It’s as if we are living in a James Bond movie but with one small difference: These events are real. A Saudi journalist walked into his country’s embassy in Turkey, we learn, and never came out. He entered at 1:14 p.m. Oct. 2, around the time he had been instructed to come, to pick up papers that would enable him to wed his Turkish fiancée. The wedding was scheduled for the next day. She was waiting outside in the car for him to re-emerge. There is video of him entering the building but none of him leaving. She waits outside but in vain. She does not see him again.
The journalist, we continue to learn, is Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident in his country and critic of the royal family who felt sufficiently at risk to leave and move to the United States. He lived in Virginia and was a Saudi contributor to the Washington Post, for which he said he could write freely. Khashoggi was good friends with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In addition to the video at the Saudi Consulate, there are further videos of two Saudi charter planes landing at the Istanbul airport the preceding night and that same day. Those disembarking were 15 men, all apparently known to the Turkish officials as members of Saudi intelligence. One was identified as an autopsy specialist who carried a bone saw. They all came to the embassy. Late in the afternoon, all reboarded the planes and returned to Saudi Arabia.
Turkish authorities claim to have video and audio showing that Khashoggi was killed in his country’s embassy and his body dismembered. To date, they have not shown the evidence, claiming they do not want to expose intelligence sources. Until now the Saudi government has denied any knowledge or connection with the events in the embassy but has in the last couple of days changed its story. As a result, it now suggests that the journalist was accidentally killed while being interrogated.
Aside from the morbid fascination with these events, why should we in the United States care? We are directly involved because Khashoggi, though still a Saudi Arabian citizen, lived here and was a well-known columnist. Further, Saudi Arabia is a fulcrum of President Donald Trump’s Mideast policy, both in the context of any Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, in the Middle East wars and also in our effort to diminish the influence of Iran. In addition, the Saudis buy billions of dollars of military arms from us and play a major role in the supply chain of oil. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is known to have cultivated a close relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is effectively controlling the government. In the past, members of the Bush family too, while in office, were closely tied to the Saudi royals.
Now prominent members of Congress are urging Trump to impose economic sanctions on Saudi Arabia. Trump is caught between all of the previously given reasons not to alienate the Saudi government, and the outrage and disgust of world leaders at a possible grisly murder that is assumed to have been authorized by “MBS” — how the crown prince is known. Revulsion is plain to see as some corporate leaders have withdrawn from a global economic conference, the Future Investment Initiative — known as “Davos in the Desert” — that is scheduled in Riyadh for next week. The conference is seen as something of a prestigious triumph for MBS.
So far, Trump has offered the suggestion that “rogue killers” may be responsible for the possible murder, even as he threatened “severe punishment” if the Saudi royal family were found to be involved. Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, is still slated to participate in the conference. A decision on his going is expected by Friday.
So what will carry the day here, humanitarian or political concerns? Will the world move on, forgetting a single journalist in the interests of Machiavellian gain? Or will there be an honest, vigorous investigation as this morality tale plays out across the globe?