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Why Khashoggi’s death is a ‘major crisis’ for U.S.-Saudi relationship

On Tuesday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the extradition of the Saudi perpetrators of Jamal Khashoggi's murder, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said senior Saudi officials’ visas would be revoked. Nick Schifrin speaks to Eric Edelman, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, and Henri Barkey from Lehigh University, about Erdogan's agenda and the outlook for U.S.-Saudi relations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to the killing of a Saudi Arabian journalist in Istanbul.

    As we reported, Turkey's President Erdogan called for those responsible for the murder to be put on trial in his country. And the U.S. has increased its pressure on Saudi Arabia.

    Nick Schifrin is back.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo both expressed displeasure with Saudi Arabia. That came after Turkey's president said Saudi Arabia premeditated Khashoggi's death.

    To talk about all that, we turn to Eric Edelman. He was U.S. ambassador to Turkey during the George W. Bush administration. He's also held senior posts at the Defense Department and on the White House staff. And Henri Barkey, who served in the State Department's Policy Planning Office during the Clinton administration. He is now a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

    After the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016, there were a number of false reports in Turkish newspapers that he was one of the coup plotters.

    And welcome to you both.

    Ambassador Edelman, let me start with you.

    President Trump called this a cover-up today. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked about visa revocations and also plans for sanctions.

    Is the response from the U.S. today appropriate, given the nature of the crime and the seriousness of this crisis?

  • Eric Edelman:

    Well, Nick, I think it is appropriate.

    I think the administration at the outset was trying to put the best possible face on this because of the importance it attaches to the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

    But I think they recognize now that there is a head of steam building up on the Hill. There are a lot of people who have supported the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its relationship with the United States in the past, like Lindsey Graham, who are quite concerned about this.

    And I think the administration is trying to get ahead of what will undoubtedly be an important push for sanctions. I'm not sure they're going to be able to get ahead of that, because, as your piece noted, this is major crisis in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, certainly the biggest one since 9/11.

    If evidence is found that actually links Mohammed bin Salman directly to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, this will become an existential crisis for this relationship.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Henri Barkey, a lot of this has been pushed by Turkish President Erdogan and anonymous leaks by Turkish officials. We saw Turkish President Erdogan's speech today.

    Is he motivated by Jamal Khashoggi's death, or is he also motivated by his presence and his place in the region?

  • Henri Barkey:

    Well, he has two major aims here.

    There has always been a competition between Saudi Arabia and Turkey for leadership in the region. But what Mr. Erdogan really wants at this stage is to be able to use the pressure he can muster to get — to essentially dislodge Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, from power, because he sees MBS essentially as being very, very anti-Turkish, and he sees MBS as a block against Turkish ambitions in the region.

    But, beyond that, what he's also trying to do is to use the gift essentially the Saudis gave him to improve Turkey's very, very tarnished reputation internationally.

    I mean, after all, let's not forget that this is the country that is the largest jailer of journalists and NGO folks. They — only recently they released Pastor Brunson, after two years in jail under really ridiculous charges. There are three American State Department employees in jail in Turkey.

    So, Erdogan is trying to essentially change the conversation and put pressure on the Saudis. And By saying that he wants the perpetrators to be judged in Turkey, he's putting more pressure on the Saudis and keeping the conversation going.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Eric Edelman, to put more pressure on the Saudis is one thing. To dislodge, as we just heard Henri Barkey say, to dislodge MBS, is that really possible?

  • Eric Edelman:

    It's hard to tell, because what goes on inside the House of Saud is very opaque, I think, to outsiders.

    There certainly have been historical examples in the past of not just crown princes, but kings being replaced, so that's not unprecedented. What is unprecedented has been the accumulation of power that Mohammed bin Salman has had in his hands over the last year-and-a-half.

    Whether that means he's made a lot of enemies, who now may find this an opportune time to act, or whether he still has overwhelming control, I think what you saw today, as your piece showed, was efforts to at least put on a face of unity. Whether that will continue to be the case, I think, is anybody's guess at this point.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Henri Barkey, most of the information we have that's at least public has come from Erdogan today and also anonymous leaks in the Turkish media.

    How believable are some of these leaks? And what's motivating this constant pressure through the media that officials around Erdogan have been doing?

  • Henri Barkey:

    Well, this is a very good question.

    I mean, there have been leaks now for two weeks almost, and those leaks included very, very sordid details, including torture. There was a suggestion that they had video and audio, and yet Mr. Erdogan didn't mention these things today in his speech.

    And So far the Turks have not produced any of this evidence. I suspect there is no such audio — or certainly not video. It's not that easy to bug an embassy. And Ambassador Edelman will tell you probably from his own experience that they do sweep embassies fairly often.

    But the interesting thing about these leaks is that we saw the Western press essentially buy all these leaks as if they were the truth. I mean, nobody ever produced any evidence that his fingers were cut. And yet every single newspaper repeated that, and you see it everywhere as if it's a fact.

    But this was — has been very, very effective. It has made the Turks look as a serious source and allowed them to determine the agenda.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It has been very effective, Eric Edelman, on putting pressure on Saudi Arabia and personally on putting pressure on Mohammed bin Salman.

    The White House's priorities for the region largely go through Saudi Arabia. Quickly, in the time we have left, how dependent is the U.S. on MBS Himself vs. a historic dependence and alliance on Saudi Arabia?

  • Eric Edelman:

    Well, I think, Nick, you put yourself — you put your finger on what I think is the biggest problem we face right now, which is we have big interests in Saudi Arabia, have had for a long time. There are energy interests. There are geopolitical interests.

    It's impossible to have a containment strategy, for instance, with Iran without Saudi Arabia playing some role in it. But, although the administration has elevated the relationship with Saudi Arabia since it came in, it has made it a relationship between families, between Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin Salman, between the Al Saud and Trump families.

    We need to have a relationship that is institutionalized and based on the state institutions. And I think what you're seeing, with the role Secretary Pompeo is playing, that Gina Haspel is playing in her trip to Turkey…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The CIA director.

  • Eric Edelman:

    … is to try now and get this back into an institutional relationship, rather than a family-to-family relationship.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ambassador Eric Edelman, Professor Henri Barkey, thank you very much.

  • Henri Barkey:

    Thank you.

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