Anything Is Possible in the Middle East
Welcome to the Middle East, which invented negotiations and where nothing is at it seems.
Conventional wisdom says that Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was a critic of the current Saudi regime and disappeared from the Saudi embassy in Istanbul a few days ago, was tortured and killed by a “hit team,” after which his body was dismembered and disposed of at the order of the Saudi crown prince. Leaks of supposed recordings of the murder and actual surveillance tapes purport to “prove” all this. The Saudis at first denied everything, but then there were leaks that they were supposedly trying to come up with an alternative explanation — like perhaps Khashoggi died in an interrogation gone bad, or maybe a group of “rogue killers” did it. So now they are “investigating.”
Leaked video shows the “hit team” arriving at the airport in Turkey and also shows one of the members outside the embassy the same day Khashoggi disappeared. Another of the entourage has died in what the media is calling a “suspicious car accident,” and the Saudi consul in Istanbul, who supposedly is on tape acknowledging the murder, has returned to Saudi Arabia and is incommunicado. Local media is speculating that he will be the next to die because the “Crown Prince will do anything to bury the evidence.”
The Washington Post published Khashoggi’s last column yesterday, which blasted the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular, for silencing media criticism in Soviet Iron Curtain fashion. To date, all we know is that Khashoggi has not been heard from in some time. It is believed he is dead, but no one knows for sure.
The crown prince is a controversial figure in Saudi Arabia, to say the least. He is a young guy who is trying to take the reins of power and bring reform to the country. The most visible examples of this are his outreach to the U.S. and others to offer cooperation in a potential coalition to confront Iran, battling terrorism, and soliciting economic participation to diversify his country away from its reliance on oil. He is also beginning to push for cultural reforms, such as increasing women’s rights and encouraging free speech (which makes it ironic that he is being accused of killing a dissenting journalist). He put dozens of Saudi royal family hangers-on in jail for a time and confiscated some of their assets, claiming they were ill-gotten. Most importantly, he is taking steps to reduce the influence of Islamic religious extremists. None of this is sitting well with the old guard.
He and President Donald Trump have bonded, and Trump sees the new Saudi as an increasingly significant partner and a barrier to Iran. Trump at first came out strongly against Saudi Arabia on the suspicion that Khashoggi had been killed, but has since backed off, waiting on the full investigation. He sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to have a chat with the Saudis. The media has claimed Trump cares only about the relationship with Saudi Arabia and oil money, not about the killing of journalists. The media is even trying to imply a link between Trump and the suspected hit team because one of those on video is the Saudi who came to Trump during the campaign to offer dirt on Hillary Clinton.
The latest media meme is that the investigation is a sham, and the delay is all about coming up with some cover story that can get the crown prince off the hook. Even Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) is raging about being duped by the Saudis whom he went to bat for on Capitol Hill, and he wants severe sanctions or perhaps rescinded arms deals or the severing of diplomatic relations. The media has trotted out its favorite term for what Trump is facing — crisis — and is loving every minute of what it sees as a lose-lose situation for Trump and an opportunity to drive a wedge between the two countries that are front and center in dismantling Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal. Not to mention taking the wind out of the GOP sails just in time for the midterms.
That about covers the state of play. Or does it? Consider some alternative explanations that in the land of the triplethink may not be all that farfetched. It would make no sense for the crown prince to order this hit job. The odds are it could not be kept quiet, and he is media-savvy enough to know what the reaction from the West would be. The propaganda gift it would send to Western media would undermine everything he is trying to do. To be sure, he may be faking his reform moves and just wants to consolidate power. But I don’t think so.
On the other hand, it would make perfect sense for some Saudis who are none too pleased with the prince to set him up to be seen as the mastermind. I know that surveillance cameras are everywhere, but the 15-person “hit team” was videoed landing at the airport. You don’t have to have graduated from James Bond School to know that if you were going to assassinate someone and hope to get away with it, you might have made a less conspicuous entry into the country and maybe used fewer actors or scattered them around. It is also a tad eyebrow-raising that there supposedly is a recording of the murder that magically finds its way to the media along with leaks that Team Trump is working with the prince to concoct a cover story. It’s all a bit too convenient for me.
But the narrative has taken on a life of its own, which makes anything short of a signed confession by the prince look like a whitewash. My guess is that one of two things happened. Either there is a true “rogue group” and some fall guys will be held accountable, or there was an attempt to question Khashoggi (which may have been authorized by the prince) and he suffered some medical incident, which would require some colleague of the prince to take the fall. The problem with that one is the body has supposedly been disposed of, and that would need to be justified as a panic move.
Either way, Trump has to come across as tough, or else he and the GOP will be crucified in the media just before the midterms. But that doesn’t mean that he can’t participate in whatever story of plausible deniability the prince lands on. It just might be that Trump and Pompeo are holding out their support for this while letting the “investigation” play out, while at the same time using it as a negotiating opportunity to extract more concessions from the Saudis. Maybe even Graham is in on it.
Threading the needle between the media and the Saudis is challenging, but this is what Trump does. Taking advantage of a negotiating opportunity, acting tough, and even threatening the prince but eventually letting him off the hook in return for a real politic set of goodies might not make the purists happy, but it might be the best thing to advance the national interests of the U.S. Certainly not conventional wisdom, but in the Middle East, anything is possible.