Codepink demonstrators hold photographs of journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)  

Trump’s Saudi Sanctions Seek to Show Outrage Without Harming Ties

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration’s sanctions against 17 Saudis implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi reflected a delicate balance: the need to acknowledge global outrage at the kingdom’s brazen behavior without rupturing ties with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It’s probably not enough.

Trump’s Saudi Sanctions Seek to Show Outrage Without Harming Ties

Critics in Congress, outside experts and even some U.S. government officials said that the measures announced on Thursday are only an initial step. And the timing of the U.S. move, coming hours after a Saudi prosecutor’s announcement, as well as the focus on officials already flagged by the kingdom, fueled skepticism about U.S. objectives.

“Justice for Jamal has become a broader litmus test of the Trump administration’s ability to conduct a Middle East foreign policy that reflects American values, and to deflect a perception of cronyism with Gulf rulers,” said Karen Young, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on the Middle East.

Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, noted that many of the people the U.S. sanctioned are imprisoned and some may be executed.

“The United States needs to project strength when dealing with Saudi Arabia,” Paul wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “We are pretending to do something and doing NOTHING.”

Later on Thursday, a bipartisan group of six senators proposed stronger penalties, including a suspension of arms sales, against the Riyadh government, in a challenge to the Trump administration.

Three Republicans -- Todd Young of Indiana, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine -- joined with Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire -- in backing the legislation.

Trump’s Saudi Sanctions Seek to Show Outrage Without Harming Ties

The administration’s latest restrictions were an escalation in one sense: They targeted an ally whose cooperation the U.S. needs to implement its broader strategy in the Middle East. Yet everything the administration has done so far in the case has left untouched the crown prince -- who many outside experts say must have been aware of the assassination plan, if not its instigator. Despite the newly proposed legislation, there’s been little serious talk of halting billions of dollars in U.S. weapons sales to the country, a notion President Donald Trump has flatly rejected.

The sanctions, announced by the Treasury Department, targeted officials including the Saudi consul in Istanbul, where Khashoggi was killed on Oct. 2, and Saud al-Qahtani, a senior adviser to Prince Mohammed before he was fired after the killing.

The timing of the Treasury sanctions appeared linked to Saudi Arabia’s internal moves to bring the Khashoggi investigation to a close without implicating the 33-year-old crown prince known as MBS. Earlier in the day, the kingdom’s deputy attorney general said 11 people had been charged, including a Saudi royal adviser and a senior intelligence official, and that the government would seek the death penalty for five. The accused weren’t identified.

Trump’s Saudi Sanctions Seek to Show Outrage Without Harming Ties

‘Slap on the Wrist’

“It’s very likely that the Trump administration discussed this move with the Saudis beforehand and there was a consensus on the need for the U.S. to engage in certain slap on the wrist actions -- a way for both sides to steer out of a very difficult situation,” said Kamran Bokhari, a senior lecturer on Middle Eastern geopolitics at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute.

Fred Ryan, the publisher of the Washington Post, where Khashoggi was a contributing columnist, dismissed the Saudi and U.S. moves, saying, “It is impossible to have confidence that we have gotten to the truth when the purported investigations were neither transparent nor independent and when evidence continues to be withheld.”

Yemen War

Even if the Trump administration’s sanctions represented the bare minimum needed to reflect the Saudi prosecutor’s decision, they fit a broader pattern of a modestly tougher U.S. tone toward the Saudi leadership. That includes unusual public criticism of the kingdom by Trump and a U.S. announcement that it would no longer refuel Saudi coalition planes fighting in Yemen.

In a statement on the decision to sanction the 17 people, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo suggested that more penalties may be coming. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert called Saudi Arabia’s announcement “a step in the right direction,” but only an initial finding.

Trump’s Saudi Sanctions Seek to Show Outrage Without Harming Ties

“Our action today is an important step in responding to Khashoggi’s killing,” Pompeo said. “The State Department will continue to seek all relevant facts, consult Congress, and work with other nations to hold accountable those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.”

If past statements are any indication, that won’t go far enough to satisfy some of the Saudi regime’s leading critics on Capitol Hill. Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he still believes a “price needs to be paid.” Graham, a Trump ally, put the fault directly on the crown prince.

Turkey’s Role

“I am of the opinion that the current leadership, the MBS leadership, has been a disaster for the relationship and the region, and I will find it very difficult to do business as usual with somebody who’s been this unstable,” Graham said.

Even if the administration wanted to put the matter to rest now, it might not be able to.

The X factor in both the U.S. and Saudi strategy is Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government has continually leaked information undermining the shifting Saudi accounts since Khashoggi disappeared, forcing officials to keep revising their story about what happened to the insider-turned-critic.

Turkish officials say they believe a 15-member kill team arrived shortly before the incident via private planes from Riyadh. Erdogan has said he’s shared audio of the killing, obtained by Turkish intelligence, with governments including the U.S.

Turkey signaled its leverage in the case again on Thursday, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu calling Saudi Arabia’s latest statements “unsatisfactory” and demanding the “real instigator” of the murder be identified.

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