By Ray Hanania
Among the many things for which America’s 1945-1953 President Harry S. Truman is remembered is the plaque on the front of his desk in the Oval Office that read: “The buck stops here.” It meant that whatever any of the hundreds of thousands of Washington bureaucracy employees did, the president took responsibility.
There were echoes of Truman in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s CBS News interview on Sunday night. Interviewer Norah O’Donnell asked MBS point-blank if he had ordered last year’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“Absolutely not,” the crown prince replied. “This was a heinous crime. But I take full responsibility as a leader in Saudi Arabia, especially since it was committed by individuals working for the Saudi government.”
O’Donnell pressed him: “What does that mean, that you ‘take responsibility’?”
MBS said: “When a crime is committed against a Saudi citizen by officials working for the Saudi government, as a leader I must take responsibility. This was a mistake. And I must take all actions to avoid such a thing in the future.”
Before the facts of the Khashoggi killing had even been established, Turkey’s government, long-term political rivals of Saudi Arabia, accused the Kingdom of orchestrating it to silence a Saudi expatriate who had become a caustic critic of Riyadh.
Of course, Khashoggi had been an insider in Saudi Arabia for years, close to many royals and a media adviser at two prominent Saudi embassies. Known also for his ties with Qatar and positive views of the Muslim Brotherhood, he left Saudi Arabia shortly after King Salman ascended the throne and the crown prince had made the country’s political direction clear.
The Anti-Terror Quartet of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Doha and took a hard line against the Brotherhood. Khashoggi chose the US for his self-imposed exile and began writing a column for The Washington Post.
Of course, no country can expect to be above criticism, but the American media obsession with the Kingdom is not without an agenda. Saudi Arabia has become a close partner of the administration of President Donald Trump, who is the target of media attacks that often bypass journalistic principles, and even facts; to the media, Trump can do nothing right and they are determined to bring down him and his allies, such as Saudi Arabia.
Khashoggi’s murder was indeed a heinous crime, but who could think that “orchestrating” it would benefit Saudi Arabia? On the contrary, as the crown prince pointed out, journalists are no threat to his country — but killing a Saudi journalist certainly would be.
If anyone thought MBS gave the interview to O’Donnell in the belief that she would go easy on him, they were proved wrong. She knew she would be judged, and her technique was more like that of a prosecutor than a journalist. The questions were indeed uncomfortable, but what seems to have irked Saudi critics most was that MBS gave straight answers.
“How did you not know about this operation?” O’Donnell asked. MBS replied: “Some think I should know what three million people working for the Saudi government do daily? It’s impossible that the three million would send their daily reports to the leader, or the second highest person in the Saudi government.”
O’Donnell pressed again: “Two of your closest advisers who are accused of orchestrating this plot were fired by the king, removed from your inner circle. The question is, how could you not know if this was carried out by people who are close to you?”
MBS said: “Today, the investigations are being carried out. And once charges are proven against someone, regardless of their rank, it will be taken to court, no exception made.”
He also challenged the CIA to publish the evidence it claims to have showing that he “probably” ordered Khashoggi’s death. “Probably” is a word that has no place in any judicial system. Rather, the phrase that resonates through the US justice system is “innocent until proved guilty” — but apparently it does not apply to Saudi Arabia, despite the Kingdom being one of America’s closest allies for years. Aside from one brief period when Saudi Arabia used its oil power amid rising hysteria against Arabs in the 1970s, the Kingdom has regulated production to keep the cost of gasoline in America among the lowest in the world. MBS reassured US viewers that Saudi Arabia remains committed to its relations with America.
O’Donnell also pressed the crown prince about reports that Saudi women had been tortured in prison. “If this is correct, it is heinous,” MBS replied. “Islam forbids torture. The Saudi laws forbid torture. Human conscience forbids torture. And I will personally follow up on this matter.”
Throughout the interview he stood his ground, giving straight answers to tough questions. “The buck stops here” and “innocent until proved guilty” are aphorisms that have stood the test of time. These days, the media and partisan politics do not respect them. They should.