Which country has the most to gain from a collapse in US-Saudi relations?
By now, there’s little doubt that Jamal Khashoggi is dead – this despite reports that surfaced in the Daily Mail and a handful of other outlets last week claiming that Khashoggi was alive and had been renditioned to Saudi Arabia.
And while the Turkish government has publicly assured the Saudis that they will pursue a cautious, thorough and transparent investigation, even inviting the Saudis to join as a partner in the probe, behind the scenes, Turkish media – which is tightly controlled by the regime – have spread details about a gruesome execution that they say occurred in the office of the (now former) Saudi consul, who was urged to leave the room under threat of reprisal by a member of the hit squad.
What’s more, a leak last week already suggested that the US knew about the Saudis’ plans to ambush Khashoggi – though whether US intercepts detailed a murder plot, or merely a plan to interrogate and rendition the government insider-turned critic, remains unclear.
If anything, the one thing that now appears certain about this situation is that, in a maneuver that’s reminiscent of the de-classification of an intelligence community report blaming Russia for interfering in the 2016 election, the US intelligence community is once again rebelling against the Trump White House – after Trump suggested that he would do everything he could to preserve the US-Saudi relationship (reportedly fearful of losing Saudi cooperation in a plot to undermine Iran) – and has effectively joined with the Turks to undermine the rule of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
The latest example of this appeared in Thursday’s New York Times, where a trio of national security reporters published a piece claiming that the US intelligence agencies have been “increasingly convinced” that MbS directly ordered Khashoggi’s killing – claims that were, admittedly, not based on anything other than circumstantial evidence, by the reporters’ own admission.
American intelligence officials are increasingly convinced that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia is culpable in the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an appraisal that poses challenges to a White House intent on maintaining a close relationship with the kingdom.
Intelligence agencies have not yet been able to collect direct evidence of the prince’s involvement, American and European officials said. They also have not been able to conclude whether Prince Mohammed directly ordered the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, or whether his intention was to have Mr. Khashoggi captured and taken back to Saudi Arabia, according to one official.
But intelligence agencies have growing circumstantial evidence of the prince’s involvement — including the presence of members of his security detail and intercepts of Saudi officials discussing a possible plan to detain Mr. Khashoggi, according to American officials.
Of course, the intelligence agencies aren’t unique in possessing this so-called “circumstantial” evidence linking suspected members of the so-called hit squad to MbS. Evidence backing up these claims has been publicly available for more than 24 hours since the NYT “independently verified” allegations that were presumably leaked to its reporters by Turkish officials.
Before a final report on the “facts” of the case has even been completed, it appears US intelligence agencies are already working to box Trump in, as the following passage in the Times story appears to set Trump up for more (presumably leaked) accusations that he is disregarding the findings of his own intelligence community, just like he did with Russia.
American intelligence agencies are preparing the assessment of Prince Mohammed to present to President Trump. The work was described by a half-dozen officials on Wednesday, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo concluded a trip to the kingdom that failed to deliver an immediate diplomatic resolution to the crisis.
Officials said the intelligence agencies are trying to take care not to limit the White House’s policy options, and just put forward facts about the case.
Intelligence reports are only one factor that a White House must consider in concluding matters of national security. Mr. Trump could ignore the classified assessment as he decides what policies he believes are in the American interest, or decide he is unpersuaded by the intelligence.
Mr. Trump has pushed an explanation that a so-called rogue killer could be responsible for the suspected killing, but the intelligence agencies’ assessments could undermine that theory, which in any case has been widely discredited.
The paper has also sought to paint Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit with King Salman, MbS and the Saudi foreign minister as an uninspired propaganda ploy, though Pompeo reportedly told the prince in private that, even if he had nothing to do with the killing, his government would ultimately need to take responsibility.
At the State Department’s headquarters in Washington, some diplomats were dismissive when asked about Mr. Pompeo’s mission to Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
But a person familiar with the meeting said that privately, Mr. Pompeo sternly told the prince that even if he did not know whether Mr. Khashoggi had been killed, he would have to take responsibility to help the kingdom avoid the consequences of an international backlash.
The story concluded, in characteristic NYT fashion, with quotes from two foreign policy “experts” lambasting Pompeo and Trump for appearing to prioritize the US-Saudi relationship over humanitarian priorities.
“His instructions are clearly to preserve the U.S.-Saudi relationship at all costs,” said Wendy R. Sherman, a former top State Department official. “So his nonverbal cues and his remarks are intended to do that.” But, she said, “he could have taken off the grin, dispensed with small talk, said facts were important and the U.S. was committed to get them, and ended in a better place.”
R. Nicholas Burns, the third-ranking official at the State Department in the George W. Bush administration, said that Mr. Pompeo was “a serious and tough-minded person” — and that the public did not know what Mr. Pompeo said in private.
“But we have more important interests at stake. We can’t afford to have a business-as-usual attitude. This is a time to be stern with M.B.S., to disavow his government’s crime and to sanction Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Burns said, using the prince’s initials. “Our credibility as a democracy is at stake.”
While the NYT has certainly distinguished itself a the preferred vehicle for leaks out of the US intelligence community, it isn’t alone in trying to shape the narrative surrounding MbS. The Daily Mail published a lengthy report Wednesday night detailing the disappearances of three Saudi princes who had criticized MbS’s authoritarian crackdown on human rights. While the Mail doesn’t have the best record for accuracy, the larger point is clear: Western media is seeking to paint MbS as a serial murderer who will mow down anyone – particularly traitorous family members or former government insiders – who dares to criticize his still-unofficial reign. But one fact that has been mostly lost in the churn of reporting surrounding the Khashoggi case is that, in the days after the journalists’ disappearance, the Saudi government agreed to buy S-400 missile defense systems from Russia, spurning repeated American warnings to scupper the deal. That alone could be enough to invite reprisals from deep state operatives who have already demonstrated their distaste for Russia.
All of this will only provide more ammunition for lawmakers who are hoping to sanction Saudi Arabia over the killing, a move that would damage the longstanding US-Saudi relationship, perhaps irreparably.
With this in mind, it’s worth asking: Which country has the most to gain from a collapse in US-Saudi relations?