Saudia Arabia is, as President Trump and the secretary of state have said, a cherished ally in the Middle East. It is a major purchaser of U.S. military equipment, which translates into many jobs in this country, and it is a key partner in regional struggles that include containing Iranian influence and countering terrorism.
But those benefits added together can’t equal the importance of America’s moral authority on the international stage.
The disappearance and apparent murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist who advocated democracy and was highly critical of the Saudi government, puts the United States in a difficult position.
But ultimately, it should not be so difficult. If the evidence suggests Saudi authorities killed Khashoggi, and that the murder was linked to the crown, the United States must act quickly, decisively and appropriately. The U.S. cannot afford to send the message that it is willing to overlook or excuse atrocities in exchange for money and influence. That would put it on a par with some of the world’s worst regimes.
Saudi Arabia has long posed diplomatic conundrums for the United States. Of the 19 men who hijacked aircraft and attacked key U.S. landmarks on Sept. 11, 2001, 15 were Saudi, and allegations about senior Saudi involvement in those attacks remain fuzzy.
Meanwhile, the kingdom has a poor record on human rights and political freedom.
Long before the Trump administration, U.S. diplomatic officials argued the United States had to accept the world as it found it, rather than wait for allies to reform themselves before the U.S. would cooperate with them. In the case of Saudi Arabia, its strategic importance in the fight against terrorism and Russian-backed influences, as well as its rich oil reserves, made it a vital partner.
All of that makes sense, but there must be limits.
Khashoggi’s case cuts to the heart of a free press and the basic human right to speak out against atrocities. Those are fundamental values that define American liberty.
So far, a great deal of circumstantial evidence has surfaced suggesting Khashoggi was killed during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Turkish government has said it has a recording indicating people in the consulate beat, killed and dismembered the journalist. Time-stamped photos have emerged showing a frequent companion of the crown prince entering the consulate before the incident, and potential links have surfaced between other members of the crown prince’s security detail and the alleged killing.
President Trump has seemed quick to dismiss much of this, even pushing, at one point, the notion of “rogue killers” committing the alleged murder. He even compared those who suspect Saudi involvement to the people who challenged Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation based on allegations of sexual assault.
We understand all that is at stake in terms of money and influence, but if the president is interested in learning the facts of this case, his official statements ought to at least be more impartial.
Whether dealing with a friend or foe, the United States must put the need for justice in what appears to be a cold-blooded political murder ahead of all other considerations. Rest assured, the world is watching and taking careful note.