See no evil
Why Donald Trump is wrong to ignore the murder of a Saudi journalist
America First is hurting America’s interests in the Middle East
Print edition | Leaders
Few political murders are as gruesome and well recorded as that of Jamal Khashoggi. The exiled Saudi journalist was throttled, dismembered and probably dissolved in acid in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month. Turkish intelligence has leaked the faces and names of the 15-man hit squad sent from Riyadh on private jets. Western spooks have listened to audio recordings of Khashoggi’s last excruciating moments.
After weeks of lies, the Saudi government has admitted the guilt of its goons. The only question is whether the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, personally ordered the hit. President Donald Trump appears not to care. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” he announced in a remarkable statement on November 20th, adding that America would remain a “steadfast partner” of Saudi Arabia. He sees the kingdom as a useful ally against Iran and Islamist extremism, an oil supplier that can keep prices low and a splendidly huge buyer of American weapons. The distortions and many exclamation marks suggest that Mr Trump drafted the statement himself. It starts and ends with “America First!”
At first blush, Mr Trump’s position is strikingly candid. His transactional attitude to diplomacy with Saudi Arabia looks like the realpolitik of past American presidents in dealing with the Al Sauds, minus the cant about human rights. In reality, Mr Trump’s glossing over the murder of a peaceful critic is an alarming departure for America. It helps to create a world that is more dangerous, not safer.
Previous presidents have sought to balance moral values and national interests. Mr Trump has given up almost all pretence at defending morality; his sanctions on 17 Saudi officials are designed to protect the crown prince, not punish him. Mr Trump has thus abandoned an important tool of American power—its role as a model of democracy. In repeating the absurd Saudi claim that Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state”, Mr Trump has given licence to autocrats everywhere to kill journalists and dissidents. He has also shown, once again, that he prefers the word of an autocrat to that of the CIA, which believes the crown prince is to blame for Khashoggi’s murder.
Even in narrow geopolitical terms, Mr Trump is wrong. The crown prince is turning Saudi Arabia into a force for instability, and so is helping Iran extend its influence. His war in Yemen is unwinnable and causing widespread hunger and disease; it is hurting Saudi Arabia and its Western allies more than Iran. His feud with Qatar has pushed it closer to Iran. Even though it co-operates in the fight against jihadist groups, Saudi Arabia still feeds their ideology through textbooks that promote the view that Jews, Christians, Shia Muslims and others are infidels. What about oil and arms sales? Saudi Arabia wants to raise, not cut, the price of oil. And it has signed contracts for only $14.5bn of the $110bn-worth of arms purchases that Mr Trump likes to tout.
There are many reasons for the West to keep Saudi Arabia close. It is crucial to Islam and to regional stability. However, working with the Al Sauds should not mean doing whatever they ask. They need America more than it needs them. America should tell the Saudis to get out of the war in Yemen and make up with Qatar. Above all, it should tell them that rule by fear is no recipe for stability at home.
It does not take a CIA report to know that ultimate responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder lies with Muhammad bin Salman. His reputation as an economic and social reformer, who allowed cinemas to open and women to drive, has transmogrified into that of an old-fashioned Arab tyrant: insecure, brutal and rash.
There are few angels in Arab palaces. But Khashoggi’s blood is a permanent stain on the crown prince. It is increasingly hard to imagine him being a stable and reliable monarch. The stories of disquiet among the Al Sauds are growing. King Salman would be wise to start sharing power more widely—starting with the appointment of a new crown prince.
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “See no evil”