What Mattis Said in the Middle East
The defense secretary said he pressed his Saudi counterpart on the murder of a U.S.-based journalist, but U.S.-Saudi relations appear little changed.
PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi while in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey appears—for now—unlikely to shift U.S. military policy towards Riyadh.
During a high-profile security conference in Manama, Bahrain, on Saturday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met informally with Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Jubeir, pressing the Kingdom official on the need for “a full and complete investigation” into the murder.
Although Mattis had offered a public warning from the podium earlier in the day, insisting that “the murder of [Khashoggi] in a diplomatic facility must concern us all,” he did not mention the Gulf kingdom by name and on Sunday morning, gave reporters a positive read-out of the brief meeting with Jubeir.
Mattis said he had received “full agreement from Jubeir” on the need for transparency and a complete investigation. “No reservations at all. We need to know what happened. It was very collaborative, in agreement.”
The U.S. will continue to offer targeting and other military support to Saudi Arabia in its campaign in Yemen while pushing for a negotiated end to the punishing war, Mattis said.
“We’ll continue to support the defense of the Kingdom,” he said. “We do not accept that there is any reason for a slow-down in the effort to bring this to a negotiated end.”
The careful emphasis on the importance of the investigation into Khashoggi’s death puts Mattis to a certain degree in lockstep with Riyadh—Jubeir on Saturday claimed Riyadh had been blamed for the killing before the investigation was complete—and highlights the central role the Kingdom plays in the Trump administration’s Middle East strategy. Saudi Arabia is seen as an important counterweight to a more muscular Iran, a nation whose containment the Trump administration has made a top priority.
The Gulf nation is also seen as critical to ensuring a stable global oil market, although it is not the U.S.’s primary oil source.
The activity of Iranian proxies across the region—in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere—“is probably the one point that was brought up by everyone I was talking to in various private discussions and public discussions around the table [at the Manama Dialogue],” Mattis told reporters. “Just because It’s a proxy, we don’t agree that they lose accountability and responsibility for these things.”
In his public remarks at the conference, the defense secretary sought to reassure allies and partners in the region that U.S. commitment to the Middle East remains steadfast and its “respect for the Saudi people…undiminished.” Meantime, he emphasized the role of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in responding to the Khashoggi affair. Pompeo’s department has already revoked the visas of suspected killers, and State “will be taking additional measures,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him. He also said Congress has a responsibility to respond to the killing.
He did not announce any change in arms sales policy to Riyadh, as called for by some U.S. lawmakers. President Trump has expressed ambivalence about canceling arms sales to the kingdom, no matter what the investigation turns up, citing jobs and income generated by “$110 billion” in weapons exports — a number experts call vastly inflated.
The investigation into Khashoggi’s murder, led by Saudi and Turkish authorities, is still going on. The U.S. so far has no public role in the probe but has seen Turkish-gathered intelligence; CIA Director Gina Haspel earlier this week flew to Turkey to listen to audio purported to capture the killing of Khashoggi.
Asked about the reliability of the Saudi-led investigation on Sunday, Mattis referred to the work of Turkish investigators as evidence that the probe would reveal the truth.
"Certainly Turkey, with the evidence they have compiled, will ensure there is more than one review of what is going on here, and I'm certain the investigation will include the evidence that Turkey has put forward so far," Mattis told reporters at a joint press conference in Prague.
Riyadh has offered several explanations of his death, starting with an outright denial to, most recently, a claim that it was a “premeditated” murder carried out by rogue security officials.
In public, Jubeir struck a defiant tone, chiding “hysteria in the media” over the murder.
“I think people have assigned blame on Saudi Arabia with such certainty before the investigation is complete,” he said.
But a drip-drip-drip of grisly intelligence leaks in Turkish papers that have turned out to be true has super-charged scrutiny on the Kingdom and its young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS. The 33-year-old already faced criticism for clamping down on dissent and imprisoning political opponents and family members.
The Trump administration, led by the president’s son-in-law, White House senior advisor Jared Kushner, has embraced MBS as a key partner in the region. Officials have declined to speculate what the response might be if MBS himself is found to have direct involvement with the plot to kill Khashoggi, who was a fierce critic of Riyadh.
But U.S. lawmakers from both parties have expressed mounting frustration that the Kingdom is not being held to account for either their alleged killing of Khashoggi or civilian deaths in Yemen, where errant Saudi airstrikes have contributed to the growing humanitarian disaster there.
The Kingdom has long been an irritant on Capitol Hill, often across partisan lines. In 2016, lawmakers overrode President Barack Obama’s veto of a bill giving 9/11 victims the ability to sue the country; the Senate last year took up legislation to block some of the arms deals with Riyadh in a resolution that was defeated by just a handful of votes.
After weeks of denials and shifting storylines from Riyadh, it’s unclear whether a Saudi-led investigation will have enough credibility to silence suspicions. The president has referred to the incident as “the worst cover-up ever.” Critics of the kingdom note that it was almost two full weeksbefore Turkish officials were allowed access to the embassy where Khashoggi was killed; hours before the Turkish investigatory team arrived, a cleaning crew was photographed entering the building and Turkish investigators reported smelling “chemicals had been used.”
For some lawmakers, the mounting public evidence of Riyadh’s involvement in the killing suggests that MBS almost certainly had a direct hand in the killing.
“Yes, I think he did it,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN last week.