Mar 1, 2021

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Now what?

I’m Isaac Saul, and you’re reading Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone forwarded you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 13 minutes.

Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, some awesome reader feedback and a question about vaccine messaging.

Photo credit: April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy

Clarifications & correction.

There are three things I want to make note of from Thursday’s newsletter on the Equality Act.

  1. I referred to the “Church of Latter-Day Saints.” Several Mormon readers kindly explained to me that the proper title is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” and while the way I wrote it is quite common there is a good reason for the distinction.
  2. The numbers section had several figures that referred to the “biggest concerns” for Democrats and Republicans. Several readers wrote in to note that this was misleading, and probably explicitly wrong, as the actual data showed the percentage of Democrats/Republicans who said an issue was a concern for them — they were not actually ranking the issue as the most concerning. It was just that the highest percentage of respondents said that issue was concerning in the first place.
  3. Finally, an explicit correction: I wrote that MMA fighter Fallon Fox, a trans woman, was “barred” from fighting in the UFC after knocking out her opponent Tamikka Brents in a brutal fashion. Fox was not actually barred: she had a green light from the Florida athletics commission to continue fighting. But she faced such a torrent of criticism from leaders at the UFC and fellow fighters that she never fought again.

This is the 32nd Tangle correction in its 79-week existence and the first since February 22nd. I track corrections in an effort to be transparent and believe my readers are getting much smarter.

Equality Act feedback.

There was a deluge of terrific feedback to Thursday’s edition on the Equality Act. I heard from trans women, pastors, experts on trans sports policies, nurses, history teachers, and a whole assortment of moms, educators, religious folks, LGBTQ activists and people who were all of those things and more. For anyone interested in this issue, I really cannot encourage you enough to read some of the feedback. For those of you who haven’t heard back from me, I just want you to know I am getting there. I got hundreds of emails and am more than halfway done (while still catching up on others from last week!)

As I always say, reader feedback is one of my favorite parts of this newsletter. As Tangle grows,  I just may take a little more time to reply to everyone. I do want to say, despite the sensitivity of this topic, I was thrilled with how level-headed and cordial so much of the feedback was. It was thought-provoking, challenging, and honest, but never rude or accusatory. Thank you. You can read it below.

Read the feedback!

Quick hits.

  1. President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package passed the House of Representatives on Saturday and now heads to the Senate for edits and a vote (Politico). The $15 minimum wage hike failed to qualify as relevant to the bill by the Senate parliamentarian, meaning it won’t be part of the package. (Bloomberg, subscription)
  2. Former President Trump addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where he criticized Joe Biden, assured attendees he does not plan to create a third political party, called on Republicans to unify and teased a 2024 presidential run. (Fox News)
  3. President Biden ordered airstrikes on buildings in Syria that U.S. intelligence officials said were used by Iranian-backed militias to conduct rocket strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq. At least 22 people were killed. (NBC News)
  4. Iran rejected an offer for direct U.S. nuclear talks that the European Union tried to facilitate, setting up a roadblock on the Biden administration’s attempt to re-enter the Iran nuclear agreement (Wall Street Journal). Tangle covered the Iran Nuclear Deal last week. (Read here)
  5. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is facing a second sexual harassment allegation from a former aide, a 25-year-old woman who says he asked her if she had ever had sexual intercourse with an older man. Cuomo apologized for “insensitive remarks,” saying he sometimes teases staffers about their personal lives as a way to “add some levity” to the workplace. (The New York Times, subscription)

What D.C. is talking about.

Jamal Khashoggi. Reminder: Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian author, a columnist for The Washington Post and an editor of the Al-Arab News Channel who was murdered in 2018 at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Along with his career as a reporter and columnist, it’s also been reported that Khashoggi was at one time a member of the Muslim brotherhood, served the Saudi royal family as an intelligence agent, and even developed a relationship with Osama bin Laden before his rise to extremism in the late 1990s.

By the time of his death, Khashoggi was a well-known Saudi Arabian dissident, a legal resident of Virginia, and arguably the most popular columnist and political pundit in the Arab world. He had sharply criticized Saudia Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi-led war in Yemen. In October of 2018, Khashoggi was called to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up documents related to his forthcoming marriage. He never re-emerged.

News reports indicated he had been murdered and dismembered inside. The Saudi government gave various, shifting explanations for what had happened, initially claiming he had left the consulate alive. Then it claimed he died inside after a struggle. Eventually, his death was confirmed by the Saudi government. TIME Magazine named Khashoggi the person of the year a few months after his death, and leaked reports indicated it was a planned, premeditated murder.

