Steve Andreasen, director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council staff from 1993 to 2001, is a national security consultant who teaches at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
As the case of Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance enters its fifth week, the question is not whether the Saudi regime was involved, but rather, will it get away with murder? While realpolitik might have carried the day in the past, there is evidence that this might no longer pertain. Call it a Harvey Weinstein moment in international diplomacy, in which a uniquely powerful figure (Weinstein, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) who controls access to a significant market (Hollywood, oil) and for years appeared untouchable, touches a nerve that inspires demands for accountability.
Accountability begins with public attention, and the audacious savagery of Khashoggi’s killing guaranteed that. The combination of arrogance and stupidity that led Khashoggi’s killers to believe they could carry out their plan in a foreign country — either unnoticed, unchallenged, or both — boggles the mind. This is a regime that literally believed it could get away with murder (just as Weinstein believed he could allegedly get away with assaulting women). The international news media has played a key role in illuminating the story for its readers and viewers — admittedly fueled by sources in the Turkish government who might have an ax to grind with the Saudis — with front-page headlines, cable news coverage and critical opinion.
Public attention and criticism have led a number of businesses and investors to pause, suspend or cancel their dealings with the Saudis — much like corporate Hollywood divested itself from Weinstein once the allegations of reprehensible conduct became overwhelming. Attendance at the second annual Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh this week, an MBS event designed to showcase investment opportunities in the kingdom, has taken a hit from cancellations by companies, individuals and Western media outlets.
Will this pressure last, and will Western governments meaningfully join in with their own accountability measures? Much depends on the public’s and the media’s ability to stay focused on — and outraged over — the shifting sands beneath the Saudis’ unbelievable cover story. Initially the regime claimed that Khashoggi was last seen alive and well going out the back door of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Then it claimed that he had met an untimely demise at the hands of “rogue killers.” And now it has stated that Khashoggi was strangled to death after initiating a fistfight with 15 Saudis at the consulate.
Indeed, public outrage was a key factor in Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s withdrawal from the Future Investment Initiative conference. Riyadh is almost certainly counting on the shifting headlines of the 24-hour news cycle to eventually relieve the pressure. Yet reporters, editors and publishers will have something to say about that.
Then there’s another variable: Is there a Western leader (or leaders) willing to stay united and confront Riyadh? And, if so, to what end, especially if such leaders doubt that their publics will hold them accountable with their votes?
Congress could have a say in the matter. It can insist on an investigation, refuse to approve arms sales and demand sanctions forcing Riyadh to come clean. In a different era on a different issue, Congress pressured a reluctant Reagan administration to confront the apartheid regime in South Africa. Other Western leaders, though also not immune to Saudi influence, could express their displeasure in ways both big (postponing or canceling arms sales) and small (withdrawing diplomatic niceties to the Saudi royal family).
These measures from both the private sector and government could work as a deterrent to any further international recklessness by the Saudis or other authoritarian regimes. Such actions could also protect journalists and dissidents in countries that view reporting and criticism as a threat. They will not lead to regime change in Saudi Arabia, where there is no realistic alternative to the House of Saud (even if individual princes have come and gone). But that is not the goal. The goal is to underscore our support for human rights and to save human lives, both in Saudi Arabia and other countries. Weinstein is now facing court. We must all work to ensure that the Saudis will continue to face pressure from governments and the court of international opinion.