On Wednesday night, my colleagues reported that none other than Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi, a prominent writer and Washington Post contributor, from his de facto exile in Virginia and detain him, according to U.S. intelligence intercepts.
“The intelligence pointing to a plan to detain Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia has fueled speculation by officials and analysts in multiple countries that what transpired at the consulate was a backup plan to capture Khashoggi that may have gone wrong,” wrote Post national security reporter Shane Harris.
On Thursday, my colleagues reported that Turkish officials told their U.S. counterparts that they had audio and video evidence apparently confirming their conclusion that Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) warned that “there would be hell to pay” if the allegations of Saudi malfeasance were confirmed. “I’ve never been more disturbed than I am right now,” said Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If this man was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community.”
Analysts bemoaned the White House’s seeming disinterest in the alleged assassination. “It symbolizes the departure of the United States as a restraining force against evil actors in the world,” wrote Robert Kagan in a column for The Post. “Saudi Arabia is a small nation that cannot defend itself without the support of the United States, and therefore no Saudi leader would have made such a brazen move without confidence that Washington, once the leader of the liberal world order, would do nothing.”
“I think that would be hurting us,” Trump told Fox News on Wednesday night. “We have jobs. We have a lot of things happening in this country. ... Part of that is what we are doing with our defense systems and everybody is wanting them and frankly, I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”
The following day, Trump waved away the incident as something that took place in Turkey involving a Saudi citizen, and was therefore not any of Washington’s business — never mind that Khashoggi was a U.S. resident writing for an American newspaper.
“Trump’s stance toward despots and authoritarians has generally been not to judge their conduct and suggest it’s a mere distraction from his dealmaking,” wrote my colleague Aaron Blake. “And that’s also the case with Saudi Arabia, which Trump and his White House have treated warmly as a partner against Iran and on trade.”
The White House’s indifference should not be a surprise. Saudi Arabia was the first country Trump visited as president. He has since touted the kingdom’s lavish spending on U.S. military hardware as well as its close partnership in a new axis to confront Iran.
Trump has also decisively aligned U.S. policy with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which both reviled the 2011 pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi cheered the 2013 coup against the elected government of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and have provided vast monetary assistance to the brutal regime of his successor, President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi.
At an event in New York last month, Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, stressed that the Gulf monarchies have an “arch-conservative” philosophy that prioritizes stability and rejects Islamism. He said he resented “a messianic view in many Western capitals” that imagined liberal democracy flourishing across the region.
Khashoggi, a former Riyadh insider who chose to flee his country to express his views, was a staunch critic of the intolerant politics that snuffed out the possibility of more democratic Arab societies.
“The coup in Egypt led to the loss of a precious opportunity for Egypt and the entire Arab world,” he wrote this August. “If the democratic process had continued there, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political practices could have matured and become more inclusive, and the unimaginable peaceful rotation of power could have become a reality and a precedent to be followed.”
Of course, Trump’s predecessors weren’t dogged defenders of Arab democracy, either. “U.S. acquiescence to the death of the Arab Spring stemmed from both the cynical realism of key Obama officials and heavy pressure from the Saudis and the Emiratis, both of whom viewed the regional uprisings as mortal threats to their style of monarchical rule,” wrote Evan Hill for Slate.
“The reactionary kings and princes of the Gulf did all they could to smother Egypt’s democracy movement, funneling billions of dollars to Sissi and his supporters,” Hill continued. “Such was their antipathy to the Arab revolts and the political Islamists they empowered that they viewed even the Obama administration’s tepid openness to the Muslim Brotherhood as a foul conspiracy.”