The shocking brutality of Jamal Khashoggi’s abduction and murder by Saudi security forces cannot be papered over, no matter how implausibly it is dressed up as an interrogation gone wrong or the work of rogue actors.
But its implications go deeper than the tragedy visited upon Khashoggi’s family and fiancee. It raises fundamental questions for the United States and Israel about their whole strategic concept in the Middle East.
On the one hand, cynics could argue that the brazenness of Khashoggi’s murder differed only in degree, than kind, from the longstanding behavior of Arab autocrats, including those allied with the United States.
There are no boy scouts in the Middle East, and the U.S.-Saudi alliance has persisted through decades of repressive Saudi policies against their own people.
American interests could still be served by some of the economic and social reforms that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has championed, and by the advancement of the joint strategic goals of checking Iranian aggression in the region. Those considerations cannot be so easily dismissed.
But the Khashoggi murder, beyond obliterating red lines of immorality, also points to the fundamental unreliability of Saudi Arabia under MBS as a strategic partner. What happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul echoes words once used to describe Napoleon’s elimination of an opponent: "It’s worse than a crime. It’s a mistake." One might add, a strategic mistake.
Already, MBS had proven himself to be a reckless and impulsive actor in conducting Saudi foreign policy. His legitimate campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi in Yemen has been prosecuted with total disregard for the vast suffering of civilians it has caused. His forced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri blew up in his face.
Saudi Arabia's all-out blockade of Qatar has distracted the Gulf states from their common goal of containing Iran and produced minimal results. And MBS’s severing of relations with Canada over a tweet criticizing Saudi detentions of human rights activists was an absurd overreaction.
But now, clearly at MBS’s direction, a terrible murder was committed, essentially out in the open. And the Saudis lied about it to President Trump for days. They are still lying.
But MBS did not take into account that in ordering the Khashoggi hit, he crossed all lines of acceptability to the American public and the bipartisan membership of Congress. Indeed, the harshest criticisms and calls for consequences have come from Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio.
Again, one can be cynical about this. Saudi repression is not new, and perhaps the American political system could accommodate it if it stayed below a certain level of visibility. The outcry was not nearly as loud as perhaps it should have been over the imprisonment of Saudi women’s rights activists, which took place at the same time that women were finally given the right to drive cars.
But MBS miscalculated badly by not understanding that the kidnapping and dismembering of a U.S. resident journalist, whose only crime was expressing his views, simply was more than Americans could tolerate.
One cannot flaunt that kind of brutality and expect business as usual with the United States. Trump himself may not care, as his courtship of Vladimir Putin, who also murders journalists, suggests. But the American people have their limits, and may indeed hold friendly governments to a higher standard. They expect that allies, at least, not implicate the United States in brazen crimes.
The reasons for that are debatable. The grisly details of the killing are part of it. But Khashoggi’s murder also touches on broader international trends of illiberalism and a crackdown on truth-seeking journalists. The context was not simply MBS silencing a Saudi critic.
That MBS did not understand that reality or could not assess it, that he thought he could get away with it and had no adviser willing or able to check his impulses, raises significant questions about his judgment and reliability, not to speak of the definitive answers it provides about his morality.
For Israel, this sordid episode raises the prospects that the anchor of the new Middle East realities it has sought to promote - an Israeli-Sunni Arab coalition, under a U.S. umbrella, to check Iran and Sunni jihadists - cannot be counted upon.
And Israel must be careful how it plays its hand. There will, without question, be a U.S. response to Khashoggi’s murder, even if it is resisted by the Trump administration. It will not lead to a total dismantlement of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, but Congressional and public revulsion will have its price.
The price could include significant restrictions on arms sales that had been contemplated. It is already leading key U.S. investors to distance themselves from the major development projects MBS has promoted. At a minimum, there will be no replay of the warm, PR-friendly visit by MBS to multiple U.S. cities last March, no more lionizing of him in the American press as a reformer who will reshape the Middle East.
Israel, which has a clear interest in keeping Saudi Arabia in the fold of U.S. allies to maximize the strategic alignment on Iran, will need to avoid becoming MBS’s lobbyist in Washington. Israel’s coordination with its partners in the region is still necessary and desirable. Simple realpolitik requires it. But there is a new risk of reputational damage from a close association with Saudi Arabia.
It won’t be easy for Israel to navigate these waters, as the Washington foreign policy establishment has quickly splintered into anti-Iran and anti-Saudi camps. The idea that the United States should equally oppose Iranian and Saudi brutality toward their peoples, and not let MBS’s crimes lead to a lessening of pressure on Iran over its malign regional activities, is in danger of being lost.
For Israelis, that may be the biggest blow in the fallout of Khashoggi’s murder. MBS, in his obsession with silencing his critics, has actually undermined the attempt to build an international consensus to pressure Iran.
The damage is broad. Trump may be an outlier. But what Member of Congress, what European leader, would be willing to sit with MBS for a consultation on Iran now?
That is the greatest evidence of MBS’s strategic blindness, and the damage will likely persist as long as he rules the kingdom.
Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama Administration. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro