Biden’s Message to MBS: Your Impunity in Washington Is Over
By Alon Pinkas - Haaretz
There was perhaps no smoking gun, it may not have been an ironclad indictment leading to an assured conviction and US policy may seem ambiguous and restrained to some tastes, but Saudi Arabia would be wise to treat extremely seriously the report published over the weekend by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Ignoring or dismissing the report, and its harsh words about the complicity of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the assassination, would further imperil an already strained and precarious relationship between the United States and the oil-rich desert kingdom.
Khashoggi worked for The Washington Post. After he was murdered for writing against the crown prince, Mohammed allegedly also proceeded to threaten Jeff Bezos, the newspaper’s owner and founder of Amazon, an American company that employs over a million people in the United States. You can’t impose heavy sanctions on Iran for ‘violating human rights’ and hurting American interests, and then look the other way when it comes to Saudi Arabia.
In light of these facts, there was immediate pushback in Washington after the release of the report regarding President Joe Biden’s response. Critics said Biden let Crown Prince Mohammed off the hook that MBS is literally getting away with murder that any foreign policy calculations about balancing interests and avoiding an entire rupture of the relationship should be set aside, given the gravity of the crime. These are salient and valid arguments. But they are not necessarily the main points of concern.
The report’s strength does not lie in any newly revealed evidence or irrefutable proof. Prince Mohammed’s direct and personal involvement in the murder was established by Turkish intelligence almost two years ago. It is also too soon to say how severe a personal punishment the crown prince may eventually be given.
The US report definitely adds gravity and is based on further incriminating intelligence that naturally cannot be revealed in all its details. The power of the document, however, lies in four other aspects.
First and foremost, it emphasizes a “recalibration” of relations between America and the Saudis. President Barack Obama called the Saudis “free riders.” Candidate Joe Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah state with no redeeming social value.” President Biden already announced, two weeks ago, that the US will review arms deals with the kingdom and will no longer support – materially or diplomatically – Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.
Trump’s attitude toward Saudi Arabia is the exact opposite of that embraced by Obama and Biden, in that he considered the kingdom to be a dependable ally, an endless source of arms acquisitions, and a beacon of supposed modernization and reforms. Jared Kushner protected MBS for a long time from the consequences of his actions. But all of that is ancient history, almost as ancient as the days when Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as the Saudi ambassador to Washington under Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush, would walk into the White House whenever he felt like it.
On top of that, the latest report has geopolitical ramifications. It conceivably achieves two goals: It restrains and quiets Saudi opposition to Biden’s reentry to the Iran deal; and it reverses a misguided but entrenched Saudi perception that the US needs the kingdom to confront Iran. In reality, it’s the other way around.
The report can also set up a possible US-Turkey rapprochement. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are each other’s contemporary nemeses, but Turkey, a NATO member, is a country the Biden administration has set itself the goal of improving relations with.
Notwithstanding the bilateral and geopolitical dimensions, it would be a mistake to treat the National Intelligence report as weak with regard to Prince Mohammed.
“We assess that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey [in October 2018], to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” the four-page report says. The US cannot decide or dictate who rules and governs other countries. But the report is bound to weaken the crown prince domestically and internationally, even if he is exempt from travel restrictions slapped on 75 other Saudi nationals complicit in the Khashoggi assassination.
Congressional Democrats will in the next few days pressure the administration to take harsher steps. Rep. Adam Schiff [D-CA] said to Axios that “we rarely see something published that is this definitive, and I think that’s an important accomplishment for the administration.” On his Twitter account, he added that “the Biden administration should explore ways to ensure the repercussions for the brutal murder of Mr. Khashoggi go beyond those who carried it out, to the one who ordered it – the crown prince himself. He has blood on his hands.”
Coming from the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, this is a major and unequivocal statement that will surely resonate in Congress.
Rep. Andy Kim [D-NJ], a member of the House Armed Services Committee [and Subcommittee on Intelligence], published a detailed and facts-rich Twitter thread in which he stated that the memo started with the words “We assess that,” explaining that “while that doesn’t seem like a blistering opening, for me, it’s like a hammer. Lack of phrases like ‘low/medium confidence’ is striking and rare. Unusual to have such a clear and definite assessment without modifiers.”
Saudi Arabia should, and very likely will, remain a US ally in the Middle East. American disengagement from the region and a possible second Iranian nuclear deal will not affect that in the foreseeable future, and the strains on the relationship can be mended. But the real question after the release of the report is whether Crown Prince Mohammed himself will be a part of that alliance.