Hold Saudis accountable for Khashoggi’s murder

The following Op-Ed was first published in the Houston Chronicle on December 12, 2018.

I have long advocated for close ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and have defended Saudi practices and norms to those unfamiliar with the Kingdom. But not now. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi assassins, and President Trump’s woeful response, compel me to speak out against both.

In the early 1980s, I worked for a Saudi scholar at a Washington, D.C., think tank, helping him advocate for the controversial sale of U.S. AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. I later joined an affiliate of the Saudi national oil company and was registered briefly with the Justice Department as representing Saudi interests. And earlier this year I visited the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to weigh a high-level job opportunity with a publicly traded Saudi company.

Saudi rule has changed dramatically in just the past two years. The crown prince and de factor ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, has jettisoned decades of traditional Saudi decision-making, a process known for being highly consultative and deliberate, albeit incremental. In contrast, Mohammed bin Salman appears to be taking a “damn the torpedoes” approach, engaging in a war in Yemen that has become a tragic humanitarian crisis and forcing a regional economic blockade against neighboring Qatar, a strong U.S. ally itself. The crown prince also has reportedly held the prime minister of Lebanon against his will and, on another occasion, placed leading Saudi businessmen and princes under house arrest to extract financial concessions.

The brutal assassination of Khashoggi, however, cannot be overlooked or go unanswered by the U.S. government. While Russia President Vladimir Putin may murder his critics abroad with poison, Russia is not a close U.S. ally like Saudi Arabia. Failure by the Trump administration to rebuke or sanction Saudi Arabia for the murder of Khashoggi would, in fact, be harmful to the U.S.-Saudi relationship and ultimately detrimental to world order and peace.

First, the United States stands as a leader among nations partly because of our global respect for human rights and the rule of law and due process. We lead by example and look to our allies to follow suit. Secondly, by failing to take steps against Saudi Arabia, President Trump sends a chilling signal to authoritarian leaders and allies everywhere that it’s okay to murder your critics.

Trump may choose to ignore the analysis of U.S. intelligence agencies that Mohammed bin Salman knew of the killing in advance and may even have ordered it. But it was inexcusable for the president to pardon the crown prince on Thanksgiving Eve by saying “maybe he knew about it (the murder) … maybe he didn’t.” That dismissiveness is another way of saying the truth is irrelevant or inconsequential, neither of which is the case. The truth does matter, perhaps never more so than in cases of political assassination abroad and botched denials and attempted cover up.

While Trump may lay claim to mastering the art of the business deal, the art of international diplomacy has proven more difficult for the commander-in-chief. He reiterated on Thanksgiving Day that he believes the assurances of the crown prince and the Saudi king that they were not involved. Based on that, not U.S. intelligence, the president does nothing to signal U.S. displeasure.

How does one make sense of this? One explanation may be extrapolated from Bob Woodward’s new book Fear and a chapter on President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. It was his first trip abroad as president. According to Woodard, the then-Deputy Crown Prince Salman dispatched a team of 30 to Washington to prepare for the visit, holding joint meetings on terrorism, violent extremism, defense contracts and security partnerships. The Saudi team later came back for a second visit and more extensive preparation, paving the way for $110 billion in Saudi-funded defense purchases. Having personally and deeply invested in the Saudi relationship and young crown prince, is the president now ignoring facts on Khashoggi to protect his investments, regardless of the cost?

Woodward describes Trump’s view of power: “Never show weakness. You’ve always got to be strong. Don’t be bullied. There is no choice.”

On the murder of Khoshoggi, Trump has a choice. Hold the Saudi government accountable.