Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who has been critical of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, disappeared in the country’s consulate in Istanbul over a week ago. Over the last few days, a wealth of information has been reported tying his disappearance—and rumored murder and dismemberment—to Saudi Arabia and Bin Salman. Turkish authorities were first to sound the alarm, announcing over the weekend that Khashoggi had been killed. Since that time, the names of the 15-man Saudi team that entered Turkey the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance have been released, along with CCTV footage. The Washington Post has also reported that the United States has had intelligence suggesting that Bin Salman had personally ordered an operation targeting the Saudi journalist.
Khashoggi’s disappearance has resulted in widespread condemnation of Saudi Arabia. But the Trump administration—which does not have ambassadors to either Turkey or Saudi Arabia—has thus far done little. President Trump, who has praised Bin Salman, has characteristically refrained from condemning Saudi Arabia, though he has half-heartedly suggested that he would take action if presented with proof of the crown prince’s culpability. Speaking to Fox News, Trump said it would be “a terrible thing” if the Saudis were involved in Khashoggi’s disappearance. “I would not be happy at all. I guess you would have to say so it’s looking a little bit like that. We’re going to have to see. We are doing a lot of work on it. It would certainly not be a good thing at all.”
But Trump also suggested that he is not considering cancelling a massive arms deal with Saudi Arabia. “We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it’s ever done before,” Trump said in the same interview. “A part of that is what we are doing with our defense systems and everybody is wanting them and, frankly, I think that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country.”
The arms deal isn’t the only problem for Trump. His Middle East foreign policy, including its policies on Israel and Palestine as well as the fight against ISIS, is based on maintaining a close relationship to Saudi Arabia. These close ties may explain why Bin Salman acted so rashly: He rightly suspected that the current U.S. would do nothing.