Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia, and Testing What’s Left of America’s Moral Leadership

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The Saudi crown prince, the same man who’s credited with introducing modest social reforms and taking steps to diversify an economy long dominated by oil, had more than two weeks to come up with a plausible explanation for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, the one-time Saudi insider turned dissident and Washington Post columnist, had walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and had not been seen since.

Okay, you figured, Saudi Arabia will produce at least a semi-coherent story befitting a regional power still dependent on other countries for its security. After all, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had wooed President Trump and his senior advisor/son-in-law in a matter of months — how hard could it be to convince the West that the widespread fear of Khashoggi’s death was a simple misunderstanding?

And what did we get? That, upon further review, Khashoggi met his end following a fistfight the Saudis never saw coming. The evolution of the tale — from “He left the building unharmed” to “We checked again and can confirm he died” to “We didn’t mean it” — is almost as absurd as the notion that the crown prince didn’t know the day’s run-of-show:

“It’s inconceivable that an operation using royal guards, other court officials and the consulate was not authorized by the crown prince. That’s not how the kingdom functions, especially with MBS as heir apparent,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Saudi Arabia and the royal family who served more than 30 years at the CIA. (WaPo)

More than a dozen close confidants and top security officials spirited to and from Turkey on private planes with a bone saw in tow? Yeah, that’s not a freelance operation in a place like Saudi Arabia.

We can focus on any number of angles to this story. On a human level, a man who resided in the United States and was willing to criticize the conduct of his home country in the pages of a prominent newspaper was brutally murdered to not only silence him but intimidate others who may wish to follow his lead. What’s more, the family and friends he left behind will forever be haunted by the way he departed this world.

I must admit that I had not read Khashoggi’s work, but if his final column is any indication, his voice will be sorely missed — most notably among those in Saudi Arabia and the broader Middle East for whom political protest is not a viable option.

But what I keep coming back to in all of this is the idea that this episode was the tipping point for those keeping tabs on the crown prince’s leadership:

“Many in Washington have reached the conclusion that this is a guy we can’t do business with,” said Gerald M. Feierstein, the director for government relations, policy and programs at the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, and a former United States ambassador to Yemen. (The New York Times)

This was the last straw? This is what it took to turn a wary eye toward a man who has operated with near impunity?

With our help, Saudi Arabia has waged a disastrous war in Yemen with little to show for it. Indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas has resulted in the loss of countless innocent lives. A multi-year blockade has brought famine conditions and rampant disease to the region’s most impoverished nation.

Yemen was a failed state with active al-Qaeda cells before the war and it’s a failed state with active al-Qaeda and ISIS cells now. Absent a real strategy beyond bombing, what do the Saudis hope to accomplish that will change the reality on the ground? Mohammad bin Salman’s stewardship of the war should have long ago given his Western backers pause. The emperor had no clothes this whole time — he didn’t just bare all in the run-up to Khashoggi’s murder.

Trump’s evasion on the question of potential punishment for Saudi Arabia obscures an enduring truth: while it’s easy to bash the administration’s indecisiveness, the United States has few friends in the region and we are not abandoning the Saudi partnership. We have and will continue to support an unsavory mix of thugs, autocrats, and (small-d) democrats-in-name-only where it suits our interests. You must deal with people and nations as they are, not as you wish them to be. But if we refuse to inflict pain where our allies will feel it most, what is the point of our remaining reserve of moral leadership?

Suspend arm sales to Saudi Arabia in hopes of forcing an end to a misguided and destructive war. Refuse to refuel Saudi planes and cease targeting assistance. Ensure that humanitarian aid is rushed to the most distressed areas of Yemen. Insist on a full and transparent accounting of civilian deaths by the U.N. Economic sanctions won’t cut it. Steve Mnuchin’s canceled RSVP to attend a Saudi investment conference certainly won’t cut it.

If Trump declines these options, Senate Republicans still have an opportunity to align their actions with their rhetoric. To Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Marco Rubio, and Ben Sasse, among others, here’s your chance to curb the excesses of a wayward ally and hold it accountable for a crime you call reprehensible and contrary to everything America represents.

I’d love for you to prove my cynicism wrong.

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