The reaction of top U.S. Senators from both parties to the briefing by CIA director Gina Haspel on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi has been unprecedented. A close ally of President Trump, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), announced that he had “high confidence” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was complicit in the murder, describing the Saudi royal as “a wrecking ball,” “crazy” and “dangerous.”
“There is not a smoking gun—there is a smoking saw,” Sen. Graham said, alluding to Khashoggi’s likely dismemberment in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two months ago. He further said that he could not support Saudi Arabia’s continued military operations in Yemen, or weapons sales to Riyadh, as long as the crown prince remained in power. His fellow Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker declared, using the crown prince’s initials, “I have zero question on my mind that the crown prince MbS ordered the killing . . . If he was in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes. Guilty.”
Many media commentators have focused on whether the senators will now try to force Trump into joining their condemnation of the Crown Prince, and adjust U.S. policy on Saudi Arabia accordingly. They are also exploring punitive actions of their own, which include suspending arms sales to KSA and imposing various other sanctions.
Last week, 14 of Trump’s fellow Republicans—who hold a slim majority in the Senate and rarely break from the President—voted with Democrats to advance a measure to terminate U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. That vote came shortly after both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis urged them not to do anything to undermine the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Gina Haspel’s absence from that briefing dismayed senators.
The intriguing question which has not received attention it deserves is whether MBS, who stands accused of outright murder by senior American legislators, will try to preempt them—and the likely support various suggested measures will get from the majority-Democrat House when it convenes next month—by trying to instigate a war with Iran.
More significantly perhaps, will John Bolton and other Persophobes—who don’t give a hoot for MbS’s transgressions, but who do want a war with Iran—actually encourage him to arrange a Gleiwitz-style false-flag operation? If they decide to give it a try they can count on the support of Israel, and the friends of Israel on the Hill and in the media. The problem is that the Saudis cannot be trusted to do it efficiently, as the bungled Khashoggi affair indicates.
MbS may assume that, with Israel backstopping him, he can just tough it out. Of course the pro-Israel bench in DC is keen to “preserve the relationship” with KSA, but after the reaction to Haspel’s briefing it will be difficult to develop the theme of the Kingdom’s overriding strategic importance for the United States without a major crisis in the Gulf.
As my friend and our occasional contributor Jim Jatras says, the big divide is whether “preserving the relationship” will be better “with MbS (Trump and Kushner), or with an anti-MbS faction (supported by anti-Trump Deep State)”:
My guess is that MbS still has the upper hand via squatter’s rights; he’s in power and the guy we still have to deal with. He can also still spread a lot of cash around as Khashoggi recedes into the rear view mirror. I think his acting rashly to start a war with Iran would be an insane risk for him. I don’t think even Bolton and Pompeo are yet ready for war. They seem to believe their own propaganda about regime change via sanctions and economic collapse and the yuge popularity of the MEK [People’s Mujahedin of Iran, U.S.-supported militant opposition group]. At least they want to run the sanctions game a while to weaken Iran (and humiliate the Europeans some more) before they go for Plan B. Also, they need a phony pretext, Iraq/WMDs, Benghazi, Racak. Can MbS give them one on his own? But if he strikes out on his own before they (Donald Kushner, Boltpeo) are ready, he may end up chewing on his tie (or whatever the equivalent of that is with a thobe and gutra).
At that point the Crown Prince would be universally seen as a liability and removed, which in his case does not mean comfortable exile but death. It is an even bet that if MbS thinks are getting really shaky he will up the ante, figuring he’s got nothing to lose but his head. Thousands of Americans may lose theirs as a result. The crime may be in its early planning stage right now, but it must not be allowed to proceed to fruition.
Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, foreign affairs editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.