Tensions continue to flair between Saudi Arabia and Turkey over the killing of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — with mixed accounts from both parties. Meanwhile, the U.S. response to the slaying of Khashoggi, who was a U.S. resident, has been uneven.
How will this affect the Middle East? We discussed the implications with two former U.S. ambassadors: Ryan Crocker and Daniel C. Kurtzer, both of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Crocker is a visiting lecturer and diplomat-in-residence. He has served as U.S. ambassador six times: Afghanistan (2011-2012), Iraq (2007-2009), Pakistan (2004-2007), Syria (1998-2001), Kuwait (1994-1997), and Lebanon (1990-1993).
Kurtzer is a lecturer and S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle East Policy Studies. He served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and as U.S. ambassador to Israel (2001-2005).
Q. What's your reaction to the death of Jamal Khashoggi and how the various Middle East leaders are handling the scandal?
Kurtzer: Khashoggi’s murder has galvanized regional and international outrage. Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to accept responsibility and the daily revisions of its explanation for what happened have strained credulity and prolonged and worsened the crisis. This has had a particular effect on U.S.-Saudi relations, in view of our longstanding relationship and the particular warmth between President Trump and the Saudi leadership.
Crocker: The international reaction has pushed the Saudis, including the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to say more than they thought they would have to. At the same time, there is no way that a direct or indirect role of the Crown Prince in the murder of Khashoggi will be acknowledged. We will have to decide if we are going to accept the narrative they are fashioning: Culpability rises to a high level (a Saudi general) but stops short of Mohammed bin Salman. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has played a major role in stoking the outrage. But it is clear that it is not because of his deep attachment to a free press and the right to dissent. It is about dueling ideologies within Islam; Erdogan embraces the Muslim Brothers; the Saudis are Salafis.
Q. What are the implications of this for the Middle East, both short-term and long-term?
Kurtzer: There are far more serious crises in this region that demand attention, but remain unresolved. Just to name a few: the war and humanitarian distress in Yemen, humanitarian concerns in Gaza, the unfinished internal war in Syria, and the continued activities of ISIS. Regarding the Khashoggi affair, much will depend on whether the Saudis come clean as to what happened and take action against those in the Kingdom who came up with this outrageous plan. Equally important will be the U.S. reaction: Will Trump sweep this under the carpet or take meaningful steps to demonstrate to the Saudis that there are consequences for its actions?
Crocker: One of the most significant repercussions is not what the West would expect. We are outraged by the death of a single Saudi journalist by the regime, yet we are silent as the same Saudi regime kills hundreds of Yemenis a day. It is another affirmation of the deeply held regional conviction that for the West and the U.S. in particular, Arab life is dirt cheap. This spans both the Obama and Trump administrations. Under Obama, the Syrian regime with its Iranian and Russian allies destroyed Aleppo with thousands of civilians killed. The U.S. response? John Kerry would call Sergey Lavrov, minister of foreign affairs of the Russian Federation. When Trump did offer token retaliation for the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime, the message the region got was that for the U.S., it was perfectly fine for the regime to murder hundreds of thousands of its people. Barrel bombs are fine. Just don’t use chemical weapons.
Q. More specifically, what are the short and long-term implications for Saudi Arabia and Iran?
Kurtzer: It’s hard to see any immediate impact on the festering Saudi-Iranian regional struggles. The war in Yemen continues with no end in sight, Iran remains entrenched in Syria, and the future of the Iranian nuclear weapons and missile programs are unaffected by the Khashoggi murder. These factors, in fact, account for Trump’s hesitation to take action against Saudi Arabia, given his laser-like focus on Iran and its activities in the region.
Q. How might this affect other players in the region like Russia or Israel?
Crocker: Israeli leaders have been mostly silent. They have larger security issues in play with Saudi Arabia. Russia will pursue its own efforts with the Israelis, and with the Saudis.
Kurtzer: Russia is waiting in the wings with proffers of arms to Saudi Arabia if the United States decides to freeze arms sales. While such arms sales would make little sense for the Saudis — they are tied to U.S. arms, training, and doctrine — they could turn to Russia out of pique against Trump. For Israel, the Khashoggi affair threatens to disrupt, but probably not end, a burgeoning relationship with the Saudis, based on shared interests against Iran and vis-à-vis Syria.
Q. What are your thoughts about President Trump’s changing narrative? And the reaction from Congress? How will this help or hurt the situation?
Crocker: The narrative changes as Saudi explanations change. There is no moral compass in this administration, but there wasn’t much of one in the previous administration either. Tolerance for the slaughter of civilians in Syria and Yemen on an industrial scale did not begin with Trump. Congress may take action. If the action is based on the Khashoggi case rather than the Yemen war, it will only reinforce the view that wholesale slaughter is a matter of indifference to us.
Kurtzer: Trump’s handling of this crisis has been as uneven and confused as the Saudi explanations, with his daily contradictory tweets and statements. The absence of a serious policy process within the White House — something that John Bolton and John Kelly were supposed to fix — and Trump’s propensity to speak without regard for facts account for this problem. In addition, the relationship between Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who is widely believed to be behind Khashoggi’s murder, has made Trump’s response more complicated. It is very telling that even Republicans in Congress, so willing to line up behind Trump on almost everything else, are distancing themselves from Trump’s wishy-washy public stance. The prospect of Congressional action against Saudi Arabia therefore is a strong possibility.
WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.