On October 2, 2018 Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian citizen living in the United States since June, 2017, went to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul,Turkey to obtain Saudi marriage documents. He never left the Consulate. It was later determined that a team of Saudi executioners attacked and killed Khashoggi and disposed of his body, which has yet to be found.
The incident has since become an international cause célèbre especially among a few Western European states, Turkey, and even more so in the United States. Why this is so is interesting considering that while state sponsored murder is condemnable in any context, it is also unfortunately, historically and contemporarily commonplace, even on a much greater scale.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted and prosecuted leaders of Serbia, and African nations for genocides involving thousands of civilians. The Russian government, led by Vladimir Putin has been accused of assassinating and trying to assassinate Russian citizens living in both Russia and England. Civilian Al Qassam Brigades suicide bombers sponsored by the governing Hamas party in Gaza have killed not only themselves at the instruction of their government but hundreds of Israeli citizens and are ignored or even praised by some as simply “resistors”.
What makes the Khashoggi case different is again context. Although Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen, killed in a Saudi government facility, by Saudi operatives, his death is being described as particularly heinous, first, because he was a political dissident highly critical of the autocratic, and in many ways, medieval, government of the Saudi kingdom. Also, Khashoggi’s murder appears to have been given special significance in the U.S. because he was a temporary legal resident and an opinion contributor to the Washington Post.
But the Khashoggi affair has quickly been politicized. Trump has adopted a realistic position towards the Saudi kingdom choosing not to jeopardize America’s influence and vital interests with Saudi Arabia based on the important role it plays in Middle East politics and yes, in the world’s energy markets. Democrats see it as yet another opportunity to attack and discredit President Trump, and some Republican politicians like Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) haven’t been able to resist the urge to adopt a morally superior attitude usually favored by liberals by declaring that the Saudi head of government, Mohammed bin Salman is “insane”, and that he “won’t deal with him” in any capacity. That politically motivated proclamation while being irresponsible, is also a safe threat to make since Senator Graham is not in a position to deal with Saudi Arabia in any way save his own vote in the Senate.
This position fits neatly with the other dire exaggerations coming from the Left which howl about Trump abandoning “American values” and “giving a green light to the world’s dictators to commit murder.” Trump of course declared the Khashoggi murder to be “ . . .an unacceptable and horrible crime.” But that is not enough for his critics, many of whom on the Left oppose the autocratic Saudi government on ideological grounds and wish to diminish the President in any way possible.
Trump has not made his basic common sense position not to disown or reject the decades old U.S. relationship with the Kingdom any easier by engaging in his usual Trumpian exaggerations and lack of focus on those issues. Seeming to once again contradict his own intelligence assets with respect to the Saudi Crown Prince’s connection to the murder, making questionable claims about the size and importance of pending Saudi defense spending with U.S. contractors, and diminishing the role of the government of Turkey in their investigation and conclusions of the crime which occurred in their territory, has unnecessarily provided more fuel for his critics.
However, the real issue is not Trump’s leadership incompetence; it is a matter of prioritizing critical foreign security and economic issues against the symbolic exercise of confirming a universally known American rejection of political murder on moral grounds.
The Saudi/U.S. diplomatic relationship is, and has been, important on at least three vital issues for decades. The first is the seventy year old Arab conflict with Israel, America’s staunchest ally in the region, which has resulted in four multi-state wars in the Middle East and several separate conflicts between Israel and Palestinian guerilla forces.
Saudi Arabia, as a conservative Islamic, Arab state has for most of that long period been a political supporter of the Arab-Palestinian forces. Now however, the Kingdom, under the rule of the young Crown Prince has taken a more pragmatic approach, distancing itself from the violent tactics and political demands of the terrorist groups the Islamic State and Hamas in Gaza, whose stated goal which they share with the Iranian government, is to destroy the state of Israel. Saudi Arabia has considerable influence with the other Arab “Gulf states” and has even proposed an “Arab peace plan”, which while it has failed to get serious consideration, could still perform as a realistic basis for negotiating a peaceful, two state solution to this seemingly permanent and destabilizing impasse. This is important since it implies an acceptance of Israel’s right to exist.
