The European reaction to Khashoggi

The mainstream media has criticized President Trump’s reaction to reports that Saudi Arabia is responsible for the disappearance and probable death of Jamal Khashoggi. Trump has said he is waiting for more facts, clearly an appropriate position to take. He has also said that if the Saudis are responsible for killing Khashoggi the U.S. response will be “severe punishment.” From the media’s perspective, this statement seems unobjectionable.

At the same time, however, the president has said he won’t scuttle a big arms deal with the Saudis over Khashoggi. This statement is the main source of media discontent.

But according to the Washington Post, European nations seem, if anything, even less willing to see trade with Saudi Arabia affected by Khashoggi’s fate. Rick Noack reports:

While Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement over the weekend in which they called for a “credible investigation,” none of the three countries have gone beyond the remarks so far voiced by the White House. If anything, they’ve been even less vocal.

While U.S. pressure on Trump has been bipartisan, in Europe, calls to punish Saudi Arabia have mostly come from opposition parties. Britain’s Labour Party pressed the Conservative government over the weekend to stop arms sales to the country “until they changed their ways,” said Labour foreign policy expert Emily Thornberry. While German observers have lashed out at Trump for refusing to punish the Saudis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said the Khashoggi case and German exports to Riyadh were “two unrelated things.”

The European joint statement during the weekend made no reference to possible sanctions, and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt later only said that the country would consider an “appropriate way to react” if the Saudis were found to be behind the writer’s disappearance.

It’s understandable that the U.S. and the Europeans are reluctant to damage their economies over the fate of one man in a bloody region of the world. But for the U.S. in particular, it’s not just a question of economics. Saudi Arabia is a key strategic ally in the quest to thwart Iranian ambitions.

Rather than remaining neutral in the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration picked a side. As between the two unsavory powers, it picked the Saudis.

Both decisions were reasonable and, in my view, correct. The strategic thinking behind the decisions applies in full force even if, as seems very possible, the Saudis were responsible for killing Khashoggi.

Last night, I heard Sen. Marco Rubio tell Fox News’ Shannon Bream that if the U.S. criticizes human rights abuses by Iran and Russia, it can hardly fail to criticize the Saudis if they killed Khashoggi. That’s true as far as it goes. The U.S. certainly should criticize the Saudis in that case. It should also couple that criticism with some sort of punishment.

The question is how far we should go. In my view, we should neither jeopardize our strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia nor inflict significant damage to our economy.