Crime and Punishment
The Biden administration's handling of Saudi Arabia, and the role of Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, is an important reminder that punishment and diplomacy rarely mix.
Last week, the Biden Administration released a national intelligence document on the killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post opinion columnist Jamal Khashoggi. In 2018, Khashoggi was lured to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was ambushed, murdered, and then his body was dismembered with a bone saw.
The report offered no equivocation on who was responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
“We assess that Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill … Khashoggi.”
This is a serious statement. As Rep. Andy Kim of New Jersey, a member of the House Armed Service Committee, correctly noted, it is “unusual to have such a clear and definite assessment without modifiers.”
MBS’s culpability in the murder has been known for some time. That we can read the report at all is the real news here. For more than a year, the Trump administration ignored a congressional mandate to make the intelligence assessment public, as part of an administration-wide effort to, as the former president told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, “save” MBS’s “ass.”
Biden’s release of the report comes two weeks after he announced that the US would no longer support Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and would review all arms sales to the kingdom. In his first call with a Saudi leader last week, Biden spoke to King Salman, clearly snubbing MBS, the nation’s de facto leader. It is quite clear that Biden is approaching the US-Saudi relationship in a very different manner than Donald Trump.
Yet, this hasn’t stopped critics from attacking Biden for not going far enough. According to Nick Kristoff, opinion columnist for the New York Times, Biden “choked” and “let the murderer walk.” On CNN, Jake Tapper lit into Biden’s supporters for not being more upset that “Biden isn’t punishing the Saudi Royal Prince responsible” for Khashoggi’s murder.
Biden should have, argues Kristoff, “imposed the same sanctions on M.B.S., including asset freezes and travel bans, that the United States imposed in 2018 on lower-level figures who carried out the murder of Khashoggi.”
Yes, personally sanctioning MBS would have been a step further, but it seems highly unlikely that the crown prince will be invited to Washington DC in the next four years. As for economic sanctions, it’s even more difficult to imagine them having much of an effect on MBS and his vast wealth.
What matters more here is what did happen. Biden has sent an unambiguous signal that as long as MBS plays a major role in the Saudi government, it will negatively impact US-Saudi relations. Moreover, the Saudis now need to think very seriously about allowing MBS to ascend to the throne when King Salman, who is 85, dies. All of this stands in sharp contrast to the last administration's, which went out of its way to kowtow to MBS and not hold him accountable for his actions. This is an important and much-needed shift in US-Saudi relations.
Those calling for more severe penalties for MBS are missing the fact that diplomatic punishments - especially for close allies - do not match up well with chest-beating and moralizing. There is only so far that the US can go to “punish” MBS. Biden is not going to arrest him and put him on trial. He’s not going to cut off diplomatic relations either. Khashoggi's killing was clearly heinous, but the US and Saudi Arabia share mutual interests that cannot be so easily ignored. Washington still views Riyadh as a bulwark against Iranian ambitions in the region. Indeed, the brushback delivered by the Biden administration in releasing this report may dissuade the Saudis from publicly disagreeing with US efforts to reenter the Iran nuclear deal. A chastened Saudi Arabia can pay important dividends in the short-term, especially since, as the Saudis know, Biden could have come down harder on them. What may seem like a series of small measures to Biden’s critics will likely not be felt that way in Riyadh.
There is also the fact that the Saudis are key intelligence partners who also happen to be sitting on a significant portion of the world’s oil reserves. Keeping open communication lines between the US and Saudi Arabia and maintaining a close relationship (a US foreign policy goal that dates back to FDR) remains a crucial US national security interest. But as Biden recognizes, that relationship needs to change, or his officials put it, be recalibrated. This is the first step in that process.
For laypeople, this is a frustrating aspect of US foreign policy. Few countries have the luxury of dealing with either rivals or allies in black and white terms. There are in any important bilateral relationship a host of cross-cutting foreign policy interests and values to be balanced. There are domestic constituencies - as well as the interests of other key allies - to be considered. And all of that must be matched by a sense of realism of what actually can be accomplished. We can influence, persuade, cajole, even sanction other countries, but rarely can we change them. And sometimes we still need them.
There’s no better recent example of this than the US response to the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea. The Obama administration condemned Russia’s actions and organized tough international sanctions against Moscow. Yet, at the same time, the United States continued to work closely with Russia on a host of issues of mutual interest, including the Iran nuclear deal. The US didn’t have the luxury of shutting the door on Vladimir Putin, just as the US doesn’t have that luxury now with Saudi Arabia. And it should be noted that Putin has the blood of many journalists on his hands, and yet the US hasn’t personally sanctioned him in the same way many are pushing Biden to sanction MBS.
I fear the critics of Biden’s actions on the Khashoggi killing - who understandably want blood - are not grasping this. I get that they wanted to see a grand gesture. Who wouldn’t? But a more careful assessment would show that Biden has taken an important step in changing the US-Saudi relationship and holding MBS accountable for his actions.