Editorial: Biden shouldn’t have spared Saudi Arabia’s crown prince

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
(Associated Press)
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When Joe Biden was running for president, he was asked if — unlike then-President Trump — he would punish senior Saudi leaders for the 2018 murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Biden answered “Yes,” and went on to say that he believed Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Yet even though it released an intelligence report Friday concluding that the crown prince ordered an operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi, the Biden administration is declining to impose sanctions on the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. That’s a disgrace and a disappointment.


However much the administration may rationalize that decision, sparing the crown prince dishonors Khashoggi’s memory and blinks at a conspiracy aimed at a journalist who lived in this country and wrote for the Washington Post. It also sends a dispiriting message to other journalists around the world who are speaking out against autocratic and corrupt governments.

The administration has imposed sanctions and travel restrictions on other Saudi officials and has announced a new policy of restricting and revoking the visas of individuals engaged in “extraterritorial activities” targeting dissidents or journalists.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also announced that the United States will “recalibrate” its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Already the new administration has reduced support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Welcome as these steps are, they are no substitute for formal action against the crown prince for complicity in this brutal murder.

In defending the administration, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki noted that historically the United States has not placed sanctions on the leaders of foreign governments. But the crown prince, although he exercises day-to-day authority in the kingdom, isn’t the head of state. That position is occupied by his father, King Salman, with whom Biden conferred recently.

It’s not uncommon for new presidents to break or bend campaign promises when faced with the complexities of governing. Even if the Biden administration “recalibrates” its relationship with Saudi Arabia, the kingdom remains a U.S. ally; the two countries have close economic and educational ties and a shared interest in preserving stability and prosperity in the Middle East.

But, as Blinken said in remarks describing sanctions on other officials, “we also want to make sure — and this is what the president has said from the outset — that the relationship better reflects our interests and our values.” That promise will ring hollow so long as sanctions spare the overseer of the atrocity that took Khashoggi’s life.