Last Friday afternoon I went to the Belgian restaurant Brasserie Beck, a few blocks down the street from The Washington Post. It was the place I had my last lunch with my friend and Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. I couldn’t hold back the tears.
That evening, The Post reported that the CIA had concluded with “high confidence” that Jamal’s Oct. 2 murder by Saudi agents in the kingdom’s consulate in Turkey was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 33-year-old de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
There has been mounting evidence of the crown prince’s culpability. U.S. intelligence officials have said MBS, as the crown prince is called, plotted to lure Khashoggi from his home in Virginia back to Saudi Arabia to detain him. Close advisers to the crown prince, including the notorious Saud al-Qahtani, have been directly implicated in the murder. Analysts and officials from around the world have said that such an extensive operation could not have happened without the crown prince’s knowledge. A State Department official said it is “blindingly obvious” that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s killing. Despite all of this, President Donald Trump has repeated that MBS has denied the killing. Over the weekend, he called the CIA report “premature.” Trump refuses to personally listen to the audio tape of Khashoggi’s killing, but admits that the tape is vicious.
In a juvenile, clumsy White House statement on Tuesday full of falsehoods, Trump repeated the Saudi lie that Jamal was an “enemy of a state” and that the “United States would stand steadfastly by Saudi Arabia,” even though its regime lured, killed and dismembered a peaceful Post op-ed writer who lived in Virginia.
In effect, Trump is doing his best to help the Saudi regime get away with the murder of a U.S. resident and one of the Arab world’s most prominent writers. If the administration continues down this path, it will further destroy whatever is left of America’s moral credibility on global human rights and freedom of expression. It puts truth-seekers and journalists who dare challenge the Saudi regime and other intolerant governments in grave danger, no matter where they live. Trump’s refusal to act gives a symbolic green light to the young, power-drunk Mohammed bin Salman so he can continue his reckless exploits in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, for possibly the next 40 to 50 years, and face zero consequences.
“If we allow a murderer to get away because we think we can make some deals with him, we are just reinforcing the idea that money can silence everybody”, says Abdullah Alaoudh, a senior scholar at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. “And this is the dangerous message that created Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi. We can better protect the good relationship with Saudi Arabia in the long run through building a relationship with the Saudi people, institutions and even the majority of the royal family. Or we can risk losing all that by protecting one powerful individual who has been implicated in a horrible crime.”
The Saudi regime has scrambled to spin Jamal’s killing, changing its story multiple times. The Saudi regime has undermined itself, proving to the world that it would rather hide behind lies, rather than correct its mistakes and choose a more tolerant, peaceful path. Pro-Saudi-regime voices, including the president’s son Eric Trump, have argued that the death of one journalist should not destroy the U.S.-Saudi relationship. But voices are failing to frame the issue properly.
As an oil exporter, U.S.-Saudi relationship will continue; rather it is the United States’ open praise and support for the crown prince that must come to an end. Jamal’s death, while heinous and personally painful for his colleagues, family and friends, is just the latest alarming symptom of MBS’s political recklessness. In the past two years, under the crown prince’s rapid ascent to power, scores of peaceful reformers and human rights campaigners (including elderly women) have been jailed. Many have been tortured; Amnesty International reported that imprisoned female activists have faced sexual harassment. The kingdom tried to blockade Qatar. It kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister and broke off diplomatic relations with Canada over tweets.
The darkly ironic argument that the United States should allow MBS to get away with murder just so it can continue to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia is as morally craven as it is foolish policy. The Saudi-led coalition along with the United Arab Emirates has orchestrated a disastrous war in Yemen, triggering the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Militarily, the war has been a failure. Despite U.S. training of Saudi forces and their use of American weapons, the Saudi forces have not made any significant headway against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. The most newsworthy target that the Saudis managed to hit in recent months with U.S. weaponry wasn’t a Houthi stronghold: It was a school bus full of Yemeni children.
There are those who argue that MBS should stay in the interests of “stability.” But we have seen this movie before. From Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo to Augusto Pinochet in Chile, dictators supported by elites in Western capitals have terrorized their citizens and destabilized their regions. The peoples of these countries are told by these same governments to grin and bear their own repression, because the alternative is supposedly worse. In the case of Saudi Arabia, Khashoggi dared to declare in his work that Saudi Arabia’s citizens deserved better than Mohammed bin Salman’s repression. He was killed for it, because he was right.
From Trump’s failure to condemn white supremacist violence in Charlotesville to mocking a sexual assault victim, there have been many low points of this presidency. But turning a blind eye to the butchering of a U.S.-based journalist just may be one of the lowest. It is time for Congress to act and impose consequences for Saudi Arabia’s dangerous behavior, from Yemen to its bloody repression of peaceful critics. For if we do not, Khashoggi’s death will be a blood stain on America’s moral conscience that neither time, nor Saudi hush money, will ever erase.