Brief #51—Foreign Policy

Policy Summary
Last February, Senators Bernie Sanders, Chris Murphy, and Mike Lee introduced legislation to invoke the 1973 War Powers act in order to withdraw the United States from Saudi Arabia’s brutal war on Yemen – a war which has led to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with three quarters of its 28 million citizens in need of humanitarian aid, 8 million in starvation, and the worst cholera outbreak in modern history. The measure, which hoped to end American provision of arms and intelligence to the Saudi war effort, was defeated in a bipartisan show of support for one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East. Now, eight months later, that support has finally begun to erode with what seems to be the shocking assassination of a world renowned Saudi journalist.

Jamal Khashoggi built a reputation for himself covering  Afghanistan, Algeria, and Kuwait in the 1980’s and 90’s for the Al-Hayat newspaper. He formed a relationship with Osama Bin Laden while covering the jihad against the Soviets, and attempted to convince him to pursue peace during the 90’s before cutting ties after September 11th. While often seen as a sort of de facto spokesperson for the Saudi Arabian royal family, and a useful source for Western insight into the relatively closed political society of Saudi Arabia, he periodically ran into trouble for his reformist views. In 2003 he was fired from his editorial position at the Al-Watan newspaper, which some blamed on his editorial policy. Later reinstated, he was fired again in 2010 for “pushing the boundaries of debate within Saudi society” according to his website. His dissent grew stronger during the rise of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) in 2017, when he criticized the hypocrisy of those who “vigorously applaud social reforms and heap praise on the crown prince” but ignore the continued authoritarian policies as well as the history of those who have fought them for years. The 33 year old MBS has received lavish praise for his modest reforms, including allowing women to drive, all the while cracking down on women’s rights activists. His sudden rise to power included the arrests of hundreds of clerics, business leaders, and royal family members who stood in his way.

Fearing being targeted himself, Khashoggi moved to Washington D.C. in 2017 and entered a role as an opinions editor at the Washington Post. He wrote disparagingly of MBS’s regime, beginning with an article titled “Saudi Arabia Wasn’t Always This Repressive. Now it’s unbearable”. Last month Khashoggi published an article entitled “Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Must Restore Dignity to His Country – by Ending Yemen’s Cruel War”. By this time he had become estranged from his Saudi wife and had become engaged to a Turkish researcher. On October 2nd, he flew to Istanbul to obtain documents from the Saudi consulate which would verify his divorce and allow him to proceed with his wedding which was planned for the next day. His fiancee waited outside the consulate but he never left it. Four days later, the Turkish security announced that they believed he had been killed

Khashoggi’s disappearance and presumptive murder have led to a rift between Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the US political establishment, and Trump. The Turkish government has reported that they possess tapes proving that Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured, and killed by a team of 15 Saudis who stayed in Turkey for a brief period and then left. While Turkish President Erdogan has refused to explicitly call for the help of the US, in a country which was economically destabilized by Trump’s recent tariffs, he has refused to take action himself and a Turkish official anonymously conceded that “At the end of the day, the U.S. has to take action.”

Republican lawmakers have begun criticizing the Saudi Regime, with Mitch McConnell calling US-Saudi relations “not great” and Lindsey Graham stating that MBS has “got to go”. Trump has appeared far less concerned with Khashoggi’s death, telling reporters after speaking to Saudi King Salman “it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers – who knows.” He later said “They’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment and other things. If we don’t sell it to them, they’ll say, ‘Well, thank you very much. We’ll buy it from Russia.’ ” Trump also took to Twitter to lie that he did not have any personal financial interests in Saudi Arabia. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with MBS on Tuesday to “reiterate the President’s concern”, where they “agreed on the importance of a thorough, transparent, and timely investigation”. Some American CEO’s have backed out of next week’s Future Investment Initiative conference, a major part of MBS’ plan to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil. At this time, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin reportedly still plants to attend. Saudi Arabia is reportedly working on a report which will conclude that Khashoggi was killed in a botched interrogation, without clearance from MBS.

Saudi Arabia has long been a strong ally of the United States, only ever receiving minor admonishments for its horrific human rights record. The country serves as a powerful opponent of Iran, a military outpost, and a crucial source of oil. In the past, Saudi Arabia also helped suppress Communist influence in Afghanistan and fought alongside the US in the Gulf War. The fact that MBS has presumably overstepped so far as to murder a high profile journalist on foreign soil suggests that he has overestimated the blank check for terror the US has given him. Khashoggi was not a vital political enemy. His colleagues described him as a moderate reformer rather than revolutionary, a “loyal Saudi” who still hoped to return to his homeland. His editorials mostly fell on deaf ears in a country spoiled by Saudi military spending. MBS’  recklessness may doom him here, as some in Washington seem eager to replace him with a more cautious leader, one willing to continue to support US interests in the region without stirring up this sort of attention.

Engagement Resources

This Brief was submitted by USRESIST NEWS Analyst Colin Shanley; Contact

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