On Friday, Joe Biden’s administration released a long-awaited report on the death of the Washington Post journalist. In it, intelligence officials confirmed that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS), the second most powerful person in Saudi Arabia (behind his father, the king), approved the assassination of Khashoggi in 2018. Intelligence officials came to this conclusion largely by assessing who was involved in his killing in the context of the Crown Prince’s control over the actions of those men. After the report’s release, the Biden administration took no direct action against Prince Mohammed, though it did announce travel and financial sanctions on other Saudis involved in the killing.

The Saudi government called the report a “negative, false and unacceptable assessment” of its leaders, claiming it made “inaccurate conclusions” and noting that it “had clearly denounced the heinous crime.” Eight people were prosecuted by the Saudi government in connection to the murder, though the trials were secretive, and Prince Mohammed took responsibility for the killing because it happened “on his watch,” but has steadfastly denied he ordered or planned it.

Today, we’ll look at some reactions to the report and some perspectives on how people familiar with the situation think the Biden administration should handle the news.

What the right is saying.

The right is mostly interested in preserving a working relationship with Saudi Arabia to maintain stability in the Middle East, though some are dissenting from that view in the wake of the latest report.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board noted that the U.S. will apply a travel ban to 76 Saudis, and “it might do some good as a warning to foreign officials that they and their families could be barred from the U.S. if they act against opponents abroad. Don’t underestimate how many foreign leaders want to send their children to Stanford or Duke.

“But note that the U.S. didn’t apply that sanction to MBS, who is the Saudi defense minister and probably the next King,” it added. “Democrats and the media are already calling this inadequate and want MBS barred if not indicted. The Biden Administration seems to appreciate that this would lead to a more serious break in U.S.-Saudi relations that would help adversaries in Tehran, Moscow and Beijing. Mr. Trump had a moral tin ear, but his support for the Saudis and Israel, and opposition to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, helped pave the way for the historic Abraham Accords between Israel and Arab states. The Biden Administration should think twice about alienating the Saudis, who are rare U.S. friends in a dangerous part of the world.”

In Spectator, Gerald M. Feierstein said Biden promised to take a tougher line on Saudi Arabia when he campaigned, but now “the success of the administration’s regional goals and objectives depends on maintaining cooperative relations with Riyadh.

“Resolving Yemen, re-engaging Iran and reducing tensions in the Gulf as well as the broader issues of counter-terrorism cooperation and Saudi Arabia’s role as an anchor of the global energy sector and economy all require that the Saudis continue to work closely with the US and embrace the US strategy,” he wrote. “In light of these realities, President Biden has come down in a place not far from his predecessor… Saudi Arabia and the crown prince are too important to punish.”

Others were befuddled by the Biden administration’s decision to “go easy on MBS,” as Rick Moran put it in PJ Media.

“The cold war has been over for 30 years and the U.S. no longer sees the Saudis as a bulwark against the Soviets in the Middle East,” he wrote. “Also, oil imports from the Middle East have declined 30 percent in the last decade. And the Saudis have used their regional influence in recent years to start a dirty war in Yemen, tried an unsuccessful boycott of Qatar, and forced Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign. These have all proven to be missteps that damaged relations with the U.S. Frankly, I find it incomprehensible that MBS is being allowed to walk… He’s just another Arab tyrant who murders his own citizens if they make him angry.”

What the left is saying.

The left is upset the Biden administration is not taking a tougher line, and calling for direct sanctions on MBS and a crackdown on Saudi Arabia.

The Washington Post editorial board said the report “confirmed what has been widely known since the fall of 2018: The killing was approved by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.”

“That heinous crime against a permanent U.S. resident and contributing columnist to The Post should not go unpunished,” it wrote. “Under U.S. law, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, as he is widely known, ought to be banned from travel to the United States and subjected to an asset freeze. That President Biden has chosen not to pursue that course suggests that the ‘fundamental’ change he promised in U.S.-Saudi relations will not include holding to account its reckless ruler, who consequently is unlikely to be deterred from further criminal behavior.

“To be sure, Mr. Biden is putting a stop to the grotesque and unprecedented coddling of Saudi Arabia by former president Donald Trump,” it wrote. “Mr. Trump supplied MBS with weapons for his disastrous intervention in Yemen even after Congress prohibited it; Mr. Biden has ended the sale of those munitions. In the end, however, the U.S.-Saudi relationship under Mr. Biden may look much like it did before the Trump administration, when the kingdom was treated as a prime U.S. ally in the Middle East.”

In The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote that the “the crown prince killed my friend Jamal Khashoggi, and we do next to nothing.”

