When it came time to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directly accountable for the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, President Joe Biden backed away.
The prince, as the kingdom's de facto ruler, "approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi," according to a report released last week by the Biden administration.
Among its findings are that the crown prince "had absolute control of the kingdom's security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince's authorization." It also cited his "support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi."
The release of the report itself is a sharp departure from former President Donald Trump's response to Khashoggi's brutal killing and dismemberment in 2018. Trump equivocated then when publicly asked about whether Mohammed bin Salman (commonly known as MBS) knew about the plot to kill Khashoggi. "Maybe he did, maybe he didn't," Trump said. Privately, when asked about MBS, Trump told journalist Bob Woodward that "I saved his ass."
But Biden's response to the report is also a sharp departure from his previously labeling Saudi Arabia a "pariah state."
If he truly believed that, he would have made the crown prince a pariah. But he flinched from penalizing him directly with sanctions, letting perceived U.S. interests outweigh its values, when values themselves should drive the nation's interests.
Those interests include Saudi cooperation on counterterrorism; ending the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has become the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe; the administration's desire to re-engage with the Iran nuclear deal; as well as other issues like the Israel-Palestine peace process.
But rule of law, respect for human rights, advancing democracy and ending the scourge of journalist killings and intimidation are transcendent interests undermined by Biden's failure to hold MBS more personally accountable.
To be sure, Biden didn't completely fail to act. The public release of the intelligence report was in itself a major move, since the Trump administration had refused to do so. The kingdom, as evidenced by its furious rejection of what it called "the negative, false and unacceptable assessment," was shamed by the report.
The administration also sanctioned several more Saudi officials (on top of the initial 17 sanctioned by the Trump administration), including Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief and members of the Rapid Intervention Force, a subset of the Saudi Royal Guard that "exists to defend the Crown Prince, answers only to him, and had directly participated in earlier dissident suppression operations in the Kingdom and abroad at the Crown Prince's direction."
In addition, the State Department is adding a new category of sanctions it calls the "Khashoggi ban" that will target participants in state-sponsored campaigns to harass or harm dissidents and journalists; 76 Saudis were the first named in an effort to end "extraterritorial repression."
And Biden, in response in part to the Yemen devastation, had already paused elements of an arms deal with Saudi Arabia that Trump had approved.
All these moves are significant, but the administration came to the conclusion that the diplomatic costs of holding MBS more directly accountable were too high.
The real cost, however, is in U.S. prestige, and the signal it sends and precedent it sets for other repressive regimes in an era in which truth tellers like Jamal Khashoggi are increasingly being targeted.