Policymakers that want to punish the kingdom will likely run up against deepening partisan politics as well as Trump’s pro-Saudi stance
After being briefed by CIA Director Gina Haspel on Tuesday, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee appeared to quell all doubts about who ordered the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2. High-ranking Democrats and Republicans pointed fingers squarely at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), an ally of President Donald Trump, did not hold back his condemnation of “MbS,” as Bin Salman has come to be known in Western media.
“Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally and the relationship is worth saving, but not at all costs. We’ll do more damage to our standing in the world by ignoring MbS,” Graham asserted, adding that he had “high confidence” the crown prince – whom he called “crazy” and a “wrecking ball” – was “complicit” in Khashoggi’s murder.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) echoed Graham’s views. The U.S., he said, must “send a clear and unequivocal message that such actions are not acceptable on the world’s stage.”
Yet, despite the CIA’s assessment that the prince “probably ordered” the murder, President Trump has suggested the spy agency’s findings are inconclusive. Keen not to distance a crucial ally, the American leader noted last month that “it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis toed the administration’s conciliatory line when they said last week that no “smoking gun” implicating bin Salman has yet emerged.
“There is not a smoking gun – there is a smoking saw,” Graham shot back on Tuesday, referring to a bone saw that Saudi operatives allegedly used to dismember Khashoggi’s body.
The strong words could spell trouble for the Saudis as influential Democrats and Republicans have signaled their willingness to work together to punish Riyadh.
Imad Salamey, a Lebanese political analyst, told The Media Line that despite the recent bipartisan condemnations of the crown prince, “internal conflicts between the two political parties, as well as disputes between pro- and anti-Trump people have been deepening.”
Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and now the Khashoggi case have created deep fissures in the American political landscape, Salamey explained, divisions that have been exacerbated by “media warfare between Fox News on one side and CNN and the Washington Post on the other.
“The fact that Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and that the American public has deep-rooted suspicions of Arab and Muslim societies can be easily used to manipulate and worsen sentiments against the kingdom,” Salamey added.
“The impediments to freedom of expression and the right to criticize government without fear of prosecution – as highlighted in the Khashoggi affair – have been blown way out of proportion. There are many countries like Syria that have been trampling on such rights on a daily basis and nobody is making an issue out of it,” he concluded.
Dr. Eric Lob, a professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University, told The Media Line that those politicians who have voiced their concerns “want to draw a red line in terms of geopolitics not superseding the norms and values of an international system that the U.S. helped create after World War II.
“The senators in question said that if we just accept this, we will be living in a world where political dissidents and journalists can just be rounded up and killed by governments, and that this is not necessarily the world the U.S. wants to live in,” Lob added.
“We have reached a breaking point where the president seems to prioritize geopolitics – the impact that Saudi Arabia can have as a swing oil producer and its impact on global energy prices – versus preserving an international system that values freedom and speech.”
In terms of what can be done to punish the crown prince, Lob explained that Congress could work toward ceasing U.S. support – including military hardware, intelligence and logistical cooperation – for the Saudi-led war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels.
Secondly, Congress could impose sanctions against the MBS and other members of the Saudi government who are implicated in the murder of Khashoggi, though the Treasury Department (operating under the president’s authority) would actually implement and execute any such sanctions, he added.
“The president could move to impede the implementation of sanctions on Saudi officials implicated in the Khashoggi affair through the Treasury Department and other agencies.”
“The senators on both sides acknowledge that the president will be hesitant on this issue, as he has clearly thrown his hat in with the crown prince,” Lob concluded.
“As far as I know, the U.S. has never been in a situation like this with the Saudis where such an egregious incident has become very public and global. It has really put the U.S. in a position where it has to make an uncomfortable decision; it is a test of U.S. global leadership at a critical time of democratic backsliding and increasing authoritarianism.”