Lindsey Graham: There'll be "hell to pay" if the Saudis murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi

No, there won’t, and I speak for pretty much everyone in saying that. If 9/11 didn’t break America’s devil’s bargain with the Saudis, nothing will. Graham *does* seem pretty fired up here, though. Post-Kavanaugh, anger may be his default mood.

Khashoggi is, or perhaps was, a Saudi journalist who left the Kingdom last year and made the dangerous career move of writing articles criticizing its new ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. Salman is a young royal who’s spent the beginning of his reign courting the west with promises of reform and liberalization. If in fact Khashoggi ended up murdered on his orders, in a diplomatic facility no less, all of that is up in smoke.

The latest word from the Times’s sources is that not only was Khashoggi killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was last seen trying to paperwork so that he could remarry, he was hacked up afterward and carted out in pieces.

The official described a quick and complex operation in which Mr. Khashoggi was killed within two hours of his arrival at the consulate by a team of Saudi agents, who dismembered his body with a bone saw they brought for the purpose.

“It is like ‘Pulp Fiction,’” the official said.

Surveillance cameras outside the consulate captured him entering the building but not leaving. There are reports, cited by the Times, that the Saudis videotaped the murder and that the evidence is now in Turkey’s possession. A Turkish paper aligned with Erdogan’s government claimed today that no fewer than 15 Saudi intelligence agents were part of the team that dispatched Khashoggi, with Turkish intelligence supposedly aware of which flights carried the team in and out of the country per video footage of the suspects moving through the airport. One member of the team, allegedly, is an “autopsy expert.”

The Turks say Khashoggi’s dead. The Saudis insist that Khashoggi left the consulate at some point but don’t have video evidence to prove it. A source told the Daily Mail today that he’s alive but has been captured and taken back to Saudi Arabia. Six vehicles were seen leaving the consulate at 4 p.m. on the day Khashoggi disappeared, with two of them driving just a few hundred yards to the Saudi consul’s evidence, where they remained for hours. “Investigators suspect Mr. Khashoggi was in one of these vehicles,” notes the NYT’s timeline of events, adding that “Turkish staff members of the residence were unexpectedly told not to report for work that day.” The possibility exists that Khashoggi was butchered inside the home of the city’s top Saudi diplomat. The latest as I write this is that authorities are trying to zero in on Khashoggi’s movements via the Apple Watch he was wearing when he disappeared.

The motive here is obvious. Like all autocrats, Salman doesn’t like being criticized, particularly in front of the western audiences he’s trying to woo. Like many autocrats, he’s apparently ruthless enough to deal with his critics in the harshest way possible. What’s not obvious, though, is the M.O. If the Saudis were going to assassinate Khashoggi, why would they do it in a way that not only smashes international norms for diplomatic outposts but leaves their fingerprints all over it?

You can understand sending a large team if the target is being approached somewhere abroad in an unfamiliar location, when all sorts of complications might arise. Khashoggi was set to walk into their own consulate, though. It would have been easier for Salman to deny official knowledge of the plot once if he was killed elsewhere, or if it involved only one or two people (“rogue intelligence officers!”). It also makes no sense to send 15 agents to Turkey to kill him but not someone of the same age and build as Khashoggi to put on his clothes after he was dead and walk out of the consulate in view of the surveillance cameras, to “prove” that he left alive. And why the fark would the murder have been recorded, as is alleged, creating potential smoking-gun evidence against the government if it got out? The plot seems sinisterly overdone and embarrassingly underdone at the same time.

And because it is, both the U.S. and Turkey are in a bind over how to deal with it. Standing up for human rights abroad, particularly the right of dissident journalists to criticize a nominal ally like Salman, is not in Trump’s foreign-policy comfort zone. Ask him about Putin murdering journalists and his instinct is to whatabout you by reminding you that the U.S. has committed plenty of misdeeds too. “I know nothing. I know what everybody else knows,” he said yesterday, adding dismissively, “I don’t like hearing about it, and hopefully that will sort itself out.” After another day of media uproar about Khashoggi’s disappearance and a personal appeal to the president from Khashoggi’s fiancee, though, he was more forceful today: “We cannot let this happen to reporters, to anybody.” But what can he do, realistically? Break ties with the Kingdom? The alliance with Saudi Arabia is part of Team Trump’s anti-Iran strategy, a policy supported uniformly by his natsec team that extends all the way to U.S. support for the Saudis’ hot war with Yemen. And Jared Kushner has practiced personal diplomacy with Salman, flying to Riyadh to chat him up late last year. An interesting passage from an Intercept story about the meeting back in March:

What exactly Kushner and the Saudi royal talked about in Riyadh may be known only to them, but after the meeting, Crown Prince Mohammed told confidants that Kushner had discussed the names of Saudis disloyal to the crown prince, according to three sources who have been in contact with members of the Saudi and Emirati royal families since the crackdown. Kushner, through his attorney’s spokesperson, denies having done so.

Did Khashoggi’s name come up? As if that wasn’t awkward enough for Trump, here’s a detail featured in WaPo’s story about Khashoggi’s disappearance today:L

Before Khashoggi’s disappearance, U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture him, according to two people familiar with the information. The Saudis wanted to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and lay hands on him there, the people said. It is not clear whether the United States warned Khashoggi that he was a target, the people said.

If the U.S. didn’t warn him, why didn’t they warn him?

Graham, I think, is on the level with his displeasure, and I also think it’s precisely because of moments like this that he spends so much time ingratiating himself to Trump. It’s not because he wants to be attorney general, it’s because he wants to maximize his leverage with POTUS to push a McCainian liberal internationalist approach to foreign-policy crises. We’ll see if Trump listens to him. In the meantime, if I were Iran’s leaders I’d be thinking about some outreach to the White House. Tension with the Saudis is a perfect moment for the mullahs to see if they can’t turn an anti-Iran stance by the White House into an Iran-curious stance. Trump’s proved with North Korea that he’s receptive to grand diplomatic gestures that let him boast about how unprecedented his presidency is. Why not make one while America’s fo-po establishment is momentarily angry at Salman?

David Strom 6:41 PM on September 26, 2022