Murderers Should Be Called Murderers

Frequently and to their faces

A banner of Jamal Khashoggi.
BULENT KILIC / AFP / Getty

About the author: Graeme Wood is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

Today the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released its report on the murder of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. If the report were the denouement of a dinner-theater murder mystery, most of the audience would be so confident of the conclusion that they would already be walking out to the parking lot. The crown prince ordered it. In the consulate. With the bone saw. Even the Saudi government admits most of these details—with the exception of the claim that the order to kill came from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 35-year-old de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.

The public version of the report is barely longer than a page and contains no real secrets. It answers none of the outstanding questions about Khashoggi’s assassination: Why did the Saudis kill Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate—the one building in Istanbul where no one could doubt that the perpetrators were Saudis? Why didn’t they send a lone, untraceable gunman to shoot him dead in the street? Instead, they sent a kill squad approximately the size of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The assassins flew on chartered aircraft, together, back to Riyadh. In identifying Bin Salman as the figure responsible, the report hedges slightly, confirming only what we already knew: that bin Salman ran a tight operation, and those who killed Khashoggi were loyal to him. It is therefore “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”

The most important questions unanswered by the report are moral and political. How many dead dissidents is too many? Khashoggi wrote columns for The Washington Post (or he at least signed them; the Post has reported that staff at an organization funded by Saudi Arabia’s regional rival Qatar proposed and even drafted some columns), and as a fellow writer, I put a hard limit on murdered journalists at zero.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Saudi Arabia should expect a “recalibration” in bilateral relations. The implication of this statement is that the knobs that govern that recalibration can be turned more than a smidgen in either direction without wreaking havoc on other American foreign-policy interests in the region. In some ways, those relations have never been better: Bin Salman’s violence against political opponents coexists with a dramatic expansion of the social freedoms available to Saudis (including Saudi women), as well as a diversification of the economy away from oil. The crown prince has branded those improvements as his own, and has made them over the objections of other royals. They will be the hostage of any reset. If he goes, they go too.

What would recalibration look like? First, banish any thought of formal punishment by Saudi Arabia itself. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, in the true premodern sense, and bin Salman is the law. Remember all of the legal dickering in the United States about whether the Department of Justice could indict a sitting president? A Saudi prosecution of the crown prince for murder would involve a legal short-circuit; the crown prince cannot prosecute himself, any more than he can tickle himself or sneak up on himself. Absolute monarchy is a terrible system of government for precisely this reason. If bin Salman is someday in a position to be prosecuted, it will be because the Saudi monarchy has been overthrown—and in that case, he will have much more serious issues than the Khashoggi affair.

Then consider the more realistic options. The United States could implore Saudi Arabia’s ruler, the 85-year-old King Salman, to demote Mohammed bin Salman and remove him from the line of succession. (“The message to the Saudis has to be to get rid of this guy,” Sarah Leah Whitson, a colleague of Khashoggi, told The New York Times.) This option brings us only millimeters closer to reality. In the almost four years since bin Salman officially ascended to the role of crown prince, he has relentlessly hacked at the legs of all who might step in as his rival. These include, most prominently, the very princes who would have served nicely as alternatives to bin Salman. He sidelined and arrested Mohammed bin Nayef, his predecessor as crown prince and a favorite of Western spy agencies; Khashoggi’s patron, the former intelligence chief and diplomat Turki bin Faisal, was never close to the throne, but he too found himself jettisoned to the outer orbits of power. Bin Salman has spent his rule eliminating alternatives, and killing Khashoggi was part of that process.

If bin Salman has rendered himself indispensable, can the United States at least make him regret his crimes? The Department of the Treasury announced further sanctions against members of Bin Salman’s circle. To sanction him personally would entail the mother of all Magnitsky Act designations. The many foreign officials designated under the act as human-rights offenders—and therefore barred from all business in the United States—do not include anyone like bin Salman, who is both a man and a state. What does it mean to sanction the absolute monarch of a country that does $28 billion in trade with the U.S. and keeps the world’s energy markets supple and predictable? The United States now produces about 68 percent more oil than Saudi Arabia, and that undercuts Riyadh’s economic leverage. But Saudi Arabia still has, almost uniquely, the ability to open or close the throttle of its production at will, and that gives it market-determining powers that other countries, operating at full throttle, lack. We will miss those powers if they disappear because Saudi Arabia grows distant as a partner.

And then there is Saudi Arabia’s role as a geopolitical partner on the axis that runs from Cairo through Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy is sure to include greater engagement with this axis’s principal enemy, Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the great zero-sum relationship in U.S. policy in the Gulf—and now that we’re no longer pretending that Saudi Arabia isn’t killing its dissidents, Iran will enjoy the shift in favor. The shift need not be total: If the ideal number of murdered dissidents is zero, then Saudi Arabia is closer to that number than Iran. The Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen, a humanitarian catastrophe perpetrated in part with American weapons, needs to end as soon as possible, and one way to punish Mohammed bin Salman would be to pressure him to let it end with an Iranian victory. The consequence of that will probably be more Houthi missiles raining down on civilian airports in Saudi Arabia. A Houthi victory would also confirm the wisdom of Iran’s policy of waging war in its near-abroad—a policy that has (to date) left Syria, Yemen, and Iraq littered with corpses. The United States assassinated this policy’s architect, Qassem Soleimani, a little more than a year ago. Nudging bin Salman out of Yemen would honor his legacy.

Murderers should be called murderers—frequently, and to their face. Today the State department announced a tool called a “Khashoggi ban,” to bar travel to the United States by those who kill or harass journalists. These are welcome measures, but minor ones. The underlying geopolitical reality remains unchanged. And the reality in Saudi Arabia is that the United States is, not for the first or last time, stuck in a miserable situation, and the end of this sordid episode will probably be an American official shaking hands, once again, with a murderer.