Since the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared details from the police investigation, including descriptions of audio recordings that reveal he was dismembered, have been leaked, drip by drip, to keep the world suspended as the mystery unfolds.
The calculated media strategy has proved remarkably effective for the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ensuring that the case remains front-page news around the world.
But it has also served a deeper agenda — to push the United States to pressure Saudi Arabia — while shielding the government behind the news media to avoid an open and potentially damaging diplomatic rupture with the Saudis.
From the start, reports of the existence of the audio recordings were brandished almost as a threat by Turkish officials and pro-government news outlets, evidently to maintain pressure on Saudi Arabia, but also on the Trump administration, to resolve the issue to Turkey’s taste.
Political analysts noted that Mr. Erdogan seemed to increase the pressure by releasing descriptions of audio recordings after it appeared that President Trump would offer cover to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, known as M.B.S., by promoting the Saudi line that the death had been the work of “rogue killers.”
“Erdogan had hoped that Trump and the Saudis would take the exit path of throwing someone senior under the bus,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But when Trump starting trending toward defending M.B.S., Erdogan released more details to build pressure on them.”
Still more details of the investigation emerged, as the police extended their search to three locations in and around Istanbul where, according to a Turkish official, vehicles from the Saudi Consulate were seen driving in the hours after Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. The official spoke on the condition that he not be named because of diplomatic proprieties.
The abiding irony of Mr. Khashoggi’s case is that, while pushing out details of the case to chosen outlets, Mr. Erdogan’s government has itself been openly hostile to independent journalists. So, has Mr. Trump, if not nearly to the same degree.
American presidents have periodically engaged in cover-ups of their own corruption or licentiousness, but President Trump is breaking new ground. He is using the United States government to cover up a foreign despot’s barbarism.
As someone who knew Jamal Khashoggi for more than 15 years, I’m outraged at the reports that a Saudi team of royal thugs beat, drugged and murdered Jamal — even cutting off his fingers, presumably because that’s what he wrote with — and then dismembered him with a bone saw. But I’m equally outraged at the pathetic White House response.
In the past, Trump repeatedly denounced President Barack Obama for having bowed to a Saudi king. But today Trump is not just bowing to a king; he’s kowtowing to a mad prince. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as M.B.S., has repeatedly manipulated Trump and Jared Kushner, for he knows how to push Americans’ buttons, and now it’s happening again: Trump is helping whitewash what appears to be the Saudi Arabian torture-murder of an international journalist.
At least four of the alleged killers have ties to M.B.S., The Times has reported, and anybody who knows Saudi Arabia knows that this brazen attack could never have happened without M.B.S.’s approval.
Maybe we shouldn’t write columns when we’re upset. But this atrocity is infuriating as well as heartbreaking: If the reports are true, it happened in part because American officials — and many others in their bipartisan gushing over M.B.S. — enabled a reckless ruler, helped him gain and consolidate power, and led him to think that he could get away with anything. Trump and Kushner cultivated M.B.S. early on as a potential ally, inviting him to dine in the White House and backing him as he rose to effectively run his country.
M.B.S. attacked Yemen, creating what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, bombing schoolchildren and leaving eight million Yemenis on the brink of starvation — and there were no consequences. He provoked a crisis with Qatar, and there were no consequences. He kidnapped the prime minister of Lebanon, and there were no consequences. He imprisoned women’s rights activists and extorted from business leaders, and there were no consequences.
If M.B.S. can do all this and still be applauded as reverently as ever in America, it’s no wonder he thought he could get away with dismembering a troublesome journalist. And if there are no serious consequences this time as well, even now that his moniker is said to stand for “Mr. Bone Saw,” what will M.B.S. do next?
The truth is that for decades, we have enabled Saudi Arabian misconduct, including the extremist education and terrorist financing that contributed to the 9/11 attacks. We stood by as Saudi Arabia seeded fanatical madrasas in places like West Africa, Pakistan and Indonesia, gravely destabilizing poor parts of the world. In fairness, Saudi Arabia has made progress in some areas, including its financing of terrorism, but it remains despotic, intolerant and misogynist.
Franklin Roosevelt supposedly once described a Nicaraguan dictator as “a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch,” and that may be how some Americans see M.B.S. But M.B.S. duped Americans. He talks a good game but didn’t deliver on his promise to buy $110 billion in weapons, didn’t back the Trump peace plan for the Middle East and hasn’t managed to take the Saudi oil company Aramco public.
But, here’s the rub. While Trump is clearly in M.B.S.’s pocket, Trump had a conversation with Erdogan last week and agreed to withdraw troops from Syria (and by default stop supporting the YPG kurds, who have been a ‘royal’ pain in the butt for Erdogan (and Turkey)). And suddenly there is silence on Khashoggi.
Erdogan’s drip feed media blitz on Khashoggi’s death, has stopped! Trump, it seems, made a deal to protect the Saudi crown prince from humiliation; in exchange for troop withdrawal.
All the Adults (a.k.a. the generals) in the room have been successively trying to stop Trump from ‘impulsive’ moves – like the troop withdrawal from Syria. Now they are gone. And Trump made the ‘deal’! He has protected M.B.S. in exchange for the U.S. troop withdrawal.
Its sick, I know. But the silence is deafening.