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Khashoggi incident represents pivotal moment for U.S.-Saudi relations

Amid international uproar over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Riyadh to meet with Saudi leadership. Meanwhile, Turkish authorities point to evidence of Khashoggi's alleged murder. Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin speaks with David Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment and Gerald Feierstein of Middle East Institute for analysis.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, amidst a major crisis that threatens the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

    There are still many unanswered questions about the fate of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, suspected of being killed and dismembered inside Saudi Arabia's Istanbul consulate.

    Nick Schifrin continues our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the gilded royal palace in Riyadh, America's top diplomat met Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, and at a moment of mounting pressure, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman declared unity.

  • Mohammed bin Salman:

    As with America and Saudi Arabia, we are really strong and old allies. So, we face our challenges together, the past, today and tomorrow.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    After a hastily arranged 12-hour flight, Pompeo conducted around of meetings, including with a frail 82-year-old King Salman.

    The main topic,missing Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Two weeks ago today, Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Istanbul Consulate and vanished. Turkish officials had leaked CCTV footage and accused a Saudi hit squad of murder and dismemberment.

    Today, they provided The Washington Post with photos of some of the squad's passports. The Saudis continue to deny any involvement, including in a conversation today with President Trump.

    He tweeted that Mohammed bin Salman — quote — "totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish consulate and would rapidly expand a full and complete investigation."

    But Turkish officials said their investigation in the consulate turned up proof Khashoggi died inside. And Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested the Saudis were trying to conduct a cover-up.

  • Recep Tayyip Erdogan (through translator):

    The investigation is looking into many things, such as toxic materials and those materials being removed by painting over them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Capitol Hill, many lawmakers echo that frustration.

    South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham today said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, should step aside.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    I have been their biggest defender on the floor the United States Senate. This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this got murdered in a consulate in Turkey. And to expect made ignore it, I feel used and abused.

    I know what I'm going to do. I'm going to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia. This guy's got to go. Saudi Arabia, if you're listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose. But MBS has tainted your country and tainted himself.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That anger is keeping pressure on Pompeo. Tonight, he has more meetings in Riyadh, and tomorrow he will fly to Ankara to meet with Turkish officials.

    For more on this, we have David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who writes extensively on foreign policy issues, and Jerry Feierstein, director of the Center for Gulf Affairs at the Middle East Institute and the former principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs.

    Welcome to you both.

  • Gerald Feierstein:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The president said Mohammed bin Salman has denied any involvement and gave an interview in which he actually criticized criticism of Saudi Arabia.

    We saw Pompeo smiling with Mohammed bin Salman. On Pompeo has released this statement. "My assessment from these meetings is that there is a serious commitment to determine all the facts and ensure accountability, including accountability for Saudi Arabia's senior leaders or senior officials."

    David Rothkopf, are the Saudi denial and the Saudi promise to investigate credible?

  • David Rothkopf:

    Well, of course not.

    I mean, the Saudis are the ones who have been accused of perpetrating this crime. And it seems likely that crime of this nature would be approved at the highest level.

    And, so, essentially what Pompeo is doing is providing cover for the Saudis to say, yes, we will have a credible investigation of ourselves.

    It reminds me a bit of Vladimir Putin offering to do an investigation of the Russian hack of the 2016 elections. Having the perpetrator investigate himself is not a technique law enforcement agencies use very much, because it's not likely to produce a good outcome.

    But the problem is that the secretary of state of the United States and the president of the United States have bent over backwards in the media for the past 48 hours to provide the cover that the Saudis need to go forward with this.

    In effect, the United States, the president and secretary of state, are playing press officers for the king and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Feierstein, is it possible that Mohammed bin Salman did know about this attempt in Istanbul?

  • Gerald Feierstein:

    Well, again, I think I agree with David.

    And what I would say is that, knowing what we know about the way the Saudi government has behaved over the years, the way it's always been extremely hierarchical, decision-making has always gone to the very senior levels, it's hard to believe that somebody would take it upon themselves to do something like either kidnap or murder Jamal Khashoggi without having direction from the most senior levels.

    I think it's very hard to believe that there's going to be a credible statement that comes out of this, unless it acknowledges that Mohammed bin Salman personally had some kind of a role in it, and whatever — whatever they decide at the end.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, questions about the credibility of this investigations, questions about whether MBS, as he's widely known, didn't know about this.

    David Rothkopf, therefore, how much pressure should the U.S. put on Saudi Arabia? Or should the U.S. try and just defuse this crisis?

  • David Rothkopf:

    I think the United States should put a lot of pressure on it, because they have identified themselves so closely with the crown prince, with the Saudi government.

    And I think our international standing now depends on there actually being a credible investigation. If there is not one, or if, as seems likely, the evidence shows that the Saudi leadership ordered an American resident, permanent resident of the United States and a columnist for The Washington Post, to be murdered or to be kidnapped — and I think this is kind of strange that the Saudi defense is, oh, no, we didn't order to have him murdered, we just ordered to have him kidnapped, which is a weak defense.

    But I think, if there is evidence that that's the case, then sanctions are an order. I think calling back ambassadors are in order. I think rethinking areas of cooperation with the Saudis in the near term is in order. I think you have got to pull everything out in order to say to them, look, this is not acceptable. This is a bridge too far. We will stand up for certain kinds of principles.

    Unfortunately, there's absolutely no evidence that this administration has any intention of doing any of that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, Ambassador Feierstein, you have served in Saudi Arabia. You have served across the Gulf. Saudi Arabia is important to U.S. interests in the Gulf. Right?

  • Gerald Feierstein:

    Saudi Arabia has been an important partner for the United States in the region for 70 years.

    We have critical interests that we have always pursued together, the interest of a stable global energy market, interests in regional security. These are areas where the United States and Saudi Arabia have cooperated.

    You can go all the way back to the 1950s and 1960s, what we did together in Afghanistan in the 1980s. So this is a longstanding relationship.

    Beyond that, of course, you have the specific goals and objectives that the Trump administration has identified for its own policies in the Middle East. And there are basically three areas where the administration has indicated that they want to make progress.

    One, of course, is the confrontation with violent extremist organizations, particularly in Syria and Iraq, but also Yemen and more widely.

    Second, of course, is the confrontation with Iran and the desire of the Trump administration to push back on Iran's regional ambitions, its ballistic missile programs and the other aspects that are of concern.

    And then the third area, of course, is the Israeli-Palestinian account, where Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt have — have made this a priority.

    Saudi Arabia is an essential partner in all three of those. So this administration is going to be extremely anxious to try to put the story behind them and move on. The issue, of course, is the credibility of what happens, because the audience is not only Donald Trump and his administration. It's the Hill. We heard what Lindsey Graham had to say. It's also the broader public.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So that brings us, David Rothkopf, to what Lindsey Graham had to say. He said Mohammed bin Salman needs to go.

    Does Mohammed bin Salman need to go? Quickly.

  • David Rothkopf:

    Well, I think, quite possibly, he does. I think the question is, can he regain any of his credibility?

    And you have to look. There have been a pattern of abuses here, the kidnapping of the prime minister of Lebanon, the situation — the situation in Yemen, the rounding up of princes and others and putting them into the Ritz-Carlton.

    This leadership, of particularly Mohammed bin Salman, has a lot of destabilizing steps that they have taken in the past couple of years. And I personally think it's going to be very, very difficult for him to recover that credibility in a way that serves the interests of Saudi Arabia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    David Rothkopf, Ambassador Jerry Feierstein, thank you very much to you both.

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