The White House is sticking to its decision not to punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite some critics accusing President Joe Biden of failing a crucial leadership test.
“Our national security team believes that tracking down the network responsible for these measures is the best way to prevent such a crime from ever occurring again,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday.
“That is our goal,” said Psaki, pointing out that the Biden government has imposed sanctions and restrictions on a number of Saudi personalities.
So far, however, the White House has not tracked any prominent figure who was involved in Khashoggi’s murder: the Crown Prince himself.
The 35-year-old Saudi head of state approved the operation in October 2018 to kill Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist. This emerges from a US intelligence report published on Friday.
This report, which had previously been classified, was in line with the conclusions of other investigations into Khashoggi’s death and sparked a new wave of outrage against Crown Prince Mohammed.
Shortly after the report was published, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken imposed visa restrictions on 76 Saudi individuals “believed to have threatened dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the murder of Khashoggi”. The Treasury Department imposed sanctions on the security detail of the Crown Prince and other Saudi personalities on Friday.
Former President Donald Trump, in power at the time of the murder, had tried to question Crown Prince Mohammed’s involvement in the operation. Trump claimed Saudi Arabia would remain a “steadfast partner” with the US even after several outlets reported that the CIA had concluded that the Crown Prince himself ordered the journalist’s murder.
At the end of 2019, Biden had signaled that he would punish Crown Prince Mohammed and his regime for Khashoggi’s death.
“Khashoggi was actually murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the orders of the Crown Prince,” said Biden. “I would make it very clear that we were not going to sell them any more guns, we would actually get them to pay the price and make them the pariah they are.”
After his tenure, Biden worked quickly to turn the US-Saudi Arabia relationship away from Trump’s warm-hearted stance towards the Crown Prince. Biden made it clear that he is seeing 85-year-old King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, not his son, as his counterpart in the kingdom.
But it seems Biden’s White House will stop targeting the Crown Prince with sanctions or other penalties, causing a setback.
“It looks like despots who offer the United States strategic value for a moment could get a One Free Murder pass under the Biden administration,” wrote Fred Ryan, editor of the Washington Post, on Monday in a devastating opinion piece.
New Yorker Robin Wright accused Biden of “betraying his promise to defend human rights.”
“Biden didn’t do anything to punish [Crown Prince Mohammed]. Absolutely nothing – to the amazement of human rights groups, foreign policy experts, Saudi activists and even some of his own staff, “Wright wrote on Monday.
Psaki reiterated in Monday’s briefing, explaining why Biden would not himself sanction the crown prince, that the government had “taken the right steps to prevent this from ever happening again.”
She noted the efforts of the new administration to “recalibrate” relations with Saudi Arabia after the kingdom’s coziness with Trump. She stressed that Biden had stopped US support for offensive operations in Yemen.
Psaki said this also includes “not holding back and voicing concerns and urging action when it comes to dissidents, journalists or anyone else who is being detained”.
However, it is unclear whether Biden even mentioned Khashoggi in his first conversation with King Salman last Thursday, according to a White House ad.
Rather, the ad states that Biden “has taken positive note of the recent release of several Saudi activists and of Ms. Loujain al-Hathloul [a Saudi women’s rights activist] and reaffirmed the importance the United States attaches to universal human rights and the rule of law. “
Psaki also argued in a CNN interview on Sunday that it is historically rare for governments to sanction foreign leaders with whom the US has diplomatic relations.
“We believe there are more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to leave room to work with the Saudis in areas where there is mutual agreement,” said Psaki.