Trump Enables a Saudi Lie

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The Saudi narrative about the disappearance and likely murder of Jamal Khashoggi is shifting. Last week it was a blanket denial. Now there are hints of the O.J. Simpson defense: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is determined to find the real killers. He’s launched an investigation. Perhaps, as President Donald Trump said, this is the work of “rogue killers.”

Needless to say, this smells like the prelude to a big lie. The crown prince has purged his rivals from the national security state in the last year, so he can hardly claim ignorance. In the words of Senator Lindsey Graham, who has defended the U.S.-Saudi relationship for years: “Nothing happens in Saudi Arabia without MBS knowing it.” MBS, as the crown prince is known, was assuring Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that he would investigate even as his government was sending a cleaning crew to its consulate in Istanbul, which Turkish authorities say is a crime scene.

At this point it’s reasonable to ask why the Trump administration seems so keen on the “rogue killer” story. Partly it is because Trump placed a large bet on the crown prince. A small fib that obscures Crown Prince Mohammed’s responsibility in a heinous crime might salvage that bet — and the U.S.-Saudi relationship. If Pompeo or Trump were to make public what U.S. intelligence agencies now suspect, he would back an ally into a corner.

The truth is that the U.S. has been here before. Fictions, deceits and omissions are woven into the fabric of American statecraft, particularly in the Middle East. It took the U.S. government nearly a decade to publicly acknowledge that Pakistan, an ally, directly supported the Taliban as it attacked U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In Yemen, the U.S. allowed the country’s president to claim U.S. air strikes against suspected terrorists were really the work of Yemen’s non-existent air force. Almost 50 years ago, Henry Kissinger helped craft a policy that tacitly accepted Israel’s nuclear arsenal on the condition that Israel never publicly acknowledge it.

In some cases these lies were defensible. By not publicly acknowledging possession of a nuclear weapon, Israel reduced the political pressure on their Arab neighbors to proliferate. By sweeping Pakistan’s double dealings in Afghanistan under the rug, the U.S. hoped it would make it easier to cooperate with Islamabad in counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda.

These convenient falsehoods have one thing in common, however: Eventually they all unraveled. Israel to this day does not acknowledge possession of nuclear weapons. But for about 30 years, ever since a former nuclear technician leaked the news of Israel’s secret facility in Dimona, the denial has looked ridiculous. Open societies tend to have a hard time keeping such explosive secrets. The truth has a way of coming out.

Which brings us back to the present day. The stakes are high in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is an important ally against Iran, and the Trump administration is planning next month to implement sanctions on Iranian oil exports. Embarrassing the crown prince now could upend that strategy and undermine the U.S.-Saudi alliance. So it’s tempting to encourage the Saudis to find a scapegoat and go along with the cover story.

It won’t work, though. Not only is the rogue killer theory implausible, it fails to address a far more serious impediment to the U.S.-Saudi relationship: the crown prince himself. There is “a whole litany of things where he appears to have taken very bad decisions,” notes Simon Henderson, a Saudi specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. In the last year, Crown Prince Mohammed has had the Canadian ambassador expelled over criticism of the arrest of women’s rights activists. He had the Lebanese prime minister detained and forced him to resign his post.

These are not the decisions of a steady-handed leader. Before Crown Prince Mohammed consolidated power and purged his rivals, there were restraints against his impulses. No longer. For all intents and purposes, MBS is now the Saudi state. And that is a problem a convenient story about rogue killers will not fix.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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