Indifferent to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s leading role in the assassination of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the White House has cited national interests to justify why President Joe Biden has let bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, off the hook.
“We believe there is more effective ways to make sure this doesn’t happen again and to also be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there is mutual agreement – where there is national interests for the United States,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday morning.
“That is what diplomacy looks like,” added Psaki, who called Khashoggi’s murder a “horrific crime” earlier this month.
Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, then strangled and dismembered with a bone saw by a Saudi hit squad.
While on the campaign trail, Biden claimed that his administration would not “sell more weapons” to the Saudis and make them “the pariah they are” for waging a devastating war on Yemen and killing Khashoggi.
On Friday, the Biden administration released a declassified intelligence report that said MBS directly approved the operation to eliminate Khashoggi, arguing that bin Salman’s control of the kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations is so strict that it makes it “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the crown prince's authorization.”
The release of the report was followed by visa restrictions against 76 Saudis involved in harassing activists and journalists, but Biden’s promise to punish top Saudi leaders was completely forsaken. The decision has been widely condemned by human rights advocates.
During the Sunday interview, Bash pressed Psaki on why the White House is punishing those under the crown prince but not bin Salman himself.
“So isn’t punishing them like punishing the hitman and not the mob boss who actually put out the hit?” Bash asked.
“Well, first, Dana, historically and even in recent history, Democratic and Republican administrations, there have not been sanctions put in place for the leaders of foreign governments where we have diplomatic relations and even where we don’t have diplomatic relations,” Psaki falsely claimed.
At the end of the interview, Psaki reaffirmed that the United States’ national interests come before human rights issues when dealing with other countries.
“It needs to be clear that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is one in the interest of the United States to maintain while still being clear it will be recalibrated,” she said.
The Khashoggi report came less than a month after a former Saudi intelligence official said MBS had ordered two assassination missions against him. Saad al-Jabri, who currently resides in Canada, said in an amended complaint on February 4 that he had faced repeated threats on his life coming from bin Salman over the past few months.
In mid-February, bin Salman, who is also the kingdom’s defense minister, received a phone call from the new Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, who reaffirmed the “strategic defense partnership” between the United States and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Biden himself, while shunning MBS, called Saudi Arabia’s ruler King Salman prior to publishing the Khashoggi report. Psaki had said earlier that the White House was going to “recalibrate” its relationship with Saudi Arabia, and engage with the kingdom on a counterpart-to-counterpart basis.