The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi last Tuesday is threatening to upend the terms of the decadeslong alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In the nine days since Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian resident of Virginia and a Washington Post columnist, was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, politicians, media figures, and foreign policy elites — even those who have fawned over the authoritarian Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — have grown increasingly critical of the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
The U.S. has long given the Saudis a blank check, politically and militarily, and there have been voices advocating for a rethinking of that decades-old relationship for nearly as long as it has lasted. But the widespread belief that the Saudis assassinated Khashoggi inside their consulate has brought those voices squarely into the center. Suddenly, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States is being called into fundamental question.
President Donald Trump initially responded to questions about Khashoggi’s disappearance by saying, “I don’t like hearing about it, and hopefully that will sort itself out.” But on Thursday, he began to sound much less confident in his defense of Saudi Arabia, the first foreign country he visited as president. He said that it was beginning to look as though Khashoggi, a critic of the crown prince, was indeed murdered, but worried that jobs would be at risk if arms sales to the country were halted.
In the Senate, the kingdom is starting to lose its traditional bipartisan support, with almost every member of the Foreign Relations Committee calling on Trump to investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance. The Washington Post, meanwhile, has devoted extraordinary resources, both in reporting and editorial, to the case of its columnist.
Washington-based lobbying firms that do business with Saudi Arabia — particularly Hogan and Lovells, the Glover Park Group, and Brownstein — are facing a difficult decision, as pressure mounts across the board to break with the kingdom. The New York Times has withdrawn its sponsorship of an upcoming technology conference in Riyadh. Meanwhile, the Economist editor-in-chief Zanny Minton Beddoes and CNBC “Squawk Box” co-host Andrew Ross Sorkin have announced that they will pull out. A CNN spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the news organization is reconsidering its sponsorship, and spokespeople for CNBC and Fox Business told The Intercept that they are “monitoring the situation.”
The shift in discourse over Saudi Arabia is palpable in the think tank world as well. The vice president for security at the Center for American Progress, an influential liberal think tank, called on the United States to freeze arms sales to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Kelly Magsamen, a former Bush and Obama National Security Council staffer, also warned that the affair had the potential to unify a bipartisan “anti-Saudi sentiment.” Just two years ago, the think tank was arguing for keeping the U.S.-Saudi relationship more or less the same.
Prominent right-wing columnist and Council of Foreign Relations fellow Max Boot, a longtime defender of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, warned that if the Saudis did indeed kill Khashoggi, there “must be hell to pay.”
The conversation about Khashoggi’s disappearance has been extremely muddled, with conflicting reports from Turkish and Saudi officials over what happened, but the evidence of foul play by Saudi Arabia has piled up. We now know, through reporting by the Post, that U.S. intelligence had picked up conversations between top Saudi officials discussing a plan by bin Salman to capture Khashoggi and render him back to Saudi Arabia for detention.
Meanwhile, Turkish officials, remaining anonymous, have said that a team of 15 Saudis, many of them part of bin Salman’s personal guard, traveled in two private planes to Istanbul on the day Khashoggi was scheduled to venture into the consulate, and left that same day. The professional backgrounds of the Saudis give it the clear markings of a kill-or-capture squad, and official Turkish sources have said that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in the consulate. Surveillance video shows Khashoggi walking into the consulate, but never walking out. NBC News reported that Khashoggi checked his phone just before heading in but has not checked it since. (The Intercept has independently confirmed this claim.)
The Saudis, meanwhile, have denied any wrongdoing. Their official line is that Khashoggi left the consulate shortly after his arrival, but they have not offered surveillance footage or any other evidence to back up that assertion.
On Wednesday, Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the powerful chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Trump over Khashoggi’s disappearance. The letter instructs the administration to determine whether Khashoggi was indeed kidnapped, tortured, or murdered by the Saudi government and, as the Global Magnitsky Act requires, to respond within 120 days with a determination of sanctions against individuals who may have been responsible.
The letter was signed by the entire Senate Foreign Relations Committee, save for Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who is preparing his own push for freezing arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Many of these senators have in the past been steadfast allies of the Saudis, and it is unusual for the committee to be united on an issue like this.
The Saudis will keep killing civilians and journalists as long as we keep arming and assisting them. The President should immediately halt arms sales and military support to Saudi Arabia.
— Rand Paul (@RandPaul) October 11, 2018
Corker spoke to the Saudi Ambassador Khalid bin Salman and was curiously told that the government cannot provide video footage of the consulate because they only have livestreaming, not recorded video. “I’ve never heard of an embassy in my life that doesn’t tape,” he said. “And so to me it feels very much like some nefarious activity has occurred by them. But I don’t want to rush to judgment.”
In an email the ambassador sent to a handful of reporters on Tuesday, obtained by The Intercept, he sought to downplay fears about Khashoggi’s fate.
“I assure you that the reports that suggest that Jamal Khashoggi went missing in the Consulate in Istanbul or that the Kingdom’s authorities have detained him or killed him are absolutely false, and baseless,” he claimed. “What we do care about is Jamal’s wellbeing, and revealing the truth about what occurred. Jamal is a Saudi citizen who went missing after leaving the Consulate.”
None of that, however, passes the smell test in Washington. If Khashoggi had indeed left the consulate, there would be video or some other evidence of his having done so. The gap between that reality and the Saudi statement is so wide as to be its own insult to Washington, exacerbating rather than lessening the fury at the kingdom for apparently assassinating a Virginia resident who is known personally by many influential figures in town.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., on Tuesday said that Khashoggi’s disappearance is “personal to me,” noting that Khashoggi was a resident of his state. He called on Trump to raise his case with the Saudis and Turkey. Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, who represents a portion of Virginia, attended a vigil outside the Washington Post on Wednesday to call attention to the case.
On the Republican side of the aisle, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio have both said that there should be a strong U.S. response if Khashoggi was indeed killed.
On Tuesday, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., used a portion of a Washington speech on global authoritarian trends to demand transparency about what happened to Khashoggi and accountability if he was indeed murdered:
I would like to take a moment to note the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi government who was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last Tuesday. Over the weekend, Turkish authorities told reporters that they now believe Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate, and his body disposed of elsewhere. We need to know what happened here. If this is true, if the Saudi regime murdered a journalist critic in their own consulate, there must be accountability, and there must be an unequivocal condemnation by the United States. But it seems clear that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman feels emboldened by the Trump administration’s unquestioning support.
Although Sanders did not specify what kind of accountability the United States should demand, there are a variety of levers for the Trump administration to pull if it wants to punish Saudi Arabia for the disappearance and possible murder of a U.S. resident.
The United States is currently providing material and intelligence support to the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has created a humanitarian disaster in that country. As Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, a leading expert on Saudi affairs, has testified, “If the United States of America and the United Kingdom tonight told King Salman that this war [on Yemen] has to end, it would end tomorrow because the Royal Saudi Air force cannot operate without American & British support.”
Sanders opposes this support for Saudi Arabia, which has come from both the Obama and Trump administrations. Efforts in Congress to limit or terminate this support have so far been unsuccessful.