Correction note from Toby Harnden, managing editor: “The Washington Examiner apologizes for inadvertently including paragraphs from a New York Times story in an Examiner story about Jared Kushner and Saudi Arabia. I was editing the story. During the editing process, I put a note, in an unpublished story file, that included a section from a story by the New York Times. The note was intended to inform the reporter and give him an example of the kind of approach he could consider in the Examiner story. The note was not clear, however, and the reporter thought I had rewritten part of his story. The material from the New York Times was then subsequently mistakenly published in error and without any attribution.
Outrage among lawmakers and experts over the possible murder of a Saudi journalist in Turkey poses a major test of White House adviser Jared Kushner's Middle East strategy.
Kushner's relationship with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who faces allegations that he ordered an assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident, has created a growing wellspring of congressional frustration.
“I know they've got a lot riding on Saudi Arabia,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters. “I can understand they would be cautious in their comments currently.”
Corker wants President Trump to consider imposing sanctions on the officials responsible for Khashoggi’s death if U.S. spy agencies confirm the murder; he and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Foreign Relations Democrat, have used their authority under federal sanctions law to start a 120-day clock for investigating the incident.
“Whoever is responsible, no matter how high it is, we want them to be sanctioned,” Corker told the Washington Examiner when asked specifically about the crown prince, who is known informally as MBS.
Such a personal rebuke would mark sharp reversal from the halcyon days following Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential elections. A royal delegation visited Trump Tower for a meeting with Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, that set the table for the president to fly to Saudi Arabia for his first trip abroad after taking the oath of office.
“I would speak to MBS almost every day to plan it,” Kushner told Major Garrett, in an interview for the book, Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride. "Every single thing he promised me he delivered 150 percent on.”
The crown prince still has time to renege on major promises, if he thinks it necessary to counter a U.S. punishment. “There’s a lot at stake here,” Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Examiner. “Number one, the relationship with Saudi Arabia as it pertains to pressure on Iran. Of course, Saudi Arabia has pledged to fill a lot of the gap expected in terms of oil production as sanctions come online.”
Iranian aggression has functioned as a glue that held the U.S.-Saudi partnership together in recent years, but especially since Mr. Trump took office. He celebrated arms deals with Saudi Arabia during his Riyadh trip, despite a minority of lawmakers angry over the civilians killed by a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen’s civil war.
The conflict is a proxy war with Iran, making it a theater for U.S. hopes that Saudi Arabia will help lead a coalition of Arab states and Israel to counter Iranian forces in the region. When Saudi Arabia opened a diplomatic fissure with the neighboring Arab state of Qatar, Trump likewise seemed to split with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in supporting the monarchical mainstay of U.S. policy in the region.
Aaron David Miller, a veteran former senior official who has worked on the Democratic and Republican administrations, said the U.S. had emboldened MBS, who was "an impulsive, reckless, inexperienced leader that is using and abusing the United States". He continued: "We have enabled and placated the Saudis ... to a degree that, in my judgment, is unprecedented in the history of the relationship,” Miller said.
That’s an unfair charge, according to Corker. “I don't want to say that the closeness to him by the administration has caused him to feel like he can do anything,” the Tennessee Republican told the Washington Examiner. “I know that's a narrative. I think of his own accord he's pretty ruthless.”
In the face of additional outside pressure and internal intelligence reports, the Trump administration will have a major decision to make.
“Are we willing to take a series of steps that fundamentally alter the nature and character of the U.S.-Saudi relationship?” Aaron David Miller, a former State Department negotiator at the Wilson Center. “Or, are we looking for a way to address the immediate political pressures, but basically create a situation where we return to business as usual?”
It’s not clear what the administration could do to impose an effective punishment for Khashoggi’s disappearance. “There is no action we could take, that we will take — or, frankly, that we should take that I would recommend to you is going to fundamentally constrain or restrain the Saudis from acting,” Miller said. “We just won’t do it. And I don't know what that action would be. We're not going to sever our ties with Saudi Arabia. We won't do that. We won't join an international call for prosecuting MBS as a war criminal. We're not going to do that."
Prince Mohammed's reputation for brutality might raise the question of why Kushner, who had no foreign policy experience prior to his father-in-law’s victory, chose to invest so much in their partnership. Corker offered an exculpatory word there, as well.
“We're all very impressed with the intelligence of MBS, his vision for the country in terms of diversification and some of the progressive moves that he's made,” he said.
Kushner cites those reforms, and the hope of future gains, in articulating a posture of pragmatic yet enthusiastic support for the prince. “If he can lead the global fight against extremism, that’s incredible,” he said in Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride. “If he wants to push back against Iran’s aggression, that’s incredible. If he wants a more free and open society where women have equal rights and you don’t discriminate against people for their race or religion, I mean, that’s incredible. We should be trying to support him.”
Khashoggi’s apparent murder, if confirmed, shows the gruesome limits of Prince Mohammed’s commitment to the “free and open society” touted in the White House. It will also test the boundaries of the administration’s expectations for his relationship with the prince.
“He’s taking on big, bold objectives. We have to give him the space to try to accomplish it,” Kushner told Garrett. “These places are not going to become Jeffersonian democracies overnight or maybe ever.”