Khashoggi murder: Should Biden take a stronger stand?

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

U.S. intelligence agencies have determined that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the operation that led to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, according to a report released by the Biden administration on Friday.

Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who had been fiercely critical of the country’s royal family, was killed during a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. His body was then dismembered, and his remains have not been found. The U.S. imposed economic sanctions against a number of Saudi citizens connected to the plot and, after the release of the report, issued visa restrictions on 76 individuals believed to have threatened dissidents abroad.

The administration did not, however, directly penalize the crown prince, reportedly out of concern that doing so would jeopardize the delicate relationship between the U.S. and a key Middle East ally. During the 2019 Democratic primary, then-candidate Joe Biden said he would make Saudi Arabia “pay the price” for Khashoggi’s killing and would expose the country as an international “pariah.”

As president, Biden has looked to “recalibrate” America’s relationship with the Saudis after four years of largely deferential treatment by the Trump administration. In February, the U.S. ended its support for the ongoing Saudi war in Yemen, which has led to one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet. Biden also raised the issue of human rights abuses during a call last week with the country’s formal leader, the crown prince’s father, King Salman.

Why there’s debate

Biden has received heavy criticism for not directly punishing Crown Prince Mohammed, widely known as MBS. “I would like to see the administration go further,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told Yahoo News. Failing to issue personal punishment to the man ultimately responsible for Khashoggi’s murder shows that the U.S. is willing to abandon its ideals when they become politically inconvenient, many argue. As the presumptive future ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed could be a powerful figure in the Middle East for decades. Sanctioning him now would have sent the message that abuses won’t be tolerated, some say.

Others argue that punishing the crown prince would cause more harm than good. Saudi Arabia plays a crucial role in advancing America’s interests in the Middle East, including the push to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, stifle terrorism and promote stability in the region. Angering the crown prince would undermine those pursuits and force the Saudis to seek alliances with rivals of the U.S. such as China and Russia. Any hopes that the United States might help Saudi Arabia one day become a more equitable nation that can transition away from its reliance on its massive oil reserves also depend on an amicable relationship with the crown prince, others say.

What’s next

In response to the release of the Khashoggi report, the families of some Sept. 11 victims are appealing to Biden to also release documents from an FBI investigation into the Saudis’ role in the 2001 terror attacks that were blocked from the public by the Trump administration.


Biden is allowing the crown price to get away with murder

“Far from being made a pariah, MBS remains the top dog in Riyadh — with Biden wagging a disapproving finger from the direction of Washington.” — Bobby Ghosh, Bloomberg

A working relationship with the crown prince will bring many benefits

“Refusing to deal with him is not the answer. Pragmatic, conditional relations with him could bring protection and freedom to many Saudis, make possible collaboration to impede Iran’s nuclear ambitions, wind down the war in Yemen, and advance prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. None of this would bring Khashoggi back to life, but it would give added meaning to his death.” — Richard Haass, Project Syndicate

Biden has shown he’s unwilling to stand up for America’s ideals

“When you choose not to hold bad behavior to account, it is simply because you don’t want to deal with the fallout, and not dealing with the problem is very different than actively working to do the right thing. You are far better off making a relationship decision that centers your own sense of humanity and self-respect.” — Nayyera Haq, Daily Beast

Honoring Khashoggi requires much more than punishing any one person

“Narrowly focusing on punishing MBS does not do justice for Jamal. Jamal was killed for daring to raise his voice in dissent and express himself freely. … Any response by the Biden administration that does not place free speech at the top of the agenda will miss the mark and risk repeating historical mistakes.” — Iyad el-Baghdadi, Washington Post

Conflict with the Saudis would benefit America’s enemies

“Democrats and the media are already calling this inadequate and want MBS barred if not indicted. The Biden Administration seems to appreciate that this would lead to a more serious break in U.S.-Saudi relations that would help adversaries in Tehran, Moscow and Beijing.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Biden should back Mohammed’s efforts to modernize Saudi Arabia

“MBS has accelerated an economic and social transition that is necessary and should be encouraged. Eventually moving toward ‘normality’ will mean either revolution in Saudi Arabia, or a less authoritarian government. … Biden should support Saudi normalization, despite MBS’ murderous despotism.” — Annelle Sheline, Politico

The crown prince poses a long-term threat to the world if he’s not stopped

“I agree that it’s often necessary to engage even rulers with blood on their hands. But in this great balancing of values and interests, the towering risk is that M.B.S., who is just 35, will become king upon the death of his aging father and rule recklessly for many years, creating chaos in the Gulf and a rupture in Saudi-American relations that would last decades.” — Nicholas Kristof, New York Times

The U.S. could use the threat of punishment to promote freedom in Saudi Arabia

“Symbolic, selective releases are not nearly enough. If the Saudi royals are determined to protect the crown prince rather than sack him, as he deserves, a broader relaxation of regime controls on democratic rights must be the west’s price for continued normal relations.” — Editorial, Guardian

Decades of diplomacy can’t be reversed overnight

“Any fundamental changes in relations that are so long-standing, so entrenched and with deep support from both political parties can’t be made suddenly. It’s like an oil tanker; you can’t just turn it around.” — Political scientist Rajan Menon to Los Angeles Times

A weakened Saudi Arabia would be a threat to global stability

“The U.S. also needs the crown prince to advance his reform program to improve human rights, especially for women, and to diversify the Saudi economy. … If the reform program fails, Saudi Arabia will be left in a post-peak oil global marketplace without enough jobs for its very young population, without sufficient revenue to subsidize those young people, and with an existing cadre of Islamist extremist ideologues. This is a recipe for ISIS 2.0, and potentially, considering the Saudi-Iranian nuclear arms race, an ISIS 2.0 with nuclear weapons.” — Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner

Biden is being far more aggressive than Trump ever was

“Having enjoyed a very close relationship with the Trump administration, the Saudis are now getting just a taste of what could be a recalibrated relationship with the Biden administration. Biden will almost certainly not be looking to cause permanent damage to the US-Saudi relationship, but MBS will no longer have a free pass to murder his opponents outside of the kingdom, which is saying something.” — Peter Bergen, CNN

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images