If Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Riyadh to read the Riot Act to Saudi rulers over the apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi, he hid it well behind cheery smiles and professions of amity. But then outrage has been conspicuously absent from the Trump administration in the two weeks since Mr. Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, never to be seen again.
Mr. Pompeo first went to see King Salman and thanked him for his commitment to a “thorough, transparent and timely investigation,” according to a State Department spokeswoman. He then went on to see the real power behind the throne, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and here President Trump joined in by phone. Mr. Trump on Twitter appeared to take at face value the prince’s claim that he knew nothing of what happened in the consulate and his promise of a “full and complete investigation.”
“Answers will be forthcoming shortly,” the president promised. Later he said that blaming the Saudi leadership was another case of “guilty until proven innocent.”
But the best metaphor for Mr. Pompeo’s diplomacy seemed to be what reporters witnessed outside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, where Mr. Khashoggi was last seen Oct. 2: the arrival of a cleaning crew with buckets, mops and fluids.
The semi-“official” Saudi finding is that it was an interrogation team that got too ambitious. The problem with THAT excuse is that there are tapes. It was all over within a few minutes, the recordings suggest. No interrogation. Khashoggi was dead within seven minutes of arrival into the Saudi Embassy.
An appropriate adjustment to U.S.-Saudi relations—one consistent with U.S. interests, broadly and properly conceived—should have been made well before the Khashoggi affair even arose. Such an adjustment would end the unqualified deference that the Trump administration has given to Riyadh and make the relationship more businesslike, to be managed up or down to the extent to which Riyadh does or does not act consistent with U.S. interests. Changes in the oil market mean that petroleum is no longer the overriding concern it once was on anything having to do with Saudi Arabia. Certainly commonality of values is not a basis for anything more than a businesslike relationship; the United States has no more shared values (such as democracy, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech) with Saudi Arabia than it does with any other state in the Middle East.
But instead, Trump is acting as the PR agent for the Saudi prince. Anbd in doing so, Trump is denying any business ties to Saudis, an assertion denied by the facts. In reality, his finances and business dealings form a major part of his motivations, and the Saudis have been a large part of those dealings. As just one example, last year the Saudis reportedly spent $270,000 at Trump’s hotel in downtown Washington for travel associated with Saudi lobbying—part of the emoluments Trump receives from that facility a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. In addition is Trump’s overall admiration for the autocratic Saudi regime, which was in full display during his trip to Riyadh early in his administration. A more specific factor is the role in the administration of son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner and Kushner’s bromance with MbS.
This means Congress has to step up and invoke the Magnitsky Act, which provides for sanctions against individuals, including foreign government officials, who have committed human-rights violations. The Trump administration no doubt would try to limit any Magnitsky Act invocation to those officials and not much more, while withholding blame from the highest Saudi decisionmakers. Such an approach would be dishonest. But that’s where we’re at.