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Is The Trump Administration Being Too Soft On Saudi Arabia's Crackdown On Dissenters?


Accusations that the Saudis may have abducted or killed a prominent Saudi journalist have drawn attention to the close Saudi-U.S. relationship. Jamal Khashoggi has not been seen since he went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul over a week ago. Turkish media say a squad of Saudis murdered or possibly took him back to Saudi Arabia. If so, it would be just the latest in a string of troubling acts by the kingdom. Today a group of senators demanded the White House consider sanctions on Saudi Arabia, but the Trump administration has been slow to react to the Khashoggi case. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The disappearance of the well-known and highly respected columnist Jamal Khashoggi on October 2 caused an international uproar. Senior political figures from Turkey, the U.K. and beyond were quick to demand Saudi Arabia explain what happened to him. But one week after Khashoggi's disappearance, President Trump still hadn't reached out to the Saudis. Today the administration seemed to kick into action.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This is a bad situation. We cannot let this happen to reporters, to anybody. We can't let this happen. And we're going to get to the bottom of it.

NORTHAM: Other senior administration officials spoke with Saudi's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. And Vice President Mike Pence offered to send the FBI to Turkey if Saudi Arabia asked for help. Danielle Pletka with the American Enterprise Institute says she's not surprised the administration took time to react.

DANIELLE PLETKA: I think the United States has done exactly the right thing so far. We have a limited amount of information. And the president, the vice president, the secretary of state - all of them have expressed grave concern, but they have said correctly that we need to find out more about what happened.

NORTHAM: The delayed reaction has renewed criticism that the administration is too soft on Saudi Arabia, especially the powerful crown prince as he's undertaken deep reforms in the kingdom. Michael Page with Human Rights Watch says Prince Mohammed has allowed women to drive but has been ruthless about stamping out any dissent. Page says the crown prince has rounded up activists. Two of them, a cleric and a woman, could be facing the death penalty.

MICHAEL PAGE: Which is really a change in escalation from what has previously happened, in which rights activists would face very long prison sentences but wouldn't face the death penalty. That's in itself something that really should be a note of concern for allies to Saudi Arabia.

NORTHAM: There have been a series of human rights violations blamed on the young crown prince. Members of Congress have recently become more vocal about civilian casualties in the protracted Saudi-led war in Yemen. There are calls from some senators to delay or cancel arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Gerry Feierstein, a Gulf specialist at the Middle East Institute, says Khashoggi's disappearance may galvanize Congress.

GERRY FEIERSTEIN: The pressure here in Washington for the U.S. government to be more aggressive in trying to get to the bottom of all of this is getting more and more intense, and I think it's bipartisan. And I think that perhaps the administration understands that they can't simply stand by and watch this thing unravel.

NORTHAM: The U.S. relies on Saudi Arabia for intelligence for confronting Iran. And there's oil, says AEI's Pletka.

PLETKA: We've always had a special place in the U.S. foreign policy heart for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one that is not in many ways tied to its performance or its alliance to us but more tied to its place within oil markets.

NORTHAM: President Trump has been vocal about that, recently going after Saudi Arabia to keep oil production high so gas prices stay low. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICARUS HIMSELF'S "DIGGING HOLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.