Sherman contrasted the Trump administration’s response to the Khashoggi affair with the Obama administration’s response in 2011 to an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, D.C. The plot was uncovered following the arrest of an Iranian man who had traveled to New York from Mexico. Sherman said that the U.S. worked closely with Mexico and Saudi Arabia to determine what the facts were and shared them with the international community. “We had all of our embassies go in at the highest level possible with talking points that we got out within 24 hours so that we could build worldwide condemnation for such a daring, and irresponsible, and potentially catastrophic event,” Sherman said.
President Donald Trump has maintained that the U.S. will not suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia as a possible punishment for the alleged murder. Part of the reason for this is the fact that the kingdom plays a key role in the U.S. pressure campaign against Iran. It also maintains steady oil prices and supplies, and will support any eventual U.S. plan for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
As Christopher Hill, a veteran U.S. diplomat who served as the ambassador to Iraq, told me: “The U.S. has made it very clear that the administration has put all of its Middle East apples into this Saudi basket … To have this come out … about a close ally is highly problematic,” Hill said. While allies often behave problematically during conflicts, “the utter, apparently premeditated nature of this is not the same as having some hideous, awful situation in some distant village where it turns out the good guys are not so good,” he added.
Read: Why the U.S. can’t quit Saudi Arabia
“We continue to want to have a relationship with Saudi Arabia for strategic reasons, for geopolitical reasons, because the administration wants to push back against Iran’s malign behavior in the region,” Sherman said. “But you have to walk and chew gum in relationships.” She contrasted the Trump administration’s approach to the Obama administration engaging with Russia in nuclear negotiations with Iran while also sanctioning Moscow for invading Ukraine. “You have to be able to … manage what are always complex issues with countries, ones in which the ethical dimensions and the ethical dilemmas are often quite profound,” Sherman said.
The public face
At the outset, the Trump administration was tight-lipped in response to Khashoggi’s disappearance. Eventually, the White House expressed concern while ruling out a suspension of weapons sales to the kingdom. Trump said he was concerned at the reports of what had happened to Khashoggi. But the president also said he’d been assured that the Saudis knew nothing about it. He later suggested that “rogue” elements may have been behind the alleged killing. In an interview with the Associated Press on Tuesday, Trump appeared to compare the allegations of murder against Saudi Arabia to those of sexual assault made against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanuagh. The U.S. State Department, for its part, called for a full and transparent investigation into Khashoggi’s disappearance.