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Biden and Khashoggi

Justice demands more.
February 26, 2021
Biden and Khashoggi
Protesters demonstrate on Capitol Hill October 22, 2018 in Washington, DC following the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Friday afternoon the Biden administration gave Congress the long-awaited declassified report on the 2018 murder of Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The report names Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman as the architect for Khashoggi’s murder.

The report notes MBS’s “absolute control” of Saudi intelligence and security operations, and tells in detail how MBS orchestrated the assassination.

On Thursday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price had told reporters in advance of the release, “I expect that we will be in a position before long to speak to steps to promote accountability going forward for this horrific crime.”

We will see.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter launched a rescue mission to save 52 American hostages being held in Iran. The effort failed. The U.S. military did not have enough operational helicopters to secure the hostages. One of the helicopters crashed. Another had problems with the desert sand. Military leaders urged Carter to call off the op. He did. On April 29,1980 Carter admitted the failure and accepted responsibility for it. But even this aspect of the operation got screwed up. A minute into his speech he claimed there had been a “deeper failure than that of incomplete success.”

After that grim moment, the term “incomplete success” took on a life of its own. I remember a college football coach using it—with tongue firmly planted in his cheek—to describe a lopsided loss to Nebraska my freshman year of college.

I hadn’t thought of the phrase “incomplete success” for a long time—until Jen Psaki walked into the Brady Briefing room on Thursday to describe President Joe Biden’s handling of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Over the past year, Joe Biden had often condemned the killing of Khashoggi and criticized the Trump administration for hiding the intelligence report, sending Jared to molly-coddle MBS, and avoiding taking any action to hold the kingdom accountable. As president, Trump had said there’d be no sanctions because he valued the monetary relationship the United States had with Saudi Arabia.

But from inauguration until this Thursday, there had been barely a mention of Khashoggi from the Biden administration. There was not even confirmation of when there would be a conversation between the new president and the king of Saudi Arabia.

When asked about possible sanctions on Saudi Arabia on Thursday, Psaki said:

I think there are a range of actions that are on the table, but the first step is—the next step, I should say, is for the president to speak with the king. We expect that to happen very soon. As you know, we’ve committed to the release of an unclassified report that would come out from DNI and not from the White House. And, of course, our administration is focused on recalibrating the relationship, as we’ve talked about in here previously, and certainly there are areas where we will express concerns and leave open the option of accountability. There are also areas where we will continue to work with Saudi Arabia, given the threats they face in the region.

Psaki also said that a conversation between the two men would “happen very soon,” but said that reports confirming the call would take place were “inaccurate.”

But less than four hours later the White House released a readout of a phone call from President Biden to King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud—which evidently did occur Thursday, despite Psaki’s demurral. The five sentence readout made no mention of Khashoggi, but noted that Biden and the king talked about the American commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory “as it faces attacks from Iranian-aligned groups.” It also noted that Biden had affirmed the importance of respecting “universal human rights” and the rule of law.

On Friday Psaki gaggled with reporters on Air Force One as President Biden headed to Houston. Again she refused to speak directly about Khashoggi. She did say the president and officials “at every level” have publicly “raised concerns about human rights abuses” in Saudi Arabia. Which is vague enough to mean everything or nothing.

Biden’s phone call with the king this week could have been a way of giving the Kingdom an advanced warning that sanctions were in the works. It could’ve been a way for the president to solidify that America still has an economic relationship with the Kingdom. It could have been a conversation related to the American air strikes against Iranian forces in Syria. It could have been a lot of things. But the one thing it wasn’t was an outright condemnation of an extra-legal assassination.

When I was a young reporter at the White House, Helen Thomas told me that few people understand what it is reporters do—or why what we do matters. But that we do it anyway.

In America, reporters know that while it’s unlikely that they will die in the course of their work, it does happen. And we are painfully aware that outside of America, reporters operate under threats so constant and terrible that many people can’t even really conceive of them.

What many people also fail to understand is that repressive actions against reporters are a tip-of-the iceberg indicator of what the regime is willing to do to the rest of its subjects.

Strategic alliances are bigger than any one man, or one incident, even. But even strategic allies have to be kept honest. Because a hyperpower such as America has many such relationships to manage. And if we signal that there is no price to be paid for these sorts of crimes, then there will be more of them. And the strains on our strategic network will increase.

The Biden administration should officially condemn the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and impose some consequence on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its crown prince.

Precedents matter. And geostrategic stability rests on establishing a firm understanding of what America will, and will not, tolerate.

What happened to Khashoggi could happen to us all—if we do not stand up and make those responsible for the crime accountable for it.

Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy magazine. He successfully sued Donald Trump to keep his press pass after Trump tried to suspend it. He has also gone to jail to defend a reporter's right to keep confidential sources.