When it was only reports in the newspapers that the CIA had sufficient evidence to confirm that Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman was complicit in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump may have been prudent in initially holding off his final judgment on the role played by the heir apparent to the Saudi throne.
Now that a group of bipartisan Senators – including Republicans supportive of President Trump – have been briefed by the CIA and have all concluded that bin Salman is guilty beyond any doubt, we have an entirely different situation. None of the senators equivocated on their unanimous guilty verdict. Whether the Prince ordered it or approved of it at the suggestion of others is a distinction without a difference. In this “who done it,” he done it.
One of the more bothersome questions is why Trump did not know all the facts long before the senators got their briefing? One would have expected that the President would have had CIA Director Gina Haspel in his office as soon as she returned from Turkey, where the Turkish government provided a detailed account and apparently conclusive evidence pointing to the Prince.
One also wonders why two of the administration’s most important and most credible Cabinet members – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis – had also stated that there was no “direct link” to the Prince. That may be technically true – and maybe not – but there appears to be sufficient circumstantial evidence to establish bin Salman’s guilt beyond any reasonable doubt.
Republican senators Bob Corker (a critic of the President) and Lindsey Graham (an ally of the President) were unequivocal in their statements that the Prince was personally responsible. Corker said that any jury would convict bin Salman of murder “after thirty minutes” of deliberation. Lindsey seemed to be addressing not only Trump, but Pompeo and Mattis, when he said that one would have to be “intentionally blind“ not to see bin Salman’s complicity.
Trump has no choice but to accept the conclusion of the CIA and now the majority of the Senate. The Congress is poised to pass tough sanctions against Saudi Arabia by a majority that could and would overrule any presidential veto. The legislators may take over the relationship by terminating arms sales and withdrawing support for the war in Yemen.
Trump’s resistance to blame the Prince seems largely due to a desire not to destroy our critical – and yes, it IS critical — working relationship with Saudi Arabia. They are a key player in the strategy to keep Iran – and indirectly, Russia and China – from dominating the Middle East. Democrats’ claim that it has to do with business interests between the Saudi royal family and the Trump organization – including son-in-law Jared Kushner. That is nothing more than political garbage.
That bogus theory would not explain the comments of Pompeo and Mattis. They clearly understand the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia – as does Israel and most of the European Union. The EU heads-of-state have been no harsher on bin Salman than has Trump. There were a large number of those heads-of-state in Argentina for the G20 confab – and they all seemed pretty friendly in their dealings with bin Salman. Whatever the resolution to l’affaire Khashoggi, the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the western world needs to be preserved. That is the dilemma.
The Prince has put the United States between a rock and a hard place. What he has done cannot be dismissed with a promise never to do it again. Yes, these despots do knock off political enemies and we generally have to chagrin and bear it. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un had his half brother poisoned and Russia’s Vladimir Putin seems to pop off an adversary on a regular basis. Still we have to deal with those nations and the bad actors that run them.
So, why is the Khashoggi assassination so different. Two reasons. He was a legal American resident and the father of children who are American citizens. Secondly, he was a writer for a prominent American Newspaper. Murdering political enemies is very bad but killing Khashoggi was not only an act of criminality but of consummate stupidity.
It even goes beyond Khashoggi’s ties to the United States and his working for an American Newspaper. The entire caper was like a bad spy movie. Killing enemies in other people’s countries is one level of stupid, but in the past has not gotten the pushback one might expect. Kim had his brother killed in Malaysia and Putin attempted to kill Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in England.
But to preform the dastardly deed in one’s own consulate in a foreign country is beyond stupid. That would hardly seem possible without the complicity of “the government” – and in this case bin Salman. You are talking about facilities that are under both intense security and constant surveillance. And, the connection between the perpetrators and the Prince was a chain-of-command with very few links.
The only question remaining is, where is the body – or, more accurately, where are the pieces? Since the Saudis publicly identified those they claim were responsible, they must know what became of the body parts.
It would seem that there are only two options now – one okay and the other … not okay. The first is that bin Salman be punished by the Saudis and removed from office. He should be jailed or executed, but as a member of the royal family, that is not likely to happen. But politically exiled would be a step in the right direction.
The other option is that he stays in power and remains in line to succeed his father, the King. That means sanctions by the United States that can temporarily disrupt the alliance. The Prince would have very few countries to which he could travel, and the United States would be most certainly off his itinerary. The alliance would have to be managed by second level intermediaries – the foreign ministers. There would be no summit meetings – no more smiling photo ops with foreign dignitaries.
Then there is the question as to whether the old man, King Salman, retains sufficient power to even punish or replace his wayward son. The King is in very poor health and many of his duties and much of his power has already transferred to bin Salman.
Of course, the most effective solution would be for the Prince to be assassinated. After all, he is a bit like a Mafia guy who screws up. The only solution is elimination. If this were a movie, that would be the ending. And just because this is not a movie, does not mean it would be an ironic conclusion to “Murder in the Sands of Arabia.” It would be a better story than “The Fall of the House of Saud.”
So, there ‘tis.
Editor’s note: The big question is, does this make any difference? Trump has been trying to give MBS the benefit of the doubt because he knows that MBS is not going anywhere either way, and better to just go with the flow. Saudi Arabia is an important ally and the stability of the Middle East currently depends on that alliance. At some point, however, this becomes an issue for Trump (ironically less so for MBS), since demands to terminate our relationship with him will grow louder.
It is the nature of governments that when the stakes are large, people die. In some countries, people die when the stakes are small. As a former inteligence officer, I can tell you that if we broke off relations with countries who might be willing to do what MBS purportedly did, then we would have relationships with no one. The big mistake was getting caught.
This is, of course, a mistake that Hillary Clinton has never made, even though from Vince Foster to Seth Rich, fingers have been pointed.