WASHINGTON - The top American diplomat Mike Pompeo appears visibly satisfied with his mission to Riyadh, dubbing it “incredibly successful.”
But to what end? So far, the United States has given the impression that it is prioritizing giving Saudi leaders a way out after the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
U.S. President Donald Trump sounded upset as the hypothesis that the journalist — a critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who went missing after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 — was murdered grew increasingly plausible.
The Republican leader threatened the Gulf kingdom with “severe punishment” if it was found culpable.
But he has since softened the rhetoric, coming out strongly against halting arms sales to the Saudis and emphasizing the denials of King Salman and Prince Mohammed, widely known as MBS, who claim not to know what happened.
In that context Pompeo went Tuesday to Riyadh, flashing wide smiles as he stood next to the king as well as the crown prince, who is suspected of being behind Khashoggi’s death.
The U.S. secretary of state said he discussed with Saudi leaders “the importance of the investigation, completing it in a timely fashion, and making sure that it was sufficiently transparent that we could evaluate the work that had been done to get to the bottom of it.”
“We received commitments that they would complete this, and I am counting on them to do that,” Pompeo said.
But on whether the journalist had died, Pompeo said “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts.
“They didn’t want to either,” he said.
The diplomat’s attitude has left many in Washington cringing.
“A Saudi investigation isn’t credible,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, who directs the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the Rand Corporation.
“Congress should be calling for intl independent probe and not accept Trump/Pompeo inclination to give Saudis a pass,” she tweeted.
Many in Washington suspect the government is seeking to provide cover to Saudi leaders.
“Why is the Trump administration cleaning up Saudi Arabia’s mess?” wondered the editorial board of The Washington Post, a daily that Khashoggi had published in.
“The U.S. is organizing a diplomatic cleanup operation for MBS and (his) regime,” said Simon Henderson, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“As a White House level, apparently good,” he said of U.S. relations with MBS.
The sequence of events has proved striking: on Monday, the U.S. president mentioned the possibility that “rogue killers” may have been behind the disappearance.
Shortly thereafter, media reported that Riyadh would recognize that an interrogation of the journalist went wrong. And then, Saudi Arabia promised Washington that the culprits would be held accountable.
But Trump holds he is “not at all” giving the oil-rich U.S. ally cover.
According to Henderson, “the president almost certainly would prefer to preserve the relationship and avoid Saudi retaliation.”
“They could cut oil production, but this will hit them hard economically,” he told AFP.
And according to Trump, Saudi Arabia remains a vital partner.
“You know we need Saudi Arabia in terms of our fight against all of the terrorism, everything that’s happening in Iran and other places,” he said.
The Sunni kingdom is indeed a cornerstone of the U.S. effort to thwart regional influence from Shiite Iran.
The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has forged a close relationship with MBS, has even envisioned a Middle East in which the Saudis aligned with Israel against Iran.
The Trump administration has remained silent over allegations against the powerful crown prince, including a purge of dozens of people last year that the royal family justified as an anti-corruption effort.
The “cleanup operation” underway is “only a Band-Aid to what looks like a much bigger problem,” said researcher Henderson.
“The bigger problem is how to contain MBS in the longer term,” he said.
Analyst Dassa Kaye doubts that the “rogue killer defense” will satisfy U.S. members of Congress, who have vowed actions over the feared killing, with some calling for sanctions.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, an influential ally of Trump, called for MBS’s ouster, labeling him “a wrecking ball” who “had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey.”
Last week, top senators including Graham sent a letter compelling the White House to report to Congress within 120 days with a determination about whether human rights abuses had occurred, and whether sanctions should be applied.