At around 1 p.m. on October 2, Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist of Saudi Arabian descent, said goodbye to his fiancée Hatice Cengiz before entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in the hopes of collecting some marriage paperwork. Four hours later, the embassy closed for the night, but Cengiz, still waiting outside, found no sign of the man she intended to marry the following day or the documents he had gone to retrieve.
Over the coming weeks, the truth which emerged about Khashoggi’s fate has underscored the dangers of Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and strained historically strong U.S.-Saudi relations. To effectively navigate this foreign policy quandary, President Trump must strike a balance between respect for this traditional alliance and advocacy for human rights in the troubled nation.
Khashoggi had warned Ms. Cengiz that his routine visit could prove dangerous: upon his entry into the consulate, he had given her his cellphone and told her to call for help if he did not reemerge. For the year prior, Khasoggi had been living not in his birth nation but—for fear of reprisal over his writings critical of Mohamed bin Salman, whose steady increase in power he had chronicled—in the United States. The international community was understandably skeptical of initial Saudi claims that Khashoggi left the consulate shortly after his arrival, and reports from Turkish officials that Saudi agents had killed Khashoggi inside the embassy quickly ensued. It seemed clear that there was more to this story than met the eye.
After widespread pressure from Western officials and media outlets, Saudi officials eventually admitted, 17 days after Khashoggi’s disappearance, that he had died – in what they termed a “fistfight” – and announced two firings and 18 arrests related to the crime. Concern for the case grew within the United States, with senators from both parties voicing their belief that America should intervene to help find Khashoggi.
On October 25, Saud al-Mojeb, the Saudi Attorney General, changed the Saudi narrative yet again, stating that a joint Turkish-Saudi investigation of the matter had concluded that Khashoggi’s death was not accidental but premeditated. Turkish media revealed that not only was the death premeditated; the Saudis had hired a 15-man hit squad which committed Khashoggi’s murder, mutilated his corpse with a bone saw, then released a body double into the Istanbul streets to deflect suspicion. This atrocity left the world reeling, affecting journalists, who respected Khashoggi as a principled coworker, especially deeply. As Khashoggi had spent much of the last year of his life in America, many at home and abroad expected a forceful response to this human-rights violation from the White House.
This scenario would have been difficult for any American president to parse. Since the early 20th century, the United States has enjoyed a cordial diplomatic relationship with Saudi Arabia, which the State Department refers to as “a strong partner in security” with “robust cultural and educational ties” to American institutions. Maintaining this friendship is perhaps especially important in present times, as in the wake of the dissolution of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the United States plans to impose heavy sanctions on Iranian oil exports. Maintaining close ties with the Saudis would allow continued American access to petroleum at reasonable prices.
Even given these alliance-preserving incentives, however, President Trump’s response to Khashoggi’s murder was unacceptable. As late as October 16th, in an Associated Press interview, he called the situation an example of “guilty until proven innocent” and compared the scrutiny Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman was facing to Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation process. Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, mounted a whisper campaign to discredit Khashoggi and mitigate the American public’s anger towards his death. While President Trump later softened his pro-Saudi position, he has shied away from criticizing outright the Crown Prince for what was quite apparently an attempt to suppress journalistic freedom. His statements are too little, too late.
Khashoggi’s murder has presented President Trump with a delicate balance to uphold: he must critique Mohamed bin Salman’s blatant violence while maintaining America’s critical relationship with Saudi Arabia. But he has tipped much too far towards prizing autocracy and extremism merely because they are financially convenient. Similarly, his followers’ efforts to discredit a man who died because of his desire to seek and report truth are appalling.
If President Trump can still claim to respect the American tradition of an empowered, free press, he must put liberty before money and speak out against this gross abuse of power.