Nashville – (Special to Informed Comment) – Mike Pompeo asserts that murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Kashoggi was no mild critic of the Saudi regime but a dangerous radical trying to subvert it. This, I suspect, has been the Saudi line fed to Washington since Kashoggi’s 2018 dismemberment at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Trump and official Washington believed Riyadh’s line but kept it quiet. Pompeo now publicizes it. The former secretary of state and CIA chief put it in his pugnacious new book, “Never Give an Inch,” Pompeo’s opening shot for a presidential bid. It may do him more harm than good.
Is the substance of the charge true?
Does Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS — Mr. Bone Saw) believe it?
Almost certainly yes. Autocratic regimes always fear overthrow and take Draconian steps to prevent it.
A long line of Middle East autocracies has indeed been overthrown: Nasser ended Egyptian monarchy in 1952. His heir Anwar El Sadat was assassinated in 1981 and Hosni Mubarak overthrown in 2011. Gaddafi ended Libyan monarchy in 1969 and then himself was ousted and killed in 2011. Iraq’s British-installed monarchy was overthrow in 1958.
MSNBC: “David Ignatius: Pompeo using Khashoggi murder to ‘make a fight for political reasons’ with the media”
MBS has plenty to fear. As he waits to take formal power on the death of his ailing father, King Salman, 87, he fears other princes competing for the office more than he fears Muslim fundamentalist radicals. The Kingdom brutally suppressed the likes of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State but knows that there are other claimants to the throne.
To wit: In May 2017, the year before they murdered Kashoggi, the Riyadh regime put some 200 suspicious princes and wealthy Saudi businessmen under arrest in the Ritz-Carlton, accused of “corruption” and cut off from their fortunes and private jets. One died in captivity. MBS feared they were conspiring to end his rise to top power; he may have been right.
MBS, convinced that Kashoggi was in touch with and serving the aims of a movement for more democracy, tricked him into entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get the plans and names of leading plotters. When Kashoggi tried to fight the 15-man hit squad, he was throttled and dismembered. His body has never been found.
What does this mean for U.S. policy? Please, Washington, remember this is the Persian Gulf. Systematically mistrust anything its regimes put out. Mistrust our published intelligence briefings. Their working levels may be accurate and perceptive, but their politically appointed chiefs deliver what the White House wants. Remember the rushed and botched intelligence on Iraq in the run-up to George W. Bush’s invasion of that country.
Understand that Gulf regimes perpetuate themselves by “clientelistic” relationships, that is, by generously spreading money among various groups, including foreign ones. Basically, governance by bribery is the Gulf’s deeply etched norm. Reforming that in favor of democratic transparency risks system breakdown. Showy surface reforms such as letting women drive are okay.
Has anyone checked Pompeo’s financial backing and their origins? As they say on Fox News, “just raising the question.” President Trump’s first overseas trip was to Saudi Arabia. Jared Kushner visited the Persian Gulf to promote regional peace — the “Abraham Accords” — and came away with billions in credit to save his Manhattan misinvestments from total collapse.
Do not suppose we’ve got Gulf regimes “on our side.” They want us to think that as they line up U.S. power to support them, especially to protect them from revolutionary surges from Iran. Our interests in the Gulf are limited and grow more limited with every increase in renewable energy. Do not fight yesterday’s wars over yesterday’s energy sources. These sheikdoms are simply too shaky.
Give Pompeo credit: His dramatic weight loss does wonders for his political fortunes. If only his cognitive abilities had kept up with his physical appearance.