I wanted the White House to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this week for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

I was delighted when the Biden administration released an unclassified intelligence report which confirmed that MBS (as the prince is popularly known) had “approved” the operation that killed the dissident in October 2018. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist, was chopped up by a Saudi hit team with a bonesaw inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

» READ MORE: Will Trump let Saudis get away with alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi? | Trudy Rubin

So when the Biden team pulled its punches, only sanctioning MBS’s underlings, my first reaction echoed that of Agnes Callamard, the special rapporteur who led a U.N. investigation into Khashoggi’s murder. “It is extremely problematic, if not dangerous,” she said, “to acknowledge someone’s culpability and then to tell that someone ‘but we won’t do anything.’”

Yet, I could almost understand the Biden team’s halfway approach. The pros and cons over whether and how to punish MBS reflect our confusing times, when U.S. power is waning and authoritarians like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping believe they can not only crush dissidents at home but kill or kidnap them abroad — with impunity.

So it’s worthwhile laying out the pros and cons of how the United States should respond to the heinous killing of Khashoggi. And then I’ll tell you where I came out.

The Biden team rightly argues they took some serious steps toward “recalibrating” the relationship with Saudi Arabia.

For one thing, former President Donald Trump had refused to release the report or blame the reckless MBS for the murder, only sanctioning a few of his aides after congressional outrage grew heated.

» READ MORE: Jamal Khashoggi isn’t the only journalist murdered for his principles | Trudy Rubin

For another, President Joe Biden immediately announced the end to U.S. support for the Saudi-fueled civil war in Yemen — an MBS project that caused massive humanitarian suffering and pushed Yemen’s Houthi rebels closer to Iran. Sales of “offensive” weapons to Saudi Arabia were halted, and other arms sales frozen.

And the White House made clear that Biden won’t be treating MBS as the de facto ruler, as did Trump and his adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Instead, he will speak only with the ailing 85-year-old King Salman, the prince’s father. No invitations to MBS to visit the U.S. will be forthcoming.

Meantime, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a new visa policy called the “Khashoggi ban” which will deny visas to individuals who harass or harm dissidents outside their home countries on behalf of their rulers. Seventy-six unnamed Saudis were sanctioned, along with more MBS cronies and his personal bodyguard team. Yet the man most responsible for Khashoggi’s death — MBS himself — wasn’t targeted.


The Biden team claims the U.S. doesn’t sanction foreign leaders (although it has done so in the past to a handful of leaders it considers hostile). But the White House clearly concluded it needs a continued relationship with the Saudi kingdom, whose king may die soon, leaving the 35-year-old MBS to rule for decades. U.S. dealings with Riyadh are vital to ending the war in Yemen and stabilizing the region in the event of a new nuclear treaty with Tehran, as well as for the future of any wider peace accord with Israel-Palestine.

And, despite our plummeting need for foreign oil, for the next 10 or 15 years at least, Saudi Arabia remains a crucial energy supplier for allied countries.

Thus, the argument goes, the White House can’t cut off the crown prince, no matter how despicable his actions, only try to curtail his crushing of dissidents and dangerous miscalculations in the region.

“We have urged Saudi Arabia to … adopt institutional, systemic reforms and controls to ensure that anti-dissident activities and operations cease,” said a State Department spokesperson this week. Additional sanctions are possible, says the White House.

» READ MORE: President Biden didn’t show strength bombing Syria, or on MBS. He made America look weak. | Will Bunch

But again, what’s the message to the Saudis, and to the world, about Biden’s much-touted human rights emphasis, if the big guy gets off scot-free?

Yet, the cynic in me questions what impact direct sanctions would have on MBS’s future behavior. He is not going to receive an invitation to the White House anyway. Most Mideast experts I’ve spoken with believe sanctions would not impact his father’s firm decision that MBS will succeed him, and the crown prince has arrested any would-be challengers.

Moreover, the U.S. has an extremely poor record when it comes to trying to impact the choice of rulers in troubled Mideast countries. “We don’t know enough about what goes on in the Royal Court to place that bet,” Council on Foreign Relations Mideast expert Steven Cook told me. I agree.

So the question of sanctioning MBS really comes down to whether it would send a symbolic message that Biden means what he says about human rights violations, but wouldn’t sever relations with the Saudis.

I lean toward taking the risk of sanctioning the crown prince, as a signal to the world that Biden is serious on human rights. Saudi Arabia needs us and relations would continue, regardless. But I’d feel comfortable with not sanctioning MBS if the administration is committed to revisiting the issue should he continue bad behavior, and is ready to use the Khashoggi ban globally to protect dissidents from other countries.

That, at least, would pay tribute to Khashoggi, even if justice will never fully be served.

» READ MORE: Jamal Khashoggi affair highlights what happens when America abdicates role as free press defender | Trudy Rubin