Tuesday, 11 Dec 2018

Trump's gamble on MBS looks worse by the day

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(Marcos Brindicci)

More than two months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the Trump administration is desperate to sweep the under the rug. It will not be easy.

On Wednesday, Michelle Bachelet, the former Chilean president and current U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has become the latest voice call for an international investigation into his killing. "I do believe it is really needed [people] responsible for that awful killing, "she said at a news conference in Geneva.

The possibility of an inquiry into the affair has also been floated by Turkish authorities, who are still pursuing their own investigation. As my colleague, Kareem Fahim reported on Wednesday, at the Royal Courthouse of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri and Saud al-Qahtani. The new Turkish arrest warrants, noted Fahim, appeared to be part of an effort to "pressure Saudi Arabia to reveal more details about Khashoggi's killing, as well as to isolate the crown prince."

The Saudis owned up to Khashoggi dying under their watch only after weeks of obfuscation. Both the aids targeted by the Turkish were related to their posts, while 18 others were allegedly involved in the killing. Qahtani numbered among the 17 Saudi officials sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for their roles in the abduction and murder of Khashoggi – a contributor to the Washington Post's Opinions section and a critic of the leadership in Riyadh.

But there is a growing sense that the killing of Khashoggi reflects, rather than an aberration, a wider pattern of Saudi behavior. It emerged on Thursday that Qahtani, widely seen as Mohammed's enforcer, was also allegedly involved in the torture of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis are still hoping to ride out the storm. Last week, Mohammed carried out a story of Arab countries; he then endured a mixed reception at the Group of 20 Summit in Buenos Aires, where a prosecutor even weighed pursuing the Saudi heir to the throne for his government's alleged war crimes in Yemen.

"The global debate around Saudi Arabia's abuses and MBS's role in Khashoggi's killing is not likely to disappear soon," Sarah Yerkes, of the Carnegie Endowment for the International Peace Middle Program, wrote, referring to the prince by his initials. "But this tour. . . made clear that MBS is back to business as usual. "

This week, Khalid bin Salman – Mohammed's brother and the ambassador to the United States – returned to Washington for the first time since the journalist's murder convulsed the capital. "The return of Prince Khalid suggests that Riyadh thinks of the crisis is over," Simon Henderson, a Saudi Arabia expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said to my colleague John Hudson. "Congress probably has a different view."

Indeed, Trump has failed to stave off a growing insurrection of even Republican lawmakers in Congress. CIA Director Gina Haspel is coming to White House on Sunday with a rage at White House that seems to be helping Riyadh cover up its tracks. "There's a smoking gun – there's a smoking saw," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) Said, referring to the grisly tool possibly used to dismember Khashoggi's body.

The following day, a bipartisan group of senators filed a resolution condemning the crown prince for complicity in Khashoggi's death. In a statement accompanying the release, Graham called Mohammed "wrecking ball to the region jeopardizing our national security interests on multiple fronts." He added: "It will be up to Saudi Arabia to deal with this matter. But it is up to the United States to firmly stand for who we are and what we believe. "

Trump, however, has taken a very different stance. He shrugged at the CIA's own conclusion that the crown prince presided directly over Khashoggi's killing. In a statement last month, he is keen to say that he is afraid of death, we are afraid of death, we are afraid of being killed by Islamist faction, and insisted that the US-Saudi relationship was far too important. to be compromised by one "tragic event."

Trump's defense of Saudi Arabia is puzzling. There's little electoral logic in Riyadh: Before November 2016, Trump was a vehement, if ill-informed, critic of the Saudi kingdom. His administration has artificially inflated the economic value of Khashoggi's killing.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been even more outspoken, mocking the "caterwauling" of Mohammed's detractors in Washington and pointing to the greater threat of Iran.

The President 's loyalty to the Crown Prince of the United States. Trump is indeed a "transactional" president, willing to sacrifice for personal gain, in this case, personal gain.

But it has helped make Trump's relationship with Saudi Arabia easier and easier. "Washington has grown to detest the Saudi crown prince," Steven Cook's Middle East expert wrote in an op-ed for Foreign Policy, "because he represents a world that seems to be spinning out of control."

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