WASHINGTON - Former U.S. officials believe the Trump administration’s friendly policy toward Saudi Arabia has caused its leaders to believe they face no consequences for their actions. The fears were raised following the mysterious disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last week, amid reports that he was murdered while visiting Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.
The White House has yet to publicly comment on the incident.
The Saudi dissident, who is known to be critical of his country’s regime, entered the consulate last Tuesday in order to collect personal documents regarding his divorce. He never emerged from the building, though, and Turkish authorities have briefed news outlets on their suspicion that he was murdered inside the diplomatic compound, his body then being cut up and taken out in pieces.
Saudi Arabia denies the reports, but has yet to provide any evidence to contradict them.
The Trump administration has made a noticeable effort to improve America’s relations with Saudi Arabia, which became tense during President Barack Obama’s time in office. Donald Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first foreign visit as president, in May 2017, and the Saudi leadership vocally supported his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
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A close relationship has also developed between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. According to journalist Bob Woodward in his recent book “Fear,” Kushner successfully pushed the administration to support the crown prince in Saudi Arabia’s internal power struggles last year.
Now, however, former U.S. officials believe Trump and Kushner’s embrace of the Saudi leadership has led Crown Prince Mohammed (also known by the nickname MBS) to feel he is immune from American pressure and criticism.
“If Saudis were involved in Jamal’s death or disappearance, that’s obviously on them,” tweeted Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations. “But in failing to call MBS out on just about anything, particularly repression at home, Trump Administration has emboldened him and given him [the] sense he can do anything.”
Miller’s “just about anything” statement refers to a series of steps previously taken by the crown prince to oppress opposition to his rule. Over the past year, he has had hundreds of Saudi businessmen and former officials arrested without due process. His government has also jailed women’s rights and anti-corruption activists, accusing them of a conspiracy to overthrow the government.
Crown Prince Mohammed has also intensified Saudi Arabia’s war against Iran and its proxies in Yemen – a war that has turned into a full-blown humanitarian disaster. The Saudis also detained Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri last November, reportedly holding him against his will and forcing him to resign as Lebanese premier (Hariri walked back that decision when back in Beirut).
As far as is known, the Trump administration didn’t criticize or warn Saudi Arabia about any of these policies. In fact, it actively supported and encouraged some of them. When the Saudi leadership rounded up hundreds of political rivals and held them at a Riyadh hotel-cum-interim prison, Trump tweeted: “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing. Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”
That message was well received in Riyadh. “The Trump administration made it clear from early on that it had little interest in protecting human rights, except when it comes to the rights of Christian minorities,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official who is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told Haaretz.
Trump, she added, “said very explicitly that he is not interested in telling other countries how to run [their] government. Could this be seen as a green light for oppressive actions? Certainly when compared to the previous policies of every American president since the end of World War II.”
Marc Lynch, director of George Washington University’s Institute for Middle East Studies, wrote on Twitter that “Saudi Arabia has been arresting critics and activists aggressively. ... I will be surprised if the U.S. does anything even if Khashoggi killing [is] confirmed. It’s said and done nothing about Saudi repression for years, and Trump team obsessed with Iran couldn’t care less about human rights.”
The stark difference in the administration’s reaction to human rights violations by Iran and Saudi Arabia was also noted by Cofman Wittes, who warned that this policy undermined U.S. credibility around the world.
“If we appear to be selective in our concern for human rights, the world will take our criticism less seriously,” she said. The administration has attacked Iran for silencing protesters and critics of the Islamic Republic, for instance, but has not done the same when the Saudis arrested activists.
“No country is going to be fully consistent in saying exactly the same thing about every violation of rights everywhere in the world at every moment,” said Cofman Wittes, “but in the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the gap under this administration is glaring.”
This undermines the entire U.S. approach toward protecting human rights by making the issue appear like a political instrument that America uses to attack its rivals, she added.
In the face of the administration’s silence, senior lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have filled the gap by expressing concern over Saudi Arabia’s conduct.
“I pray Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is alive. But if this deeply disturbing news report is confirmed, the United States & the civilized world must respond strongly, and I will review all options in Senate,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) tweeted on Sunday. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) responded that he agreed with Rubio and is ready to work with him on the issue.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the senior Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, wrote: “We must demand immediate answers from the Saudi government.” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, added: “I urge the State Department to immediately raise with the Saudis the truly shocking reports that journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.”
It was still unclear as of Sunday evening if the administration has done so, even through quiet diplomatic channels.