Nineteen days after Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, the Saudi regime has at last acknowledged the obvious, that Khashoggi is dead. After first insisting that he had left the consulate of his own accord despite video evidence to the contrary, and then slamming the allegations of his murder as “baseless” and threatening oil sanctions against those claiming otherwise, the kingdom has finally settled on its official story: Khashoggi was inadvertently killed inside the consulate during a fistfight that just happened to break out in the midst of an otherwise standard meeting with Saudi intelligence officials. The regime has made a show of dismissing and arresting several officials it says were rogues, and attributes responsibility for the killing to them only.
As alibis go, this barely qualifies. It is a wildly implausible story clearly designed to absolve Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of responsibility of the murder and therefore leave open the way for continued close relations with the United States. President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo seem inclined to suspend disbelief, which would be a serious mistake. The situation demands a tougher, less credulous approach.
The Saudi explanation has changed enough times to give the impression that the kingdom was trying on different hats to see which might fit. There is convincing evidence that Khashoggi’s killing was the result of a premeditated operation carried out with bin Salman’s support. Turkish intelligence has alluded to a recording of the killing not released to the public, but thanks to video surveillance, the world knows for certain that a group of Saudi musclemen flew into Istanbul and entered the consulate hours before Khashoggi arrived. Several of these men are members of bin Salman’s inner circle; one, since dismissed from his post, is among the crown prince’s closest advisers. Very little happens in Saudi Arabia without bin Salman’s foreknowledge and approval, so the notion that he would be so unaware of his inner circle’s activities regarding one of the regime’s highest-profile international critics is laughable.
The Trump administration was initially cautious in responding, but on Friday, Trump said that he found the official explanation credible. The president should not go out of his way to give support to an obviously self-serving lie. It diminishes American credibility on the international stage and treats the Saudis far more favorably than they deserve.
The nature of the Riyadh regime is no mystery, and there is no use pretending otherwise. Saudi Arabia is a religious dictatorship in hock to fundamentalist Islamic clerics. It has a long history of brutal and repressive measures aimed at solidifying its rule. Its custodianship of Mecca lends Saudi Arabia enormous prestige throughout the Muslim world, and attracts envy from Iran and, lately, Qatar. Its position atop the rich Persian Gulf oil fields makes it a crucial global strategic point and also draws Iranian envy. Riyadh and the United States, and to some extent Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, share enemies and interests; since the 1940s, the U.S.–Saudi alliance has been a linchpin of our Middle East strategy.
But shared interests do not equal shared values. The kingdom, where women were only recently permitted to drive, is deeply illiberal and has a history of funding radical Sunni Islamism as part of its competition with Shiite Iran. This destabilizes other countries and encourages terrorism in the West. Our relationship with Riyadh is important, but our approach should be clear-eyed and strictly transactional. Accepting its risible cover story for the Khashoggi affair is neither.
Still, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that there is no good alternative to this regime. Absent this kingdom, disorder, an Iranian puppet state, or an even more radical Wahhabist regime could take root there. And a clean break with the Saudis, which some are calling for, would risk upending the anti-Iran alliance that the U.S. has worked to build and could endanger the safety of our other allies in the region.
So what is the right approach? The U.S. should exact some meaningful price on Riyadh that expresses our displeasure with such a massive disregard for international norms. American reaction should remind the Saudis that we have the whip hand in the relationship. It should not, however, lead to a fundamental rupture of the alliance. Sanctioning the officials involved in the killing is an obvious move, and American lawmakers of both parties seem poised to suspend arms sales to the Saudi regime, at least for a while. Rolling back support to the Saudis’ ongoing campaign in Yemen should also be on the table.
The first step, though, should be for President Trump and the administration to acknowledge forthrightly that bin Salman deserves the blame for this killing, and not to publicly accept the bromide that he is an enlightened reformer poorly served by his murderously rogue operatives. The choice here isn’t between dissolving our Middle East strategy or pretending the Saudis did nothing wrong. The president should not provide public-relations cover for this murder.