The Trump White House may have too much at stake to make Saudi Arabia pay a proportionate price for the apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
If Riyadh finds a scapegoat and absolves senior members of the royal family over the disappearance of The Washington Post columnist in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul two weeks ago, Trump may accept it.
For multiple geopolitical and domestic political reasons, the administration has far more to gain from helping engineer a face-saving exit for itself and its ally from its biggest foreign policy crisis in nearly two years in office than by making an example of the Saudis in a belated stand for human rights.
The kingdom forms the foundation of President Donald Trump’s Middle East policy, and a decision to severely punish its rulers could spark an estrangement that would cripple his hopes of confronting Iran. It would also weaken Washington’s strategic position in the region and offer an opening to rival powers.
And back home, a chill with the Saudis would mean Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner would lose considerable political face after investing significant capital in wooing the royal court.
That’s why many observers are cynical about the White House’s insistence that it’s waiting for evidence from probes conducted by the Saudi and Turkish government before deciding its course of action.
When the truth about what happened to Khashoggi emerges — that he was likely killed by organs of the Saudi state possibly with the knowledge of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman it might turn out to be highly inconvenient for the White House.
Trump could find himself browbeaten into joining reluctantly with American allies to censure the Saudis for what appears to be a gross act of inhumanity and contravention of international law.
That’s why when he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are insisting on space for the Saudis to conduct an investigation, it looks a lot like they are buying time for the kingdom to construct a cover story that could help the storm blow over.
After all, allowing the accused murderers to probe the murder is hardly likely to produce a verdict that will be above suspicion and be internationally accepted.
“The only way you are going to get a fair and impartial investigation is to have it be done from the outside,” said CNN national security commentator Max Boot.
“They are not going to implicate their crown prince who is in charge of the entire state.”
Still, an investigation that comes up with a coherent, if not a plausible narrative about the horror that unfolded in the consulate, might horrify political opponents in the US and democratic allies, but it could be enough for Trump
After all, he has a long record of accepting the verdicts of incomplete investigations — see the truncated probe into allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — and he hasaccepted denials of misconduct about White House staffers and fellow Republicans when its politically convenient.
And he’s happy to take the word of foreign strongmen — even when they contradict the assessments of his own intelligence agencies — as he did when Russian President Vladimir Putin denied election meddling.
There were signs on Thursday that the administration was trying to finesse the awkward politics of the Khashoggi disappearance — while insulating its first priority — seamless relations with the Saudis, for further harm.
Trump, who has been fiercely criticized after offering the Saudis a possible way out by suggesting that “rogue killers” might be to blame, returned to his earlier line Thursday of promising “severe” consequences.
And Vice President Mike Pence issued the most strident warning since Khashoggi vanished.
“If a journalist lost their life at the hand of violence, that is a threat to a free and independent press around the world and there will be consequences,” Pence said.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin meanwhile pulled out of an investment conference in Saudi Arabia later this month.
If was not clear if those statements by the President and Vice President hinted a toughening administration stance, especially because Trump’s rhetoric frequently fluctuates given the political demands of a particular moment.
And Pence’s language was robust and useful for domestic political consumption, But it’s unlikely to drown out Trump’s more pragmatic statements in recent days, at least in the ears of Saudi royals who intimately understand the power dynamics in this and previous presidential administrations.
And while Mnuchin’s move was a significant political gesture, it was largely symbolic, since a long list of withdrawals from foreign officials and media sponsors had already rendered the investment event largely meaningless.
There are also signs that the administration is above all most concerned with preserving its relations with the Saudi royal court.
Trump admitted with characteristic frankness that he was vexed by the impact of the episode on diplomacy with the kingdom.
“This one one has caught the imagination of the world, unfortunately,” Trump told the New York Times in an interview Thursday.
“It’s not a positive. Not a positive.”
The disappearance of Khashoggi has highlighted a cold eyed approach to foreign policy that runs counter to America’s historic reverence for universal rights.
But it is in line with Trump’s approach to American power and reluctance to criticize hard men leaders with whom he has an affinity, and is willing to indulge in order to win economic results with his transactional foreign policy.
Two sources told CNN on Thursday that Jared Kushner has been advising Trump to proceed slowly and cautiously on the Saudi matter, despite criticism coming from Capitol Hill.
The New York Times, cited an official familiar with the situation, as saying that Kushner, Trump’s Middle East fixer, believed that outrage over Khashoggi’s disappearance would pass in time, just like other controversies blamed on the crown prince.
In many ways, the administration is far too gone into its big bet in the Middle East to allow one murder to hold it back. It realigned US foreign policy following the Obama administration, gathering Saudi Arabia and other Arab autocracies in the Gulf and in Egypt and the right-wing government in Israel close.
The administration’s first priority in the region is the isolation and pressuring of Iran and what Washington sees as its nefarious activity across the region.
Any action to punish the Saudis would weaken the alliance of Gulf and Araba states it needs to carry through its policy. As the world’s biggest oil exporter, Riyadh will play a crucial role in balancing global oil markets next month when the administration seeks to put a clamp on nations buying Iranian oil exports.
The Khashoggi episode also comes at a moment of tense geopolitical competition in the Middle East, as Moscow uses its beachhead in Syria to challenge traditional US influence. There is little doubt that if Washington sought to ban arms sales to Riyadh, as some in Congress would like, that Russia would seek to fill the breach.
Trump has made the commercial relationship between the US and the Saudis, which he says accounts for billions of dollars and thousands of jobs, the centerpiece of his argument for not disrupting the relationship.
There are few indications that the administration will react strongly to Khashoggi’s apparent death on human rights grounds, even though he was resident in the US and worked for a major US newspaper.
The President, in his affinity for strongmen leaders, and repeatedly in policy addresses, has made clear he does not believe that universal rights and democratic standards should form the basis of foreign policy.
And though there has been intense heat on Capitol Hill, it is not clear that Khashoggi episode has caused him any trouble with the voters he really cares about — those who form his fervent base who embraced his calls for an “America First” approach to the world during the 2016 campaign.