The administration’s response to the slaughter of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi is predictably prompting responses ranging from grumbling to outrage. Having raised the bar during the campaign to make the Saudi regime a “pariah,” President Biden has stopped well short of that.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki received nine variations of the same question (including follow-ups) from reporters on Monday: Why hasn’t the administration done more specifically to hold MBS accountable?
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Sunday, “I think they need to keep open additional sanctions against [Prince Mohammed] if we don’t see a change in behavior.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) echoed that sentiment on Friday, arguing that “it won’t be enough to simply sanction the state or call for the sanctions of other individuals. There ought to be a personal consequence to the crown prince.”
The administration would do well to address these legitimate concerns. First, it needs to provide greater clarity about what it means when it says it seeks to “recalibrate” the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Right now, it sounds like a vague, unenforceable and subjective promise. Will leading U.S. officials visit the kingdom less often? Will Biden not shake MBS’s hand should he come to the United States? At the very least, we should expect no MBS visits to the United States and no presidential visits to the kingdom.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said at a briefing on Monday: “We are very focused on future conduct and that is part of why we have cast this not as a rupture, but as a recalibration.” He added, “We are urging Saudi Arabia to take additional steps — to lift travel bans on those released, to commute sentences and resolve cases such as those women’s rights activists and others.” That raises the question once more: What specific moves are we “urging,” and what are the consequences if the Saudis do not comply? What, if anything, do these steps entail for MBS personally?
Price did say that the administration will urge the Saudis to disband their “Rapid Intervention Force,” which carries out extraterritorial persecution, and to set up “systematic controls” to prevent abuse in the future. But again, the consequences for failure to take these steps is far from clear.
The administration would also do well to consult with Democrats and Republicans on the relevant committees and with human rights groups. It is fair to ask critics what specific steps they want to see. Perhaps there are financial or other measures that can be taken against MBS that would not cause a “rupture” in foreign policy but would communicate more strongly our abhorrence for his conduct.
Jon Temin of Freedom House, writing in Lawfare, offers several useful suggestions that entail greater recognition of elements of civil society in repressive regimes and greater visibility for their victims at Biden’s planned Summit for Democracy and beyond. Bring other Saudi dissidents and their families to the United States, meet with them at the highest levels of our government and seek their input on ways to exert pressure on the regime.
Building on the Stand with Civil Society Initiative begun under the Obama administration, the Biden team can also increase aid to groups pressing for human rights. Temin writes:
An increased emphasis on civil society organizations should be accompanied by changes in how the United States supports them. Current funding mechanisms are focused tightly on supporting individual projects aligned with American policy priorities. …Resources should more frequently be deployed to support “core funding” for civil society organizations, which they can use to pay operational costs while spending a portion on initiatives driven by their priorities (which could be broadly agreed to in advance). Creative mechanisms to support less formalized, grassroots organizations, which can be highly agile and effective, should be expanded. Private donors increasingly emphasize core funding and supporting informal organizations, but the United States is the largest funder of civil society organizations globally, so its actions and policies heavily influence the overall sector.
In short, we need more from the administration — more consultation with Congress, more details on how it will hold MBS accountable, more outreach to Saudi dissidents and civil society groups, and more funds for those seeking to defend universal human rights. The actions announced in the past few days must be the starting point, not the final word on our response to the Saudis’ human rights atrocities.
UPDATE: It is noteworthy that in his State Department briefing, Price left open the possibility that MBS was covered by the visa ban and other legislation barring perpetrators of gross human rights abuses: “As we have said, we are not in a position to detail the names of those who are subject to the Khashoggi Ban or other potential remedial measures, nor will we be able to preview those who may be added in the future. Having said that, I am certainly not aware of any plans for the crown prince to travel to the United States in the near term.”