For nearly three weeks, the world has watched President Trump downplay the disappearance and apparent slaying of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and waited for the most powerful man in the world to act. They are waiting still.
Trump’s inconsistent and cautious remarks about the case have renewed questions about U.S. credibility and complicated the global response, emboldening adversaries such as Russia and China and discouraging robust action by traditional allies, according to analysts and former U.S. officials.
“This is a drastic break from American practice,” said Vali R. Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “It signals a very different foreign policy that does not hold governments accountable for things that are outside normal legal or ethical parameters.”
“In effect,” he added, “The U.S. is setting a new standard for itself” — and in so doing, may be setting a new standard for the world.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Trump this week denied “giving cover” to the Saudis.
"I want to find out what happened, where is the fault, and we will probably know that by the end of the week,” he told the media.
Khashoggi, who was born in Saudi Arabia, was a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a lived in Virginia. Articles he wrote for The Post included criticism of Saudi Arabia’s government. On Oct. 2, he entered the country’s consulate in Istanbul and never emerged. Turkish intelligence believes he was killed and dismembered there by Saudi agents. After denying any knowledge of Khashoggi’s fate, the Saudi government said Saturday that he was killed during a fistfight in the consulate.
The alleged assassination comes just months after the attempted assassination on British soil of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy who acted as a double agent. It comes just weeks after the Chinese head of Interpol temporarily disappeared during a trip home.
“We are at a very critical point where authoritarian powers have great confidence: Russia continues to launch attacks on foreign soil, and now the Saudis have murdered a journalist in the most barbaric way,” said Nicholas Burns, a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international relations at Harvard who previously held several senior diplomatic roles.
“In a time like that, the U.S. has to signal that we are not going to tolerate this,” he added, but “it’s been more than two weeks and there’s been no signal.”
Into this void steps Russia, which is using the Khashoggi case to call out alleged hypocrisy by Washington and to seek an advantage in the complex geopolitics of the Middle East.
At a foreign policy conference in Sochi, Russia, on Thursday, President Vladimir Putin said the Trump administration’s cautious response to Khashoggi’s disappearance underlined U.S. double standards.
Putin argued that the West was quick to punish Moscow after the poisoning of Skripal in May, but acted differently with Khashoggi. Russia denies involvement in the poisoning, but Western allies levied sanctions and expelled Russian diplomats. “There’s no proof in regards to Russia, but steps are taken,” Putin said.
“Here, people say that a murder happened in Istanbul, but no steps are taken. A single approach needs to be figured out to these kinds of problems,” he said.
Putin has invested deeply in ties with Riyadh as part of a broader push to rebuild Russian influence in the Middle East. He hosted King Salman last year for the first-ever visit to Russia by a Saudi monarch, and invited Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to join him at the opening match of the soccer World Cup in June.
On Sunday and Monday, Russian officials, including a deputy foreign minister, met with the crown prince and other top officials in Riyadh for talks on the conflict in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. A rupture between the United States and Saudi Arabia now could play into the Kremlin’s hands.
“We first need to wait for the results of the investigation” of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Putin said. “How can we, as Russia, start to harm our relationship with Saudi Arabia without knowing what really happened?”
While Western officials and business leaders have been dropping out of a marquee business conference in Saudi Arabia next week, their Russian counterparts have followed suit. Russia’s $10 billion sovereign wealth fund “plans to actively participate” in the conference, a spokesman said, and bring along “top CEOs from Russia, China and other countries.”
When China is pressed on the disappearance of the head of Interpol, the detention of human rights campaigners, or the mass internment of the mostly Muslim ethnic Uighurs in its far northwest, it tells the international community to respect its sovereignty and butt out.
An editorial in the Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled newspaper known for its strident nationalism, argued this week that the Khashoggi case “shows that there are double, even multiple standards for the West’s human rights diplomacy.”
For China, like Russia, this critique of U.S. actions is not about stopping abuses but shutting down conversations about human rights, analysts say.
“With criticism increasing on Chinese detainment of Uighurs in Xinjiang in concentration camps, Beijing undoubtedly would like to portray the U.S. as insincere in caring about human rights,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Traditional U.S. allies in the Middle East have for the most part fallen in line behind Saudi Arabia, the regional power, saying little about Trump. Europe also has been cautious but is now mustering a piecemeal response, experts said.
“When there is this concern about what the U.S. is going to do, they don’t want to be the first to move,” said Derek Chollet, an executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund who held senior foreign policy positions in the Obama White House. “Europeans also have interests in Saudi Arabia, and to a certain extent they are fine with the U.S. playing a heat shield on this issue.”
Germany, Britain and France this week called for Saudi and Turkish authorities to mount a “credible” investigation, claiming that they were treating the matter with “utmost seriousness,” but not doing much else.
French and German leaders have suggested that they could take a harder line.
“Europe may need to correct its policies toward Saudi Arabia,” Juergen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, told local media.
He also hinted at the risks of doing so. Europe must “use our economic leverage so that Saudi Arabia remains on a course of stability in the region,” he said.
Human rights groups and opposition politicians are pushing for a change in policy.
“Imagine how this government would have reacted if either Russia or Iran had abducted — and in all likelihood murdered — one of their dissident journalists within the sovereign territory of another country,” Emily Thornberry, Britain’s shadow secretary of foreign affairs, wrote in the Guardian.
So far, Trump’s calculus seems to be that it’s worth protecting the status quo.
Trump has two priorities in the Middle East, said Holly Dagres, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council: an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and containing Iran, “Trump values Saudi Arabia, not just as an important regional ally that purchases billions of dollars of U.S. weaponry, but as key player on these two major foreign policy issues,” she said.
Critics wonder whether the Saudi leadership is the best partner for those plans.
“In a stunning and rapid reversal, the Saudi Crown Prince has become a strategic liability abroad and potentially vulnerable at home. The region and the Kingdom itself will be different in important ways as a result,” Richard Haas, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Twitter.
Haas said Trump has taken Putin’s word that he didn’t interfere in the 2016 election, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s word on denuclearization and now the Saudi leadership’s word on Khashoggi’s disappearance. There was a time when U.S. policy was “trust but verify,” he said. Now it’s “trust but look away."