It has been over three weeks since Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and disappeared without a trace (despite a poor excuse for a doppelganger wearing Khashoggi’s clothes roamed the streets of Istanbul on the day of his death). Khashoggi, a prominent journalist and open critic of his country’s ruling elite, went to the consulate to retrieve divorce documents in order to legally wed his Turkish fiance. An American resident since going into self-imposed exile, the circumstances of his disappearance became a diplomatic and media uproar across Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and truly the world. But, as of today, Saudi authorities have finally admitted that Mr. Khashoggi’s death could have been the result of a “pre-mediated” murder.
Many throughout the coverage of Khashoggi’s death have pointed the blame at Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince. Since being appointed to his role in June of last year, his tenure has been seen as a mixed bag, as Saudi Arabia has enacted a number of liberal social reforms, while also engaging in a vicious anti-corruption campaign targeted at some members of the Saudi royal household, and an exceptionally brutal war in Yemen.
That being said, the vocal media and social response in the past three weeks surrounding Khashoggi’s death has decisively shifted the perception of Mohammed bin Salman, and in turn, the West’s involvement with the kingdom. The seemingly never-ending media circus has only been precipitated by the shifting narratives espoused by the Saudi royal household. Over the course of three weeks, the Saudi Arabian government changed its story, according to the New York Times, five distinct times. The story of today has shifted dramatically from the Saudi line of Oct. 2, when they told the world that Mr. Khashoggi had left the consulate on his own accord. In light of this most recent admission, the Saudi government, especially Mohammed bin Salman, has not only lost face, but has shown that it severely overestimated its own strength and political clout.
But what has been the response of world leaders? This is where the story gets even trickier. A concurrent, and particularly troubling storyline has been the inexcusable bevy of responses from President Trump. Of course, Trump’s relationship with the Saudis is well known. The importance of the Saudi-US relationship in the Trump era was typified by the fact that Trump’s first foreign visit was to Riyadh. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has been described as the center of Trump’s Middle Eastern plans, especially with regards to hedging Iran’s power expansion. Various members of his administration have also been intimately linked with Saudi Arabia, particularly son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has a close relationship with Mohammed bin Salman. Beyond the strategic advantages, Saudi Arabia provides oil to America and most of the western world, which requires such countries to swallow some pride and form ties with Saudi Arabia. For the US particularly, the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia has provides an additional, lucrative reason for ties.
But with the death of Khashoggi, the nature of this relationship has rightfully come in to question. The “premeditated murder” of a journalist in a foreign country is, to say the least, unprecedented. Yet, Donald Trump’s actions in the past three weeks has been nothing short of a masterclass on diplomatic failures, and overlooking moral turpitude.
As the Saudis have oscillated between explanations, Trump has seemingly followed their movements. When Saudi Arabia first denied culpability, the President not only said that he believed the Saudis claims, but also had the audacity to float the idea that Mr. Khashoggi’s death could have been at the hands of “rogue killers,” an idea still unsubstantiated, and in defiance of mounting evidence that Mr. Khashoggi was brutally murdered. When the Saudis first admitted that he was killed in the consulate, but because of “fistfight” that had broken out, Trump further acquiesced to the Saudi claim. Over the last three weeks, pieces of mounting evidence have surfaced, ranging from photographs of 15 Saudi agents entering and leaving Istanbul on the same day, to a graphic audio clip of Mr. Khashoggi meeting his end. Yet, Mr. Trump continued to tow Saudi Arabia’s line.
Finally, in light of CIA director Gina Haspel’s visit to Turkey, Trump finally broke the Saudi word, saying that the Saudis had engaged in “the worst cover up”, and revoked the visas of the Saudi nationals that were implicated in the killing. Yet, given the political maneuverings of the past weeks, this admission and Trump’s subsequent measures seem hollow. With American dependence on Saudi oil expected to increase, and Trump’s unjustified hesitance to tinker with Saudi Arms sales, it seems that Trump and his foreign policy staff will do little in light of Mr. Khashoggi’s death.
This affair, once again, questioned the integrity of Trump’s foreign policy, and has epitomized the administration’s willingness to deviate from American principles. Through his continued affirmations of Saudi policy in the face of substantial evidence against the fact, and his lukewarm repudiation of said government in recent days, Trump has proved that he is willing to turn a blind eye to such heinous crimes. Almost two years in, this has certainly been one of Trump’s biggest foreign policy tests, one that he has resoundingly failed.
Tobias Wertime is a member of the class of 2020 can be reached at email@example.com.