By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Biden flinches after report ties Saudi leader to the murder of a journalist

Photo (cc) 2019 by POMED

On Friday, shortly after the Biden administration declassified documents tying the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Society of Professional Journalists released statements urging President Joe Biden to take action.

Sadly, Biden flinched, imposing a variety of lesser sanctions but leaving Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman alone — even though Biden, during the 2020 campaign, had referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” state with “no redeeming social value.” As the Post reported:

The Biden administration will impose no direct punishment on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite the conclusion of a long-awaited intelligence report released Friday that he “approved” the operation, administration officials said.

Here’s what the Committee to Protect Journalists had to say before it became clear that Biden was not going to do anything to punish MBS, as the crown prince is known:

“By releasing this intelligence report, President Joe Biden’s administration has reinforced what we have long believed: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said CPJ Senior Middle East and North Africa Researcher Justin Shilad. “Now, the U.S. and its allies should sanction the crown prince and other royal court members to show the world that there are tangible consequences for assassinating journalists, no matter who you are.”

And here’s the Society of Professional Journalists:

“Many Americans have now read — and all should read — the four-page declassified intelligence report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Matthew T. Hall, SPJ national president. “Seeing its conclusions in print under government letterhead make me angry all over again. This reprehensible action needs a strong response from the Biden administration. We appreciate Biden Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s recent assurances that ‘a range of actions’ are ‘on the table.’ But we hope the president chooses one quickly and decisively to send the message to Saudi Arabian leaders and people everywhere that the killing of a journalist is unacceptable anywhere on this planet.”

(My emphasis above.)

Sadly, Biden’s actions parallel those of his predecessor, Donald Trump, although for different reasons. Trump didn’t care; Biden is too tied up in outmoded considerations about alliances and interests, such the supposed need to placate Saudis so they’ll help us in our confrontation with Iran.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof puts it:

It’s precisely because Saudi Arabia is so important that Biden should stand strong and send signals — now, while there is a window for change — that the kingdom is better off with a new crown prince who doesn’t dismember journalists.

Friday was the worst day so far for President Biden — and for anyone who cares about the U.S. commitment to human rights and to the fate of journalists at the hands of repressive governments.

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  1. nahantjim

    I don’t think it was a “flinch,” Dan.

    I understand your reaction and I was less than enthusiastic about Biden’s actions until I read Heather Cox Richardson’s take on it. The goal of our response to the situation there should not be geared to get cheers and atta-boys. We have a diplomatic situation in a dangerously tense part of the world. In her daily newsletter Richardson’s account is more insightful than much of the coverage.

    “…he Office of the Director of National Intelligence today released its assessment of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018…The DNI placed blame for the murder on Saudi Arabia’s current crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, whose name is often abbreviated as MBS.
    By law, the Trump administration was supposed to release the intelligence community’s assessment of the killing, but it refused. In her confirmation hearings, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines promised she would do so. The report was delayed until President Biden could speak to King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, the king of Saudi Arabia. MBS is the king’s son and is the third crown prince Salman has named since becoming king in 2015. Biden has made it a point to refuse to communicate with MBS, despite the Trump administration’s willingness to treat him as the country’s de facto ruler. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner apparently considered MBS a friend. Biden will speak only with the king.
    The readout of the conversation said Biden spoke with the king ‘to address the longstanding partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia.’ They discussed ending the war in Yemen, ‘and affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.’ Earlier this month, Biden ended U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s military engagement in Yemen, a fight launched by MBS, which has led to a humanitarian crisis there. The Trump administration’s huge arms sales to Saudi Arabia, including top-line F-35 fighters, were widely seen as a way to support the Saudi war effort; Biden has frozen the sales for review.
    Now he has added sanctions to the former deputy Saudi intelligence chief and to the Saudi Royal Guard’s rapid intervention force, whose members have been identified as those behind the murder. Their assets in the U.S. are frozen, and they cannot deal with Americans. The U.S. also restricted the visas of 76 Saudi citizens and some of their family members.
    Also yesterday, Biden launched an air strike against the facilities of Iran-backed militias in Syria that have been launching rocket attacks against U.S. targets in Iraq. When asked today what message he was sending, he said: ‘You can’t act with impunity. Be careful.’”
    MBS, the perp, has been cut off from access to the President and perhaps to the Secretary of State as well. We have halted support of MBS’s war in Yemen and treated it as the humanitarian disaster that it is. At the same time our response to Iran has been proportionate, understanding that wrong moves by us could increase support for the worst elements in that complicated place.
    On reflection I find Biden’s actions (at this point) solid, devoid of showboating, restrained but pointed. My reaction…mildly enthusiastic from a diplomatic point of view and still deeply saddened by the Saudi actions.

    • Steve Ross

      Agreed. I think the Biden folks have been clever. When Biden cut off support for the war in Yeman, two former associates (a journalist who once taught in Yeman and a banker in Kuweit) both reacted exactly the same way: “Remember that report on Koshoggi murder that Trump bottled up? Now you can expect it to be released in a few weeks and it will be damning.”

      Allowing for the conspiracy-laced mentality of the Middle East elite, I suspect Biden has already taken more action than they expected. Deft hand, no matter what the DC-oriented pundits think.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @nahantjim: I had already read Richardson before I wrote. My takeaway was that she was giving Biden a pass, which I’m not willing to do.

    • Thank you, @nahantjim! I wrote my comment before reading yours and we are in complementary agreement.

  2. Biden is less of an imperial president than Trump was, and you should expect him to take a while consulting with the DOD (who is entangled with the Saudis) and State at the least on a coordinated response. Please don’t judge him based on Trump’s impulsivity.

    Having worked with CPJ as close allies in my last job before retirement, I’m sure they understand, and even if they come out with further negative reviews of his inaction they will be doing it to keep up pressure. The same pressure that produced nothing (including these documents and the truth) in the last administration.

    As a journalist it’s important to transcend the surface reading of events to look for what is going on behind them. Biden would not have released these documents unless his intent was to put pressure on the Saudis, and take a serious stance. It’s a signal, and what follows is diplomacy so it doesn’t end up destabilizing things even worse in, say, Yemen.

    The one man, who is dead, would not want his place in history to be remembered as the catalyst for the slaughter of thousands in Yemen or elsewhere in MENA. Be patient.

    Real life is complicated, and MENA more so — and not a passion play with stark good guys and bad guys.

    Cardboard figures? That’s how people like QAnon think. The press, even in analysis, can’t set a similar example as the 4th Estate.

    We have to transcend the popularity of immediate anger.

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