asked for recorded evidence of what occurred at the consulate in Istanbul. But then he added: “With that being said, Saudi Arabia's been a very important ally of ours in the Middle East.” The president cited a Saudi commitment to purchase $450 billion worth of military equipment and other items (not bothering to explain that few of those transactions have materialized.)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, speaking after a mission to Saudi Arabia in which he cordially greeted the crown prince, noted that Trump was taking the situation seriously, but then added: “I do think it’s important that everyone keep in their mind that we have lots of important relationships — financial relationships between U.S. and Saudi companies, governmental relationships, things we work on together all across the world — efforts to reduce the risk to the United States of America from the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, Iran. The Saudis have been great partners in working alongside us on those issues. Those are important elements of the U.S. national policy that are . . . in Americans’ best interests.”
Pompeo is correct that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have interests in common, though a case can be made that this administration has exaggerated the political and economic advantages of the relationship. It’s also true that the U.S. over the years has made common cause with other governments that oppress and imprison their citizens.
But if it turns out that the leaders of Saudi Arabia were complicit in the torture and murder of a journalist, it would be reckless, not “realistic,” to ignore that reality and conduct business as usual. The Saudi crown prince has already proved himself irresponsible and impulsive. Consider the brutal war he is waging in Yemen, his senseless crackdown on women’s rights activists, the bizarre detention of dozens of senior Saudi princes and business leaders in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, his brief kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister.