The world is a very dangerous place!”
That’s how President Donald Trump opened up a particularly bizarre statement where he explained that — even though Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may have had Jamal Khashoggi brutally murdered in Istanbul — the US will stand by its ally.
The statement met with near-universal disgust, but it reveals a dark truth of US foreign policy: It abides human rights horrors from Saudi Arabia because, for seven decades, US presidents have decided they have to.
While Trump’s statement was anything but normal, the US ignoring Saudi Arabian human rights atrocities is absolutely the norm in this relationship.
On August 9 Saudi Arabia dropped a US-made bomb on a school bus in Yemen and killed 40 children, and the US and Europe continued with arms sales to the kingdom, for example.
The transparent anti-Saudi media operation
“[I]t could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump’s statement read.
“[W]e may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” it continued.
Both of these statements play coy with a mountain of evidence that the Saudi royals, and not rogue agents in their inner circle yet totally beyond their control, ordered the killing and dismemberment of a US resident. That said, they’re both likely true.
No US inspector ever entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul where on October 2 the killing took place. It was two weeks before any outside inspector stepped foot in that consulate.
In fact, almost all of what the public knows about Khashoggi’s killing has been leaked from anonymous Turkish intelligence sources to Turkish media. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged its press, military, and spy services to the point where none of them are independent.
Every single juicy leak from Turkish intelligence can be read as a coordinated attempt to drive a wedge between the US and Saudi Arabia, according to Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who spoke to Business Insider. (You can read more here on that subject here).
For over a month now, a steady drip of leaks have provided ever more grisly details about the killing, keeping the story in the news, keeping the pressure on leaders day after day.
But if Turkey is so sure that Crown Prince Mohammed had Khashoggi killed in Istanbul, then why have they not moved against him?
Erdogan said the killing came from the “highest levels” of Saudi’s leadership, but he’s made no formal charges in a murder that took place in his country.
Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said of Turkey’s unofficial accusations: “They are leaks that have not been officially announced, and I have noticed that they are based on an assessment, not conclusive evidence.”
No European leader has blamed Crown Prince Mohammed, either. Germany banned some of the men charged by Saudi Arabia, widely seen as accomplices or scapegoats; and cut arms sales to the Kingdom. The US did the pretty much same with sanctions and scaling back its military support for the war in Yemen.
But for all the outrage over Trump’s indelicate statement, what’s the alternative to ultimately getting over Khashoggi’s killing?
What does putting “America First” in regard to Saudi policy look like? Essentially, it comes down to keeping a US-friendly regime in place in Riyadh.
The US has no alternative but Crown Prince Mohammed, Badran, the research fellow, told Business Insider.
If Trump called Crown Prince Mohammed to step down, essentially regime change in Saudi Arabia, it could end horrifically for the US.
“The potential for destabilization is there,” Badran said of attempts to unseat Crown Prince Mohammed. “The whole approach of people calling for this flippantly, breathlessly, is just absurd. You cannot possibly imagine how the dynamics are going to go. You can’t game it out.”
For years, Al Qaeda has argued that “the Saudi regime stands only as a tool of the Americans and that if you destabilize the relationship then the Saudi relationship falls and [Al Qaeda] will inherit the place,” said Badran.
The world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are all required by their faith to visit the Saudi city of Mecca in their lifetimes.
If Saudi Arabia, custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina came under the power of an openly anti-US regime, it could cause incalculable damage to the US.
Trump is still wrong, though
The reasons Trump brings up for his continued support of Saudi Arabia don’t make a strong case. He lists Saudi’s job creation in greatly exaggerated terms.
Trump says Russia and China would swoop in with arms sales if the US withdraws, but Russia and China don’t make Patriot missiles or bombs that fit on US-made F-15 fighter jets.
Also, the idea that Saudi Arabia badly wants to provide humanitarian assistance to the same people they blockaded in Yemen amid one of the worst cholera and famine outbreaks in modern history is dubious.
Much of the US press has fumed in outrage over Trump’s handling of the death of a man they often characterize as a “Washington Post journalist.”
Khashoggi, who died at 59, spent 57 years in Saudi Arabia working as an operative for the kingdom in its pre-reform days. He worked closely with Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s before cutting ties after September 11, 2001. After that he worked closely with Saudi intelligence as an operative.
At the Washington Post, he advocated for change in Saudi’s government once Crown Prince Mohammed took power and started on his various reforms and projects.
In his last column for the Post, Khashoggi said the Arab world most needs a free press.
“A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative,” wrote Khashoggi. “Sadly, this situation is unlikely to change.”
Ironically, Khashoggi’s death turned the much of the US media into an outlet for foreign intelligence services and state narratives aimed at harming the US-Saudi alliance, which may not be in the best interest of the US public.