Donald Trump says he told John Bolton when he hired him as National Security Advisor, “No, no wars.” But Bolton is a smart man who knows how to operate in the government to get his way. And his way is unabated hostility to the rest of the world. He has recently condemned the International Court of Justice. He supported the Iraq war. He is an advocate of preventive war against Iran and North Korea.
But the Jamal Khashoggi murder is standing in the way of a war against Iran. John Bolton must be sad. And, probably, working hard to find a way through this crisis.
It is clear that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and ruler of the country, ordered an operation to kill Khashoggi. Turkey is leaking information daily – today it was scans of the passports of the 15 men apparently sent to Turkey to commit the deed. We can ask why Turkey is being so cooperative – a little later in this post.
The Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where the murder occurred, has had cleaning and painting crews in over the last few days.
An idea was floated that the cover might be that this was an attempted abduction and interrogation that went wrong, but that didn’t take much heat off. Now there are attempts to place the blame elsewhere than MBS, but they’re not going to float either. What they may do is give President Donald Trump, who has been desperately playing for time, something he can say and perhaps even believe.
The Saudi – US relationship dates back to the 1950s, when the UK gave up its empire and direction of the oil industry. Oil has been Saudi Arabia’s primary contribution to American security. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi. After that, American bases were pulled from Saudi Arabia. The country itself, as an American ally, has been something of a balancer in the region. MBS’s attacks on his own countrymen and now the obvious and brutal murder of a journalist abroad are changing that.
Republican Senators are speaking out against this blatant act, but their history has been to fall into line behind Trump when he moves. At the moment, this weakens his position slightly.
The Saudis have been poor allies for some time. Fracking and increasing American oil production make their oil less of a strategic necessity. The fact that the murder was of a journalist has galvanized the media, who seem to have learned something about open-source investigations from organizations like Bellingcat. It looks like they will pursue this story. Businesses are dropping out of an upcoming Saudi meeting. Washington consultants and lobbyists are dropping Saudi Arabia as a client.
Bolton’s problem is this: If he wants a war against Iran, he needs allies in the region. Israel would be one, and Saudi Arabia has been pressing for American actions against Iran since before Trump. Trump fulfilled one of those Saudi desires by pulling America out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal. US sanctions will be levied on Iran on November 4. If Iran reacts badly to those sanctions, say by starting uranium enrichment, Bolton will have his pretext for preventive war. But he needs those allies.
Additionally, public acceptance of a war against Iran is going to be difficult this time around. People are more aware than they were in the runup to Iraq, and government claims about Iran have been called out. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has visited Saudi Arabia and has reported that King Salman and MBS assured him that a thorough investigation will be done. The Turks are investigating too.
The Turks are releasing a great deal of information about the incident. They claim to have recordings of the murder and release tidbits about that. They have released security camera video and passport scans.
I have not followed relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia carefully. This article says that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cast himself as a supporter of the Arab Spring movements, which frighten the Saudi monarchy. So it may be that Erdogan is trying to destabilize the Sauds. In any case, this also works against a war against Iran. Two American friends in the area are fighting with each other, and the fight could well get worse.
The situation is very fluid, but many countries’ interests are in play. Bolton, too, is working hard to pull things back in line for a war.
[Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.]