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  • Writer's pictureMaia Harrison

Death of journalist sparks foreign policy crisis in Washington

On the 2nd of October, prominent journalist and critic of the Saudi Arabian government, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and has not been seen since.

Yesterday, it was established that he was killed during a brutal interrogation in the consulate – and as a result all eyes have turned to Saudi Arabia as the culprit. Indeed, American intelligence officials are increasingly convinced that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan (of Saudi Arabia) is culpable in this killing – an accusation that proves dramatic to Trump’s White House which is intent on maintaining a close relationship with this kingdom. Khashoggi was a self-exiled Saudi journalist and wrote a column in the Washington post. He opposed many of the policies put forward by Prince Mohammed, and served as editor for the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al Watan, turning it into a platform for Saudi Arabian progressives.

Protests in Washington over Khashoggi's death

There is building circumstantial evidence of the Prince’s involvement – members of his security detail were present and plans by Saudi officials to detain Khashoggi have been intercepted. Furthermore, the fact that the prince has almost complete control over his security services means that it is highly unlikely that such an operation would have been conducted entirely without his knowledge.

At this stage, American intelligence agencies are presenting a report on Prince Mohammed to present to Trump to inform his response. However, intelligence reports only form one piece of the puzzle in determining policy towards matters of national security. Trump is the one that must decide what is best to do in the interests of the American people, and can decide that he is unpersuaded by the evidence currently being put forward. As it stands, Trump has claimed that “it sounded to me like maybe these could have been rogue killers,” adding, “Who knows?”. He also provided no evidence backing this comment and it has since been undermined and widely discredited.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also conducted a trip to the region – a trip that has ultimately failed to provide an immediate diplomatic resolution to this crisis. Pompeo held a private meeting with Prince Mohammed, where the Prince claimed that an investigation is underway, and Pompeo’s final plea to the Saudis was to complete the investigation with transparency.

Pompeo’s trip to the Kingdom has been appraised for two main reasons. Firstly, his meeting with the Prince has been criticised by a former senior administration official for being highly scripted and making no threats or ultimatums. Secondly, and perhaps most pressingly, he is quoted saying “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts. They don’t want to either”. This response was quickly condemned by Samantha Power, an official who served in the Obama administration who said “The fact that the Saudis “didn’t want to” talk about the facts is to be expected. The fact that a representative of the United States didn’t want to talk about the facts is a tragedy”.

The mounting evidence of official Saudi involvement has threatened the Trump administration with a serious foreign policy crisis. The USA and Saudi Arabia have an important trade relationship, with the Kingdom notably spending billions of dollars on American weapons. They also play a critical role in the Trump administration’s efforts to isolate Iran and maintain security for Israel.

In my opinion, Washington has a duty to insist on a credible, prompt, and transparent investigation. We have seen that the Trump administration has not acted in a proactive way, nor have they taken direct or serious action, as shown by Pompeo’s “meeting” and disinterest in facts.

Freedom of the press is a sure defence against oppression and it is tragic and upsetting that many courageous journalists are killed with their persecutors, in Khashoggi’s case, acting with impunity. Despite Trump’s claims that journalists are the “enemies of the people”, it is absurd that his allies in Saudi Arabia are standing accused of a gruesome murder. Khashoggi was not a terrorist. He was not a spy. He was not a luckless civilian, caught in the cross-hairs of a bombing or raid. Instead, he was a public intellectual whose only crime was liberal political sympathies. The only alternative to not bringing the culprits to justice is then for Washington to become a bystander – standing by as journalists are tortured and dismembered. It could also bring about further repercussions on a global scale – making it impossible for the US to condemn such violations of human rights by countries such as Russia, whose trading relationships are not nearly as profitable.

Justice should be dealt to the culprit of such a crime. Nicholas Burns, a senior State Department official in the George W. Bush administration expressed it best in his powerful claim that “We have more important interests at stake. We can’t afford to have a business-as-usual attitude. This is a time to be stern with [Mohammed bin Sultan], to disavow his government’s crime and to sanction Saudi Arabia.”

“Our credibility as a democracy is at stake”

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