The second vital issue is the regional aspirations of Iran which threaten to divide the Middle East into two permanently hostile blocs, with the prospect of armed conflict. Iran, an Islamic theocracy, ruled by a religious cleric who holds the title Supreme Leader, is the leader of the Shi’ite sect of Islam which views the larger Sunni branch as religious apostates. Combined with the nationalistic based efforts to expand its influence/ control in the region, Iran has established a Shi’ite proxy in Lebanon with its military and financial support of Hezbollah, the “party of God”, which is a government within a government in Lebanon. Iran is also intervening in the civil war in Syria. It provides troops, weapons and money to the Shi’ite associated Alawite minority government of Bashar Assad, and with the similar intervention of Russia, has secured the reign, and continued dependence, of Assad. A similar effort by Iran is being made in Shi’ite majority Iraq which is battling the Sunni Taliban insurgency.
The civil war in Yemen, a small nation on Saudi Arabia’s southern border in the Arabian peninsula, has also become a major issue with anti-Saudi politicians and opinion writers. The conflict pits Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against a Shi’ite Houthi insurgency vs. the Saudi supported Yemeni government. The war is a humanitarian disaster, as much of the economic infrastructure of the country has been destroyed resulting in famine conditions for the populace. While critics of the chaos blame the Saudi coalition and U.S air refueling support (which has been terminated), they largely ignore the role of Iran in the conflict which supplies the Houthi forces in yet another Iranian attempt to create an anti-Saudi surrogate in the region.
The major obstacles in Iran’s path to regional dominance are the military and secular leaning government of Egypt and the conservative Sunni monarchy of Saudi Arabia. Iran is a major supporter of international terrorism, anti- West and anti-Israel policies and a potential nuclear weapons state. It is clearly in the interests of the United States its allies to work with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia to block Iran’s goals.
Thirdly, although the political Left is perpetually in denial about the necessity of accepting it, is the significance of Saudi Arabia’s position as the second highest holder of oil reserves in the world. Saudi Arabia exports 13% of the world’s oil supplies. Because the Saudi’s also have the infrastructure to immediately raise or lower their production they have a more enhanced role in the world’s supply of oil and thus its world market price. While critics reject the importance of Saudi oil to the U.S. based on increased domestic production which in terms of volume makes it look like the U.S. is energy independent with respect to oil, this is inaccurate.
First, oil comes in different grades. Shale oil which has produced the higher levels of supply in the U.S. is a “light” oil which the major U.S. refineries, built years ago, are not designed to process into the types of petroleum products most used by the U.S. Thus most of this shale surplus is being exported. Meanwhile the U.S. still imports oil including 1.1 million barrels a day in September of 2018.
But even if the U.S. were to become totally oil independent, that would not protect U.S. consumers from an international price shock. The price of oil is based on the world market. A sudden shortage in production would dramatically raise the market price including U.S. assets since U.S. production is part of that market. The damage to the economies of important oil importers like Japan, South Korea and some European nations would be profound and have a serious impact on the U.S. economy.
Saudi Arabia is currently keeping production up, and prices down, to make up for the decrease in the world supply resulting from the U.S. sanctions on Iran’s exports which are part of the strategy to bring Iran back to the negotiating table regarding their nuclear ambitions, missile delivery systems development, and and regional aggression. Putting this cooperation at risk by imposing sanctions on Saudi officials including their head of government makes no sense.
What is clear is that American values are intact and national leaders across the globe know where the U.S. stands with regard to civil rights and human rights. What should be clear to Trump’s critics is that foreign dictators, friendly or not, don’t look to the U.S. for a “green light” to commit acts that violate these rights, nor are they deterred by by the protestations of U.S. leaders, politicians and media or even the threat of economic sanctions.
This should be obvious to all based on the murderous acts of Russia’s Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Il. Still political engagement with these governments and others like China and Cuba present a sometimes discomforting but necessary alternative to a non-productive and futile attempt to project U.S. “values” onto authoritarian regimes for domestic crimes . This does not mean that such crimes should not be publicly condemned or that similar crimes of greater scale should not be firmly addressed. For these, there are international responses available which the U.S. could lead. Economic sanctions can be imposed through the UN Security Council, and individual heads of government can be indicted as mentioned above, by the International Criminal Court.
With regard to the Khashoggi affair, the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have written a letter to President Trump triggering the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Accountability Act of 2016, which requires the President to respond in 120 days as to whether “gross violations of human rights” have been committed by individuals in any nation and whether the President, at his discretion, will impose travel and/or financial sanctions on any individuals in that nation.
President Trump has already imposed such sanctions on seventeen Saudi’s in connection with the Khashoggi murder. There is little prospect, and rightly so, that he will seek to impose such punishments on the head of government of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or other members of the royal family. The stakes are just too great.