If there has been a worse media performance lately by a secretary of state, I cannot recall it. The image of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yukking it up with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, who quite possibly is responsible for the reported gruesome murder of an American-based journalist, will sicken many Americans and remain a symbol of the price we have paid for a transactional, amoral foreign policy.
Pompeo grinned and wisecracked. He vigorously shook MBS’s hand. And worse, he explicitly conveyed our lack of interest in finding out what occurred — or, more correctly, conveyed our keen interest in not finding out what occurred. Pompeo was asked whether he found out if Post Global Opinions columnist Jamal Khashoggi was alive. “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts,” Pompeo said cavalierly. “They didn’t want to either.” I bet. Moreover, if the Saudis didn’t understand before that they could put together the flimsiest investigative report imaginable (making now-Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s reopened FBI investigation look like the Spanish Inquisition by comparison), they got the message loud and clear from Pompeo.
After blistering criticism, Pompeo later told the media that he really was serious about the facts. Naturally, however, we have to keep up our relationship with the Saudis, whom he is allowing space to investigate themselves so as to maintain their relationship with the United States. Got that? Lest you think I exaggerate Pompeo’s gobsmacking disingenuousness, here’s how the conversation went:
Question: Did you learn anything concrete about what they learned about — anything new they learned about Khashoggi?
Pompeo: No. They want to complete their investigation, and that they will have a process. I’m sure they will have their own prosecutors looking at this as well since it took place in their country, albeit on consulate property.
Question: Have you heard or asked to hear the alleged audio on the actual murder?
Pompeo: I don’t have anything to say about that.
Question: Do you believe that there actually was an incident that took place in the consulate after your talks here in Turkey?
Pompeo: Mr. Khashoggi is missing.
Question: And do we think he’s missing from the consulate? Is that —
Pompeo: I’m not going to get ahead of — we have two countries conducting investigations. They’ll do that, and the world will get a chance to see the facts that they turn up through their investigations.
Question: How high up do you think this goes? I mean, MBS told you guys that he didn’t —
Pompeo: They’re going to do their investigation. I know you all are going to ask questions. I’m going to be very consistent: We’re going to give them the space to complete their investigations of this incident, and when they issue their reports, we’ll form our judgment about thoroughness, depth and the decisions they make about accountability connected to that.
Question: But the Saudis lied initially, saying that he left the building. I mean, that’s obviously clearly not —
Pompeo: We’ll see what the investigation shows.
Actually, we know now that the Saudis lied; the investigation isn’t going to show that Khashoggi really did leave the Saudi Consulate. So what’s the point of the Saudis’ self-investigation? Well, it spares Pompeo from having to explain why such a supposedly trustworthy ally reportedly murdered a U.S. resident and then lied about it.
The media couldn’t help but notice that Pompeo didn’t look miffed, let alone angry, when he met up with MBS:
Question: Sir, when — what we saw in public looks like business as usual. Could you talk a little bit about how the tenor of your private conversations being a bit different? . . .
Pompeo: Well, I think I’ve said all I’m going to say about the conversation with the Saudis. Look, we had very direct conversations about this, the seriousness of this, how serious President Trump is taking this, how seriously the United States will take this. No one should mistake that we’re looking to see the results of these investigations, too, that we think it’s important that they get them right, and we’re hopeful it’ll happen quickly as well. But as for responses that the United States will take, we need to know the facts before we can begin to formulate what the appropriate response for this would be.
Once again, lest MBS suffer a spasm of worry that his conduct might have negative consequences, Pompeo hastened to add: “I do think it’s important that everyone keep in their mind that we have lots of important relationships — financial relationships between U.S. and Saudi companies, governmental relationships, things we work on together all across the world — efforts to reduce the risk to the United States of America from the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, Iran.” Sounding quite Trump-like, he continued, “The Saudis have been great partners in working alongside us on those issues.” Even a casual observer could sense that the fix was in. Pompeo was queried:
Question: There has been some criticism that if you take off the table at the beginning that the relationship, this long-term relationship is not going to be harmed, that there’s less reason for the Saudis to take you seriously on this issue. What do you — how do you address that?
Pompeo: I’m convinced that the Saudis understand that America is taking this seriously, and I am hopeful that the Saudis take this as seriously as they indicated to me yesterday that they would. Time will certainly tell; we’ll get to see the investigation and we’ll see the results of it. But I think they understand the serious nature of the work that they’re doing and the accusations that have been lodged against them as well.
Pompeo’s obsequiousness was all the more galling in light of growing evidence of MBS’s involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance. The Post reports:
Analysts and officials said it was inconceivable that such a brazen operation as the one alleged by Turkish officials, involving a team of 15 agents sent to Istanbul, who then killed and dismembered Khashoggi, could have been pulled off by a group of “rogue killers,” as President Trump speculated this week, moments after a phone call with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. …
“It’s inconceivable that an operation using royal guards, other court officials and the consulate was not authorized by the crown prince. That’s not how the kingdom functions, especially with MBS as heir apparent,” said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Saudi Arabia and the royal family who served more than 30 years at the CIA. “As much as the White House is eager to absolve MBS, the rogue coverup is unraveling before it’s even official,” Riedel added.
Even Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani confessed that “many senior members of the administration concluded more than a week ago that the Saudis had killed Khashoggi.” And, yet, Pompeo feigns ignorance and pleads that we await the Saudis’ own findings.
If Pompeo’s goal was to demonstrate that he’s willing to sacrifice his credibility, dignity and reputation for Trump, he succeeded. If his aim was to convey not only to the Saudis, but also to every tinpot dictator around the planet, that the United States won’t extract a real price for gross human rights violations — even against an American-based journalist — boy, did he succeed.
If, however, Pompeo intended to convey that we are not hostages to an erratic ally and thuggish regime, or that we can pursue both a credible human rights policy and strategic interests, he failed miserably. What’s more, he gave every appearance of someone scrambling to prevent the unraveling of his handiwork, a policy that foolishly put all our eggs in the Saudis’ gilt basket.
The Saudis should pay a price for this abomination. As Daniel B. Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote: “The price could include significant restrictions on arms sales that had been contemplated. It is already leading key U.S. investors to distance themselves from the major development projects MBS has promoted. At a minimum, there will be no replay of the warm, PR-friendly visit by MBS to multiple U.S. cities last March, no more lionizing of him in the American press as a reformer who will reshape the Middle East.”
The damage to Pompeo’s reputation might be almost as catastrophic.