Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times isn’t usually one to exaggerate or engage in unnecessary hyperbole. But the Biden administration’s decision to not impose any direct sanctions on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his part in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has angered both Left and Right in Washington and Kristof was steaming.
“President Biden Lets a Saudi Murderer Walk” was the headline of his blistering op-ed on the administration’s tepid response to the CIA report that named names in the Khashoggi murder.
The Journalist was allegedly kidnapped in Turkey by a Saudi hit team in 2018. He was subsequently murdered and dismembered in the Saudi embassy. The intelligence report on the murder appears definitive.
Reuters posted the redacted report:
“We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
• We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decisionmaking in the Kingdom, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.
• Since 2017, the Crown Prince has had absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations, making it highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.
Biden’s response was to impose some desultory sanctions on some of the players in the murder.
The Treasury Department on Friday unveiled sanctions on Saudi operatives alleged to have been involved in the murder, including members of the crown prince’s personal protective detail known as the Rapid Intervention Force. And the State Department announced a new policy called the Khashoggi Ban, which will allow the U.S. to restrict visas for those who target and harass journalists and dissidents. A second senior administration official described the policy as “another means to promote a measure of accountability” among bad actors.
So why go so easy on MBS? The cold war has been over for 30 years and the U.S. no longer sees the Saudis as a bulwark against the Soviets in the Middle East. Also, oil imports from the Middle East have declined 30 percent in the last decade.
And the Saudis have used their regional influence in recent years to start a dirty war in Yemen, tried an unsuccessful boycott of Qatar, and forced Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign. These have all proven to be missteps that damaged relations with the U.S.
Biden appears to recognize this. He has been a skeptic of the Saudis since at least the mid-1980s, when he was a senator representing Delaware. Biden’s aides in the White House and the State Department keep promising a reappraisal of US-Saudi ties. The kingdom, used to being coddled and protected under the previous administration, is preparing for a sea-change over the next four years. Their preparations are well-grounded; in his first month in office, Biden suspended the sale of offensive weapons systems to Riyadh, ended all US support for its air campaign in Yemen and appointed a special envoy in an attempt to find a diplomatic resolution to the war. To Saudis, these moves are troubling indications of a partner seeking its distance. But to Americans, they are common-sense measures that should have taken place years ago.
Frankly, I find it incomprehensible that MBS is being allowed to walk. We sanction Putin and Kim Jong-un, so it’s not like we don’t sanction national leaders. The early hopes that MBS would begin reforming Saudi society have proven baseless. He’s just another Arab tyrant who murders his own citizens if they make him angry.