The Saudis' dangerous game of truth or dare

The Saudis' dangerous game of truth or dare
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The current flap with Saudi Arabia is one of the most complicated diplomatic crises in many years. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi within the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has hit a nerve in the international zeitgeist that neither Riyadh nor Washington can afford to ignore.

Spinning the story is not a sustainable option, especially for the Saudis. The most recent Saudi statement claiming that Khashoggi’s death was a “painful outcome” resulting from an unexpected fight that broke out within the consulate is not viable. There is too much information from other sources for this version of events to be convincing. And there are too many intelligence agencies and media outlets worldwide with presumably more details about the event that have yet to be disclosed for any party to successfully “handle.”

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The Turks seem to be holding their purported audio of the event over the heads of the Saudis like the sword of Damocles, should Riyadh continue to deviate too far from the facts and Turkey’s own national interest. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week reiterated that he is sitting on more intelligence and made clear that he has no intention of letting go of the issue. Whether he releases all the details, or not, the full unabridged reality will become public.

Waiting it out is not an option, either. Saying that they need another month to conduct a full investigation will not lessen the pressure. Media and congressional activities almost certainly will keep it very much alive. When news of the Iran-Contra Affair hit the airwaves on Nov. 25, 1986, I recall CIA Director William Casey incredulously asking a small group of us in his office, “Boys, this will all blow over right?” In the end, it almost brought down the Reagan administration.  

In today’s interconnected world with the public, the press, the private sector and several governments all clamoring for answers, this story won’t blow over. It is too big for anyone here or in the kingdom to ride out.

Likewise, deflection is not the answer. Arresting a few intelligence operatives and announcing the creation of a committee to “restructure” Saudi intelligence does little to address the issue of who bears the real responsibility for Khashoggi’s death. I am reminded of when President Nixon believed he could stem fallout from Watergate by asking CIA Director Richard Helms to say it was a national security matter, in an unsuccessful attempt to squash the investigation. In cases that have reached such a high profile as this one has, the truth inevitably will emerge.

Hopefully, King Salman will understand soon that it is in the Saudis’ best interest to preempt future intelligence disclosures by offering the world an accurate accounting of the facts and in taking measures to change its leadership and security posture. It’s hard to see how Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) can stay above such an accountability process, should it occur.

Historically, when grave foreign policy crises such as this one occur, the conventional diplomatic playbook dictates that someone has to fall on the sword for the situation to reset. Of course, with the ever-more powerful crown prince as the de facto leader of the kingdom, all bets are off. There is no obvious standing successor for him, and he has managed to consolidate power under him to such an extent that a changing of the guard is highly problematic.

That MbS is to lead the investigation into Khashoggi’s death and oversee the Saudi intelligence reform committee shows that he and the Royal Council are not yet poised to undergo a leadership change. Recent press suggests that King Salman may be inserting himself into the fray, which, if accurate, would be a positive development in curbing some of MbS’s power or nudging him into a lesser role.

The burden is on Saudi Arabia to fix the problem, and it will take not one but a series of actions to right the ship. This effort needs to start with substantive changes that effectively rein in the crown prince’s extraordinarily wide range of power in Saudi Arabia. Other initiatives that would garner additional goodwill and show a substantive change in policy could include the release of political prisoners and the implementation of an authentic legal process to determine their possible culpability for economic crimes.

On the international front, an increase in humanitarian aid in Yemen and the initiation of a peace process would be welcome, as would a stand down from the diplomatic spat with Qatar. Of course, under the current power structure, this is a very big ask.

If Washington takes a hard line on leadership change, it is possible that MbS could forego his alliance with the Trump administration. This likely would set off a host of unwanted chaos in the Middle East, as well as instability in the kingdom itself, along with a potentially destabilizing spike in oil prices.

The best course for the United States, for now, is to continue to insist, just as President TrumpDonald John TrumpBroward County official Brenda Snipes submits resignation after criticism Retired lieutenant general tears into Trump over attacks against Navy SEAL: 'Disgusting' Senate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks MORE and Secretary of State Pompeo apparently have been doing behind closed doors, on the truth of what happened. The administration and Congress should be skeptical of the kingdom’s current version of events and be mindful to distance the United States from the dissembling and demonstrative exercise in bad judgment.  

No matter how one slices it, the way forward starts with the truth.  

Jack Devine is a former CIA chief of worldwide operations, president of the New York-based business intelligence firm The Arkin Group, and author of  “Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story.”