Photo credit: Project on Middle Eastern Democracy; Illustration by Roughly Explained.

The disappearance and alleged killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is an inflection point in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Mounting evidence that the Saudi government, and specifically its young crown prince, Muhammed bin Salman, are responsible for his murder has sparked an intense international backlash. As the grisly details of his alleged killing have emerged, that backlash has grown especially intense.

Mr. Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen and columnist for The Washington Post living in the U.S. But, he was more than a journalist, he was also an insider with close ties to the Saudi monarchy. In the past, he held various posts with members of the Saudi royal family. In recent years, Mr. Khashoggi grew critical of the Crown Prince, and especially his efforts to stifle dissent.

Turkish authorities claim to have audio recordings of Mr. Khashoggi’s torture and murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The details are too gruesome to ignore. According to Turkish police, the tapes reveal that when Mr. Khashoggi arrived at the consulate in Istanbul, a Saudi hit team was waiting for him. First, they cut off his fingers. Then they severed his head. A forensic doctor advised the others to listen to music as he dismembered Mr. Khashoggi with a bone saw. His body was then packed into suitcases and taken off in a Mercedes van.

The Saudi government has denied involvement, but has been casting around for explanations as evidence of Riyadh’s culpability mounts. The Saudis are reportedly mulling issuing a report acknowledging that Mr. Khashoggi was killed within the consulate by “rogue elements” acting without official sanction.

Buying Time

President Donald Trump has sought to give the Saudis the benefit of the doubt. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump suggested that “rogue” killers may be behind Mr. Khashoggi’s murder. “Who knows,” he added. When asked about it in an interview with the AP, Mr. Trump bristled at the assumption that Saudi Arabia was responsible. “Here you go again with ‘You’re guilty until proven innocent,’” he said. “I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned. So we have to find out what happened.”

Earlier this week, Taylor Griffin talked with former Time Senior Correspondent Adam Zagorin about what Khashoggi’s disappearance and apparent murder means for the geopolitics of the Middle East. Listen here.

 

Mr. Trump has also said that if the allegations are true, there will be “serious consequences.” Yet, he desperately doesn’t want to be placed in a position that will oblige him to follow through on that pledge. The Trump Administration seems to be buying time for the Saudis to figure a way out of this mess. Still, behind the scenes, they are pressing the Saudis to act swiftly.

Mr. Trump dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh earlier this week to meet with Saudi leaders, including Crown Prince bin Salman. Press reports indicate that Mr. Pompeo’s meeting Tuesday with the Crown Prince was more tense than the smiling pictures released earlier this week suggest. Behind closed doors, Mr. Pompeo reportedly urged the crown prince to “own” the situation and do so quickly before mounting international pressure forces Mr. Trump’s hand. Mr. Pompeo told him that the Saudi government needed to complete its investigation within 72-hours and hold those responsible accountable.

The U.S.-Saudi Alliance Isn’t Going Anywhere

Even if the Saudis did it, and all signs point towards that conclusion, the reality is that we’re stuck with them. There’s simply no stable configuration of the Mideast geopolitical chessboard that doesn’t involve a U.S.-Saudi alliance. As Danielle Pletka, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, wrote this week, “There is no other Saudi Arabia — no regional power which has the resources and the will to provide a counterweight to Iran and help lead us out of the current morass. Egypt is no longer that nation; the UAE is too small. Iraq is too riven.“

Given Saudi Arabia’s importance to U.S. interests in the region, what is important now is how Washington and Riyadh find their way through this debacle. “Addressing, even falsely, the Khashoggi crime will bring Saudi Arabia and its young de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), to another fork in the road,” Ms. Pletka says, “The key question is will MBS take the right turn?”

According to Ms. Pletka, the Khashoggi debacle has “horribly, and ironically,” presented the young Saudi leader an opportunity to steer the Kingdom back onto the path of modernization. She suggests several steps MBS could take:

  • “A thorough scrub of political prisoners, and the release of those who have committed no real crimes.

  • “A national commission (I would say international, but I’m trying to be realistic) to assess the conduct of the war in Yemen.

  • “A real ambassador in Washington so that messages are flowing not just between Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and the White House. (The Crown Prince’s younger brother seemed a nice enough fellow, but 28 is not the age or the experience for this job. Word is he’s leaving, but who will come next?)”

What Happens Next

It is increasingly likely that the U.S. will be forced to mount some sort of response. The political pressure from Congress and the international community is just too great. Lindsay Graham, a Republican Senator from South Carolina who has been among Saudi Arabia’s staunchest defenders in Congress, is all but calling for Muhammed bin Saltan’s head.

“This guy is a wrecking ball, he had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey, and to expect me to ignore it, I feel used and abused,” Mr. Graham said on Fox and Friends Tuesday. President Trump should “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia,” he added.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship will continue. But, it cannot continue unchanged. The U.S. should demand that Saudi Arabia commit to reverse the tide of illiberalism as part of the bargain.

All American Presidents have accepted, to varying degrees, the devil’s bargain implicit in the US-Saudi relationship. The Saudis are no angels. Still, things like the internal brutality of Saudi Arabia’s sharia justice system could be understood in terms of the balance that the ruling family must strike to keep the Wahhabi maniacs at bay.

When it comes to the Kingdom, American policy has always weighed human rights concerns against the risk of a bunch of Islamic nut-jobs gaining control of the world’s largest oil reserves. But, this is something different. Murdering and dismembering a journalist on foreign soil is shocking even for them. The U.S.-Saudi relationship will continue. But, it cannot continue unchanged.

Crown Prince bin Salam has sought to market himself as a reformer. And, he’s taken some steps in the right direction, such as permitting women to drive. But, his recent efforts to crack down on dissent and consolidate power demonstrated an ugly illiberal bent. The Crown Prince wants to be seen by the world as a modern, progressive, Arab leader. The U.S. should demand that he act like one.

Mr. Khashoggi’s final column, published in The Washington Post Thursday, had an eerie prescience. In it, he decried press censorship and suppression of dissent in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East. “These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community,” he wrote. “Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.”

Now, Mr. Khashoggi’s own murder begs the question: will this time be different?


 

Axis of Reason Podcast: The Death of Jamal Khashoggi

Earlier this week, Taylor Griffin talked with former Time Senior Correspondent Adam Zagorin about what Khashoggi’s disappearance and apparent murder means for the geopolitics of the Middle East. Listen here

 

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