If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia stood in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shot someone, would he lose the support of President Donald Trump? It’s an open question, judging from the Trump administration’s tentative response to the disappearance and likely murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi, who entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to take care of some paperwork last Tuesday and never came out, was a constant critic of the crown prince, commonly known by his initials MBS. While there is no conclusive proof that Khashoggi is dead, Turkish authorities have leaked that they believe he was tortured and killed in the consulate by a 15-man Saudi hit squad, dismembered, and his body removed from the embassy in pieces. Turkey has not made public evidence of these claims, but Turkish officials have told their U.S. counterparts that they have audio and video recordings proving Khashoggi was murdered, according to the Washington Post.
U.S. intelligence, meanwhile, was aware from intercepts of Saudi officials’ communications that Mohammed bin Salman had hatched a plot to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and arrest him there — which may explain why he had recently received calls from senior Saudi officials close to the crown prince offering him prestigious government jobs if he returned to Riyadh. The series of dissembling statements coming out of Saudi officialdom and state media over the past several days has served only to underscore the likelihood that Khashoggi was indeed murdered in the consulate on MBS’s orders.
The notion that the Saudi crown prince would have a citizen tortured, killed, and dismembered in a diplomatic outpost abroad may be shocking to the credulous members of the U.S. media and political establishment who have praised him as a modernizing reformer poised to lead Saudi Arabia out of its long dark age and into the 21st century, but it is entirely consistent with his past patterns of behavior. Khashoggi would hardly be the first Saudi journalist or public figure to be jailed or tortured for opposing MBS; he’s just the first to be brazenly assassinated in what amounts to broad daylight.
The message MBS is sending by rubbing Khashoggi out is that dissident Saudis will be hunted down wherever they go, that fleeing the country won’t save them from his wrath. It’s the same message the Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran sent when it went around assassinating dissidents all over Europe in the 1980s and ’90s
It is impossible to say whether the crown prince was simply sloppy and didn’t realize that disappearing a Washington Post columnist would attract the attention of the U.S., whether he assumed that his ties to Trump’s inner circle would prove stronger than the laws and norms he was breaking, or whether he ordered this hit to find out the answer to that question. In any case, it is practically certain that the Saudi state was responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance and probable murder, and that MBS, the power behind the throne held by his father King Salman, masterminded it. That means the way the U.S. ultimately responds to this act will send a message as well.
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators sent Trump a letter noting that Khashoggi’s disappearance “suggests that he could be a victim of a gross violation of internationally recognized human rights.” The letter invokes a provision in the 2016 Magnitsky Act requiring the president to investigate the incident, determine within four months whether a human-rights advocate was extrajudicially killed, and if so, to decide whether to impose sanctions on those complicit in the assassination.
Unfortunately, so far the president appears disinclined to meaningfully punish Saudi Arabia for this gross violation of human rights. One potentially effective punishment, and an obvious consequence of any sanctions on Saudi Arabia, would be to cut off U.S. arms sales to that country. However Trump claims that this would really just hurt the U.S., as the Saudis “are spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country” (they’re not really).
This is an unfathomably unconscionable argument: We must persist in providing weapons to this increasingly intransigent rogue regime, because their money is worth more than our moral values, the lives of Jamal Khashoggi and other Saudi dissenters, or the lives of Yemenis who are dying by the thousands in a war of which Mohammed bin Salman is the chief architect.
But Trump, who sees himself as the consummate dealmaker, would never back out of a good deal just because his counterparty may have had somebody whacked; he’d never have made it in New York real estate with that kind of attitude. Never mind that there is no $110 billion “deal” to speak of and even if there were, Trump didn’t make it; the Saudis, MBS in particular, have gone out of their way to inflate the president’s image (all those jobs!), so they’re in his good books.
At the center of the administration’s reaction to this crisis has been the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who is known to be a close friend and kindred spirit of Mohammed bin Salman. Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton spoke to him by phone on Tuesday at the crown prince’s request, the White House said on Wednesday. In holding a call with Kushner, MBS may have been looking to leverage his personal relationship with the Trump family to limit the impact of this scandal on his country’s relations with the U.S. government.
If the Saudi regime believes it has carte blanche to commit atrocities on account of these princelings’ bromance, well, that’s what you get when you conduct foreign policy on the basis of personal affinities rather than rules and institutions. The Saudi-Kushner-Trump relationship merits much greater scrutiny, however, particularly if it turns out to have a financial dimension. On Twitter on Thursday evening, Hawaii senator Brian Schatz alluded to the suspicion that Trump has some kind of corrupt financial ties to MBS, which are motivating his reaction to this crisis.
If Trump declines this opportunity to stand up to bad behavior by Saudi Arabia, it won’t be the first time. His administration was also recently forced by Congress to investigate the indiscriminate killing of civilians by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and came out eager to hear Saudi Arabia’s side of the story, perhaps in the hope that plausible deniability will emerge in time to sweep the whole thing under the rug.
But failing to punish Saudi Arabia for this outrage, or offering only a cosmetic response, would signal to MBS and every other brutal dictator around the world that as long as they buy American tanks and flatter our president’s ego, they need not fear diplomatic repercussions from the U.S. when they disappear, torture, and murder their citizens. If the president declines to act, it is incumbent upon Congress to both force his hand and investigate his reasons for doing so. For the world’s sole superpower, there is simply no middle ground between condemning the extrajudicial execution of dissidents and tacitly supporting it.