- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 24, 2018


President Trump appears to be stalling on what to do about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the day-to-day ruler of the fabulously rich and in some ways fabulously backward oil kingdom.

Mr. Trump seems to be waiting for Saudi King Salman to uncrown his son, Crown Prince Mohammed, in favor of another, perhaps wiser son or grandson (girls need not apply).

Or Mr. Trump may be expecting the crown prince to fall on his own sword, take responsibility for the Oct. 2 murder of Saudi royal family adviser and Washington Post opinion contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

Mr. Khashoggi was a meddlesome critic of Crown Prince Mohammed’s authoritarian ways.

Critics of the crown prince’s — and Saudis royals suspected of being threats to the prince’s total power — have tended to disappear or wind up under house arrest and suddenly bereft of a few billion dollars they once thought were their own.

Mr. Khashoggi was less easy to decipher than Crown Prince Mohammed. Mr. Khashoggi, who was of Turkish as well as Saudi descent, spent much of his life as a working journalist — reporter and an often-fired out-of-the-box editor of Arabic and English language papers in the Gulf and its environs. He was an Islamist and yet a reformer (in some ways of some things). He was sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and may have been a member. He may have been an intelligence operative for Saudi Arabia and for the U.S. — these things aren’t always clear for obvious reasons. He was an Islamist.

Whatever he was, it’s been 21 days since his disappearance at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, and Mr. Trump has been in a tight bind all that time.

The kingdom has been useful to the U.S. in important ways, just as the U.S. has been helpful to Riyadh, which probably needs the U.S. more than Washington needs Riyadh. But there is the risk, whether small or large, that Mr. Trump wrestles with. How much and what kind of punishment meted out to the Saudis will lose billions of dollars in defense and other contracts from the kingdom and undermine the regional intelligence that the Saudi’s vaunted spy network provides us.

U.S. intelligence has known almost from the beginning that which the Saudis only in the last few days have admitted to — that a 15-man Saudi hit squad assassinated Mr. Khashoggi. The Saudis still claim it was an exercise gone wrong or gone as planned but without the knowledge or approval of the crown prince or his father, the king (who is ill and thought to be maybe not altogether with it).

The squad was made up of government officials and security personnel and quite tellingly included Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, a Saudi lieutenant colonel in the Public Security Directorate’s forensic science department. The Turks said he brought a bone-cutting hacksaw to the consulate in Istanbul to dismember Mr. Khashoggi’s body.

All this would not be the business of Mr. Trump and the United States were Mr. Khashoggi not a permanent U.S. resident living and contributing to a major U.S. newspaper in the nation’s capital.

The Saudi bumblers thrust this ugly affair on an American president who from the moment he took the oath of office has been extremely friendly to the Riyadh royals. Unfortunately for all involved, their latest iteration — King Salman’s predecessor died in 2015 — isn’t at all like what the royals used to be. Too smart, that is, to pull a Khashoggi-like disaster and disjointed coverup.

His patience having all but run out, Mr. Trump on Tuesday labelled as a “total fiasco” the Saudi’s absurd accounts of Mr. Khashoggi’s fate.

“The cover-up was one of the worst in the history of cover-ups,” Mr. Trump said. “It’s very simple.”

The closest thing imaginable to a supreme untouchable, Crown Prince Mohammed is not only the king’s son but also a personal friend of Mr. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, himself a senior White House adviser.

If that’s not enough to make Crown Prince Mohammed untouchable, he is also the self-described architect of the kingdom’s economic diversification and modernization — a man who beats his chest with pride over the privilege granted to women to drive automobiles in the kingdom.

But there’s more to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (“bin” means “son” for those who came in late).

The crown prince is the kingdom’s defense minister. On top of that, he’s chairman of every council in the kingdom that counts. He runs everything, including the security forces and police.

The ineluctable inference for all but Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his father the king is that the crown prince must have planned or approved the Khashoggi murder. To think otherwise is to say he’s not who he says he is and that he doesn’t have the power he says he has and that everyone else in the kingdom who values his own life seems to agree he has.

As of Tuesday, the Trump administration says it plans to punish the already-named members of 15-man assassination squad and a few other designated unsavory Saudis with sanctions, visas denials and other hand slaps.

If that’s it — if that’s all — it will mean Mr. Trump has granted Crown Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s day-to-day supreme leader, a murder pass. Or it will mean that Mr. Trump has solid evidence that the 15-man hit squad did not have the permission of the crown prince or the king to kill Mr. Khashoggi. Only that will get Crown Prince Mohammed off the hook, if that’s really possible.

That will mean the kind of evidence the American people can see, smell, mull over and accept as honest and real. That will further mean evidence that stands up to the inspection of a watching world that respects, however grudgingly in some cases, the U.S. for its total commitment to the rule of law and ultimate worth of the individual.

That said, the proper resolution of the Saudi Arabian mess should not be seen as affirmation that the U.S. has resurrected its impossible role of policeman to the world.

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