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Nation & World

Biden Draws Criticism For Failing To Hold Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Accountable

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's walk through a sequence of events. On Friday, the Biden administration released a long-awaited intelligence report concluding that Saudi Arabia's crown prince approved the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The administration then announced sanctions and announced visa restrictions for Saudi nationals who the U.S. says were involved in a killing. But the Biden team stopped short of punishing the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and that is drawing criticism from members of Congress, from human rights groups and from Nicholas Kristof, columnist for The New York Times and a friend of Khashoggi's. His latest piece for the Times is titled "President Biden Lets A Saudi Murderer Walk."

Nick Kristof, welcome.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Good to be with you.

KELLY: Tell me your reaction as you read this short but quite direct report.

KRISTOF: I mean, I was delighted that President Biden released the report. And it certainly is a big step forward from the Trump administration. But it felt as if they were saying, OK, we'll identify the killer, and then we'll go after the minions, but not the person who planned the murder.

KELLY: So what do you think Biden should have done?

KRISTOF: So I think he certainly should have imposed the same kinds of sanctions on MBS that he had imposed on those who actually carried out the murder. And, you know, I would make the point that this isn't just a matter of justice, but it's also a matter of where our interests lie. It's precisely because Saudi Arabia is an important country that we have a window right now, perhaps, to help throw a wrench into MBS' plans to become the next king. And if he does become the next king, we may have to deal with him for the next 50 years. I can think of few more disastrous things for U.S.-Saudi relations than MBS becoming King Mohammed.

KELLY: So you're arguing, this is not just in the moral interest of the U.S., that this is actually in the long-term strategic interests of the U.S.?

KRISTOF: Yeah. Remember; MBS has been poison to everything he touches. He's been enormously destabilizing throughout the Middle East. He created the world's worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen. And some people think that it is a shoo-in for MBS to become the next king. That may be, but we really don't know. And there have been six crown princes in the last 10 years. It seems possible that if we make it very clear to Saudi Arabia that the relationship would be a profoundly troubled one if MBS takes over that there can be a seventh.

KELLY: What about the argument made by White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki that it's not that they don't want to hold Mohammed bin Salman or the Saudis accountable, but that there are more effective ways to do it? She said, we need to be able to leave room to work with the Saudis on areas where there's mutual agreement.

KRISTOF: What we've effectively done is throw a rock at a hornet's nest. We've antagonized MBS and Saudi Arabia, but we haven't done enough to make King Salman think that he needs a new crown prince. And if we're willing to stand up to some degree, then I think it makes sense to try to push a little bit harder in hopes that there will be a new crown prince. And, you know, the stakes are enormous, and it's certainly worth doing more than just tossing a rock.

KELLY: Do you think this is actually realistic? King Salman is 85 years old. He's in poor health. Mohammed bin Salman pretty much controls everything in the kingdom. Is it realistic to think that the U.S. could exert enough influence to change the course of events there?

KRISTOF: I just don't know. And you know, I've talked to a lot of Saudis. Some say it is; some say it isn't. One reason to think that it might be is that MBS himself continues to hold hostage some of his rivals. That suggests that he doesn't feel that he's entirely secure in the position. You know, we do have leverage over Saudi Arabia. There is this perception, I think, in Washington that Saudi Arabia holds all the cards. I mean, they depend on us for everything, and I think we should use that leverage.

KELLY: Nicholas Kristof - he writes a column for The New York Times.

Thank you very much.

KRISTOF: Great to be with you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.