The Trump administration is waiting to see the results of a Saudi investigation into the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, according to U.S. officials, and appears in no hurry to decide whether and how to punish Saudi Arabia.
The only specific response suggested so far has come from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who said this week that the administration was “reviewing putting sanctions on the individuals . . . engaged in that murder.”
“It’ll take us probably a handful more weeks before we have enough evidence to actually put these sanctions in place,” Pompeo said in a radio interview Thursday, “but I think we’ll be able to get there.” The Saudis have made 18 arrests of mostly security agents they say were involved in the killing of Khashoggi, a self-exiled Saudi journalist critical of the ruling monarchy, during an Oct. 2 visit he made to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Lawmakers in both parties have expressed outrage at Khashoggi’s violent death, and some have demanded harsh action ranging from suspension of U.S. arms sales and military cooperation to ending discussions over a U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear agreement. Some have called for the administration to use the Khashoggi case as leverage to force Saudi Arabia to end its brutal, U.S.-assisted war in Yemen, and to bring to a close its dispute with Persian Gulf neighbor Qatar, another U.S. ally.
“The last thing we want to do is continue on with a ‘business as usual’ response” toward Saudi Arabia, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said last month, even before the kingdom had acknowledged that its own personnel carried out the premeditated killing of Khashoggi and arranged for the disappearance of his body.
Individual temperatures have been high, but the midterm elections and the impossibility during a congressional recess of holding hearings on what the administration knows and intends to do have limited any coordinated oversight.
While President Trump has demanded the truth and all options are said to be on the table, he has repeatedly emphasized that business as usual with Saudi Arabia is precisely what he has in mind. He has cited the economic importance of Saudi purchases of U.S. weapons, the stability of international oil markets and what he considers the kingdom’s key role in advancing U.S. objectives in the Middle East.
Trump, Pompeo said, “has made very clear not only do we have important commercial relationships, but important strategic relationships, national security relationships with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we intend to make sure that those relationships remain intact.”
Pompeo has said the United States will not be bound by either the Turkish or Saudi version of events but will develop its own information and come to its own conclusions. He is pushing the Saudis hard to rapidly finish their investigation of the killing, one U.S. official said, and has stressed the need for full transparency in conversations with King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“We’re expecting the Saudis to come up with something that’s very close to what we all know,” the official said. “There’s not a lot of wiggle room.” U.S. and foreign officials discussed the sensitive diplomatic matter only on condition of anonymity.
The question of “what we all know” is key. Saudi Arabia has unequivocally denied any high-level approval for the Khashoggi operation. But current and former U.S. officials, and virtually all outside experts on the kingdom, insist that the planning and carrying out of the killing could not have occurred without the knowledge and approval of the powerful Mohammed.
There is little expectation that the Saudis will implicate him, despite his known personal animus toward Khashoggi, his uncontested control over affairs large and small inside the kingdom, and the fact that many of those now under arrest are security agents working for the Saudi leadership.
Turkey has all but directly accused Mohammed, a rival of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for dominance in the Muslim world. “Who gave the order to kill this kind soul?” Erdogan asked in an opinion column published Friday in The Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a contributing columnist. “We know that the order to kill Khashoggi came from the highest levels of the Saudi government.”
“Some seem to hope this ‘problem’ will go away in time,” he wrote, noting that his government had “shared evidence with our friends and allies, including the United States.”
That evidence includes a recording made during the murder inside the consulate, which the Turks played for CIA Director Gina Haspel when she visited Turkey last week.
Whatever the administration concludes, it would be difficult to retain the current close U.S. ties to the kingdom while holding the crown prince responsible for the killing of Khashoggi.
In a speech Wednesday in Washington to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, a senior member of the Saudi royal family strongly suggested that what he called the “demonization” of Saudi Arabia would have consequences.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, son of a former king and cousin of the crown prince, is a former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to both the United States and Britain, as well as a once-close associate of Khashoggi’s. Known as a pillar of the more moderate and internationally minded branch of the royal family, he rejected, in remarks last week to Post columnist David Ignatius, any suggestion that the kingdom might want to marginalize the ambitious Mohammed. “The more criticism there is of the crown prince, the more popular he is in the kingdom,” Turki said.
At the conference, Turki noted that the U.S.-Saudi alliance had kept oil markets stable and combated terrorism, and he said that the “pillars” of cooperation were now “challenged.” But, he warned that “the importance of Saudi Arabia has not changed. . . . The kingdom is the center of the Islamic world.”
Moreover, “people in glass houses should not cast stones,” Turki said. “Countries that have tortured and incarcerated innocent people” and “launched a war that killed many thousands . . . based on fabricated information, should be humble in their regard to others,” he said, a clear reference to U.S. counterterrorism policy and the invasion of Iraq.
Turki suggested a double standard was being applied to Saudi Arabia. Innocent Palestinians “are slaughtered every day by the Israeli army,” he said. “And yet, I do not see the same media frenzy, the demand to bring the perpetrators and whoever ordered them to kill those children to justice.”
The current controversy comes as the administration is preparing Monday to implement international prohibitions against buying oil from Iran. Countries that comply with the sanctions will have to look elsewhere for their supply, and the administration is counting on Saudi Arabia to increase its production to make up the difference and avert a jump in oil prices at a politically sensitive time.
A sharp U.S. call this week for a cease-fire and negotiations in Yemen appeared to have had little impact, as the Saudi-led military coalition launched a fresh offensive there, attacking the rebel-controlled international airport in the capital, Sanaa, as well as the port of Hodeida, a vital gateway for humanitarian aid entering the devastated country.
During his May 2017 visit to Riyadh, Trump announced $110 billion in what he indicated were newly agreed U.S. military sales to Saudi Arabia, a figure inflated by including agreements made during the previous Obama administration and long-term letters of intent for purchases over at least a decade in the future.
From the beginning of the administration until now, final contracts worth approximately $14.5 billion have been signed, including for Chinook helicopters, training agreements and a portion of about $7 billion in precision guided munitions, much of which has been held up by bipartisan congressional objections to their use in Yemen.
The largest proposed sale in the announced package, $15 billion for THAAD antimissile defense batteries, remains in negotiations after the Saudis missed a Sept. 30 signing deadline. Saudi Arabia has said publicly that it is also negotiating with Russia for an antimissile system, the purchase of which would trigger U.S. sanctions against countries purchasing sophisticated Russian weaponry.
Defense sales pass through Congress before being finalized — first for “informal” approval by the chairmen and ranking minority members of the House and Senate foreign affairs committees. Once that is finished, Congress is formally “notified” of the proposed sale and has 30 days to object by majority vote, subject to presidential veto.
At the moment, no Saudi weapons sales have been submitted for formal review, and five informal cases are under an indefinite hold imposed by the House and Senate minorities.
Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo contributed to this report.