They will not be “very severe.” But I give him credit for taking a step towards formally accusing the Saudis of murder, which some of his fans have been resisting. Normally when the press tries to muscle Trump into condemning bad behavior by autocrats abroad, he waves them off with something about how “America does bad things too.” Not this time. He told the Times in a separate interview, “Unless the miracle of all miracles happens, I would acknowledge that he’s dead. That’s based on everything — intelligence coming from every side.”
Maybe it’s only Putin who gets the presidential moral-equivalence treatment. Or maybe in this case it’s the fact that news stories are floating around alleging that the Turks have the whole murder on tape. Trump knows PR; if he goes all-in on “maybe it didn’t happen” or “everyone does bad stuff” and suddenly the audio emerges of Khashoggi screaming for his life and being hacked apart, that’s not going to work out well for the White House.
Meanwhile, the Saudis’ own PR efforts are picking up in the form of searching for a fall guy. The leading scapegoat at the moment: Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, one of the crown prince’s top advisors. It was all a big misunderstanding, you see. He was merely supposed to kidnap Khashoggi, not kill him.
The Saudi rulers are expected to say that Mr. Assiri received verbal authorization from Prince Mohammed to capture Mr. Khashoggi for an interrogation in Saudi Arabia, but either misunderstood his instructions or overstepped that authorization and took the dissident’s life, according to the two of the people familiar with the Saudi plans. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief journalists…
General Assiri’s seniority makes the notion that he carried out the operation without the further participation of Prince Mohammed at least technically plausible. Lower-ranking Saudi officers might have trusted that the general was giving them orders on behalf of the prince…
General Assiri was promoted last year to his current job in intelligence, and the Saudis are expected to contend that in Khashoggi case he was seeking to prove himself, according to the people familiar with their plans.
Just freelancin’ a little capture-and-kill operation of an American-based dissident whose murder was guaranteed to create a major international incident that might conceivably fracture the U.S.-Saudi alliance and lead to American sanctions being slapped on the Kingdom.
I’m morbidly curious to see how Assiri is punished if in fact he ends up as the fall guy. Presumably Mohammed bin Salman won’t want to have him executed; he’s a trusted advisor and was surely only acting on the prince’s orders. “House arrest” amid luxury accommodations is what MBS probably wants to give him. But handling the supposed mastermind of the murder plot with kid gloves would only confirm international suspicions that Assiri is a scapegoat and bin Salman himself is the true culprit. If MBS wants to make the big lie as convincing as possible, he might have to demand Assiri’s head. Good luck to all Saudi intelligence personnel with future operations, knowing how the prince will react if he’s exposed after giving a sinister order.
At the Examiner, Tom Rogan argues that the Khashoggi murder is terrible — but just doesn’t matter that much:
Mohammed bin Salman’s reform program offers the best and, at present, only means of that nation being able to escape what it will otherwise become: a destitute kingdom full of demographically-explosive young men and Salafi-jihadist ideologues — in other words, a recipe for ISIS 2.0.
Is it in America’s security interest to avoid that dystopian Saudi Arabian future? Yes. How best can we help do so? By fostering Saudi economic diversification and social emancipation.
In turn, if the Saudis are willing to learn from their Istanbul mistake, realism demands that America maintain our relationship with them. Yes, that calculation is neither morally pure nor politically palatable at present. But it is a realistic appraisal of Saudi Arabia and the politics of the broader Middle East.
Left largely unsaid amid the gruesome details of what allegedly happened to Khashoggi is that, from the U.S. government’s point of view, the murder itself is only half the crime. The other half is the Saudis getting caught and embarrassing their patron in Washington in the process. Rogan is right when he says that liquidating critics is par for the course with Middle Eastern regimes, but the brazenness of the Khashoggi operation suggests that MBS thought he could essentially kill a dissident in broad daylight and the U.S. wouldn’t have the stones to do anything about it — with some reason. The answer to “Islamists do this all the time” should be “They shouldn’t if they want to partner with the U.S.” (Particularly when, like bin Salman, they’re touting themselves as modern liberal reformists to anyone who’ll listen.) The only “very severe” consequence the Kingdom is likely to suffer from this is a zero-tolerance policy going forward: Trump will let them slide somehow, but if they ever embarrass him again this way that really might force him to change the relationship going forward. If he doesn’t, he’ll look weak. And there’s nothing he hates as much as looking weak.
Exit question: If Trump wants to let MBS off the hook, why not chalk Khashoggi’s disappearance up to a “deep state” conspiracy? It’s not like that would be the first time he suggested such a thing.
Q: "Do you believe Jamal Khashoggi is dead?"
President Trump: "It certainly looks that way to me. It's very sad." pic.twitter.com/Jb3hzSxbsE
— CSPAN (@cspan) October 18, 2018