Opinion: A nation of laws, not men?
Recently, in my Book Talk column that appears in the Wednesday edition of this newspaper, I posed a question asked by a fictional rabbi in a fictional book (“Button Man”) by fiction writer Andrew Gross: “What does it mean to be a good man?” Now I paraphrase that question in a broader and non-fictional context: “What does it mean to be a good country?”
Two U.S. Presidents have kowtowed to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman (affectionately known as MBS). There is no doubt on the part of U.S. intelligence agencies that MBS ordered the killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018, when he entered the consulate in Turkey. Earlier that day, a 15-member team arrived from Riyadh on two private Gulfstream jets and went to the consulate. The jets were owned by Sky Prime Aviation, a company controlled by MBS as part of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. One team member, Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, brought a bone saw.
Investigations of the Khashoggi’s death were conducted by the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions and, because Khashoggi was a citizen of the U.S, the F.B.I. Both concluded that the killing was premeditated murder and that the Saudi government attempted to cover up the assassination. In 2018, after the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that MBS had ordered Khashoggi’s assassination, U.S. President Donald Trump disputed the CIA assessment and expressed support for the Saudi prince.
In 2019, the Saudi government put 11 Saudis on trial for the murder of Khashoggi. Three were acquitted, three others were sentence to prison terms, and five were sentenced to death. However, all of those who had been sentenced to death were pardoned in 2020.
In February of this year, the Biden administration released a report which concluded that MBS had “approved” the operation to kill Mr. Khashoggi, a reporter for the Washington Post. After the report was made public, President Biden addressed the murder of Khoshoggi and other atrocities attributed to Saudi Arabia. He pledged, “We (are) going to, in fact, make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.”
The fist bump
A couple of days later, the White House confirmed that Biden would meet with MBS and that he would bring up the murder of Khashoggi. Biden backed up the White House memo by telling the press, “My views on Khashoggi have been made absolutely, positively clear, and I have never been quiet about asking about human rights.” However, when the two men met, they fist-bumped, a gesture that suggested friendship and camaraderie.
California’s member of Congress, Adam Schiff, tweeted, “If we ever needed a visual reminder of the continuing grip oil-rich autocrats have on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, we got it today. One fist bump is worth a thousand words.” In CNN’s The Point, Chris Cillizza followed up with, “The Saudis knew the world would be watching this meeting.”
A video of the fist bump was immediately circulated by Saudi sources. Cillizza said, “They wanted the rest of the Middle East, and the international community, to sit up and take notice of the favor they had been granted by the U.S. President.” Moreover, he noted, “Symbolism matters — deeply — in foreign affairs. Biden, from his many years in the Senate and his time as vice president, knows this. Which makes the fist bump decision all the more confounding.”
After being humiliated by the video, which circulated worldwide on news programs, Biden vowed to impose “consequences” on Saudi Arabia. He offered no specifics regarding what these penalties would be, and the White House has been quiet on the issue ever since.
Meanwhile, MBS consulted with Russian president Vladimir Putin, who needs to keep the price of oil high in order to finance his war against Ukraine. Then, according to The Guardian, the Saudi prince convinced the OPEC cartel to cut oil production by two million barrels a day. That will mean higher fuel prices this winter.
Last month, the Biden administration told a U.S. judge that MBS should be granted sovereign immunity in a civil lawsuit over his role in the grisly murder of the U.S. journalist. The State Department said that the U.S. “takes no view on the merits of the present suit and reiterates its unequivocal condemnation of the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Writing for The Guardian, Mohamad Bazzi opined, “That decision effectively ends one of the last efforts to hold the prince accountable for Khashoggi’s assassination by a Saudi hit team inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul….”
The killing of Khoshoggi
According to numerous sources, the Tiger Squad from Saudi Arabia arrived and departed on Sky Prime Aviation on the same day that Khoshoggi disappeared from the Turkish consulate. It had specific instructions concerning the demise of the Washington Post journalist. One source reported that the team returned to Saudi Arabia with Khoshoggi’s fingers, proof to MBS that the mission had been successful.
The Middle East Eye reported that an anonymous source in the Turkish militia said that the killing took about seven minutes. There was no discussion with Khashoggi and no interrogation. The source said, “Khashoggi was dragged from consul general Mohammad al-Otaibi’s office at the Saudi consulate….” Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, the team member who brought the bone saw, “began to cut Khoshoggi’s body up on a table in the study while he was still alive.” Later, a different Turkish source said that the hit team was seen dragging three garbage bags and a rolling suitcase to the area where the jets awaited their departure.
Mission accomplished. Fist bump.
In so many ways, I know that the U.S. is a good country. But it is said that there is always an exception that makes the rule. And the way that the political machines operate makes me wonder if we’ll ever have the opportunity to elect a good woman or a good man to lead us.
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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.