This much we know for certain: Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen, critic of the royal family, and Washington Post columnist, was killed by Saudi operatives inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.
The dominant media narrative: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or “MBS,” as he is known) dispatched a squad of Saudi agents to carry out an assassination. Leaks from Turkish intelligence and reports in the government-controlled Turkish media have provided the basis for this narrative. To say those are not reliable sources is an understatement.
On Tuesday morning, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had been expected to produce actual evidence during a speech to his ruling political party in Ankara. For reasons unknown, he did not. Curiously, he didn’t even mention Turkish officials’ claims that they have audio and video recordings of the killing. Instead, he posed questions.
“Why was the 15-man Saudi team in Istanbul on the day of the murder?” he asked. “On whose orders? We are seeking answers.” He added: “The Saudis must answer all these questions.”
Saudi spokesmen are not claiming innocence. They admit that Saudi agents killed Khashoggi. But they are attempting to put a little distance between MBS and the killing.
“This was an operation where individuals ended up exceeding the authorities and responsibilities they had,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Fox News over the weekend. “They made a mistake when they killed Jamal Khashoggi.”
Is there any chance he’s telling the truth? Last week, an unnamed Saudi official told Reuters that Saudi agents had a “standing order to bring critics of the kingdom back to the country.” And over the weekend, Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, a pro-Saudi think tank in Washington, acknowledged on Twitter that the crown prince “probably authorized a rendition which, if so, was ill-advised.”
Eighteen Saudis have now been arrested and five top officials fired in connection with the killing. Bookies will give odds that they are being set up to fall on their swords for MBS. But it’s also possible to imagine that they were involved in an abduction that went sideways, and was followed by a clumsy cover-up that has led to a diplomatic crisis.
Which brings us to the unenviable position in which U.S. President Donald Trump now finds himself. He has said that he is unsatisfied with the information so far available, and wants the CIA to investigate further. He also has said that Khashoggi’s murderers must suffer “severe” consequences.
While that commits him to impose penalties, I expect he’ll attempt to avoid rewarding and strengthening those hostile to both Saudi Arabia and America, including Erdoğan, who regards the Saudis as his chief rival for leadership of the world’s Sunni Muslims. Also emphatically included are the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran who would like to wipe the Saudis off the map and rule the Middle East.
To thread this needle, the president and his advisers are likely to impose sanctions, probably using the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which will allow them to target specific individual Saudis clearly implicated in Khashoggi’s murder.
Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations has argued that the most useful action Washington can take right now is to demand that the Saudis implement reforms—allowing more freedom, reducing authoritarianism, “the kinds of changes that will prevent any future incident like the Khashoggi killing.”
It’s a sure bet that whatever the administration decides to do won’t be enough to satisfy those dedicated to the proposition that former President Barack Obama’s Iran deal was a diplomatic triumph that empowered the “moderates” in the Islamic republic.
That crowd did not call for punishments when Iranian operatives were caught plotting to blow up the Saudi ambassador while he was dining at a restaurant in Washington seven years ago this month. Nor have they had much to say about Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps killing at least 11 members of an opposition group in a missile attack on their headquarters in Iraq last month.
To them, Stalinist logic holds: Khashoggi’s death is a tragedy; the hundreds of thousands slaughtered in Syria over recent years—deaths for which Iran’s rulers also are culpable—merely a statistic.
If MBS remains crown prince—King Salman does not appear inclined to demote his 33-year-old son—then he would be well-advised to respond to whatever the White House and Congress do by turning the other cheek and taking pains to make amends.
At a minimum, he should release Raif Badawi, founder of Free Saudi Liberals, who has been publicly flogged and imprisoned since 2012. In August, his sister, Samar Badawi, also a human-rights activist, was arrested as well. Other Saudi prisoners of conscience should be included in a general amnesty.
One lesson we might learn from the killing of Khashoggi: Free nations can never really be friends with regimes that maintain their power through acts of barbarism. Yet there is a difference between regimes committed to “Death to America!” and regimes with whom we share vital national interests. It’s a jungle out there. Those who don’t understand that end up in the jaws of predators.
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”