The White House stands firm in its decision not to punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, even as some critics accuse President Joe Biden of failing a crucial test of leadership.
“Our national security team believes that prosecuting the network responsible for these actions is the best way to prevent a crime like this from happening again,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.
“That is our goal,” Psaki said, noting that the Biden administration has imposed sanctions and restrictions against a large number of Saudi figures.
But so far, the White House has not pursued a prominent figure involved in Khashoggi’s assassination: the crown prince himself.
The 35-year-old Saudi leader approved the October 2018 operation to kill Washington Post columnist Khashoggi, according to a US intelligence report released Friday.
That report, which had previously been classified, coincided with the findings of other investigations into Khashoggi’s death and sparked a new wave of outrage against bin Salman.
Shortly after the report was released, Secretary of State Antony Blinken imposed visa restrictions on 76 Saudis “believed to have participated in threatening dissidents abroad, including but not limited to the murder of Khashoggi.” The Treasury Department on Friday imposed sanctions on the crown prince’s security detail and other Saudi figures.
Former President Donald Trump, in power at the time of the assassination, had tried to cast doubt on bin Salman’s involvement in the operation. Trump claimed that Saudi Arabia would remain a “firm partner” of the United States, even after various outlets reported that the CIA concluded that Bin Salman himself ordered the journalist’s murder.
In late 2019, Biden had signaled that he would penalize bin Salman and his regime for Khashoggi’s death.
“Khashoggi was, in fact, killed and dismembered, and I believe by order of the crown prince,” Biden said at the time. “It would make it very clear that we were not, in fact, going to sell them more weapons, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them the outcasts that they are.”
Once in office, Biden quickly worked to change the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia from Trump’s warm stance toward the crown prince. Biden made it clear that he sees 85-year-old King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, not his son, as his counterpart in the kingdom.
But it appears that the Biden White House will fail to target the crown prince with sanctions or other penalties, causing a pushback.
“It appears that under the Biden administration, despots who momentarily offer strategic value to America could receive a ‘one free murder’ pass,” Washington Post editor Fred Ryan wrote in a scathing op-ed on Monday.
Robin Wright of the New Yorker accused Biden of having “betrayed his promise to defend human rights.”
“Biden has done nothing to punish [bin Salman]. 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 at Monday’s briefing, pressed to explain why Biden will not sanction the crown prince, repeated that the administration took “the right steps to prevent this from happening again.”
He pointed to the new administration’s efforts to “recalibrate” the relationship with Saudi Arabia following the kingdom’s comfort with Trump. He stressed that Biden stopped US support for offensive operations in Yemen.
Psaki said that also includes “not holding back and expressing concern and pressing for action on dissidents, journalists or other detainees.”
But it’s unclear whether Biden mentioned Khashoggi during his first conversation with King Salman last Thursday, according to a White House reading.
Rather, the reading says that Biden “noted positively the recent release of several Saudi-American activists and Ms. Loujain al-Hathloul. [a Saudi women’s rights activist] in custody, and affirmed the importance the United States attaches to universal human rights and the rule of law. “
Psaki in an interview with CNN on Sunday also argued that it is historically rare for administrations to sanction foreign leaders with whom the United States has diplomatic ties.
“We believe there are more effective ways to ensure this does not happen again and also to make room to work with the Saudis in areas where there is mutual agreement,” Psaki said.