Graeme Wood: Jamal Khashoggi’s murder remains a mystery
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.