“President Biden choked,” he wrote. “Instead of imposing sanctions on M.B.S., Biden appears ready to let the murderer walk. The weak message to other thuggish dictators considering such a murder is: Please don’t do it, but we’ll still work with you if we have to. The message to Saudi Arabia is: Go ahead and elevate M.B.S. to be the country’s next king if you must.

“All this is a betrayal of my friend Jamal Khashoggi and of his values and ours,” Kristof wrote. “As a matter of consistency he should have imposed the same sanctions on M.B.S., including asset freezes and travel bans, that the United States imposed in 2018 on lower-level figures who carried out the murder of Khashoggi. These sanctions should also apply to the stooges and front companies that M.B.S. has used to accumulate assets around the world.”

In The Atlantic, Graeme Wood underscored the difficulty of Biden’s current position and said “the end of this sordid episode will probably be an American official shaking hands, once again, with a murderer.”

“How many dead dissidents is too many?” Wood wrote for The Atlantic. “As a fellow writer, I put a hard limit on murdered journalists at zero… [But] Bin Salman’s violence against political opponents coexists with a dramatic expansion of the social freedoms available to Saudis (including Saudi women), as well as a diversification of the economy away from oil. The crown prince has branded those improvements as his own, and has made them over the objections of other royals. They will be the hostage of any reset. If he goes, they go too.

“What would recalibration look like?” Wood asked. “First, banish any thought of formal punishment by Saudi Arabia itself. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, in the true premodern sense, and bin Salman is the law… Then consider the more realistic options. The United States could implore Saudi Arabia’s ruler, the 85-year-old King Salman, to demote Mohammed bin Salman and remove him from the line of succession.”

My take.

This was the worst-kept secret on the planet. I’m normally skeptical of any two-page intelligence report that conveniently fits into a U.S. narrative about a foreign leader, but in this case, the Saudi Crown Prince’s clownish attempt at covering up the murder was enough. The report really wasn’t needed, the only question now is what to do about it.

First and foremost is the reality that MBS is not who we hoped he’d be. Yes, he’s overseen some social reforms that encouraged more freedom in Saudi Arabia — like allowing women to get their driver’s licenses or attend concerts. But remember, it’s just two years since Prince Mohammed graced the cover of TIME Magazine under the headline “Should the world buy what the Crown Prince is selling?”

The answer is clear: no. When was the last time a modern reformist sent his ghouls to strangle a journalist and then use a bone saw to dismember his body inside a government building? MBS has similarly imprisoned, banished or disappeared other rivals and dissidents. He is a brutal, deadly rising monarch and he is not doing a very good job hiding that fact.

When news of the report broke, I had a similar reaction to many on the right: It is horrific, it is confirmed, and there is very little we can do. Is retaliation for this crime worth upending stability in a region that’s already experiencing humanitarian crises in every direction? Is it worth losing an ally in the effort to contain Iran’s power? Is it worth upending the undeniable, though limited, progress that has been made to ensure more freedoms for residents of Saudi Arabia?

That being said, I was quite moved by Kristof’s argument in The Times: “it’s precisely because Saudi Arabia is so important that Biden should stand strong and send signals — now, while there is a window for change — that the kingdom is better off with a new crown prince who doesn’t dismember journalists.”

The truth is there have been six Saudi crown princes over the last decade, and only one has become king. King Salman is 85 and reportedly aging fast, but there is still time to pressure him for change before the murderous prince, just 35, stands to become Saudi Arabia’s king for the next 50 years. This is the kind of diplomatic pressure that requires no violence, no regime change war, no boots on the ground — just the strength of the U.S. saying there is a line MBS knew he couldn’t cross and he crossed it, so there will be severe repercussions.

Is such a goal realistic? Perhaps not. Plenty of experts view MBS’s rise as inevitable, and they could be right that we have no cards to play to pressure King Salman into going in a different direction. Certainly, conservatives doing a crude cost-benefit analysis of the lives impacted if we were to throw our relationship with the Saudis into the wind are on solid ground, and I have a tough time disputing their sober analysis. I instinctively agree with it. But it’s still hard to accept that throwing a few sanctions at the allies of MBS is enough. We are talking about someone who we know is responsible for ordering the killing of a Washington Post columnist.

At the very least, we’re conceding that this man will be the preeminent leader of a nation we have to do business with for the coming decades, with nary a fight. It’s stomach-turning, even if there appear to be few alternatives.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Today's New York Times newsletter discussed vaccine alarmism. A few days ago, they discussed Covid absolutism in a similar way. Interestingly, I think the Times often promotes the type of messaging that these pieces are critiquing—even today's edition of The Daily warned of vaccines not being 100% effective, vaccinated individuals potentially transmitting the virus, and the need to wear masks long after getting the vaccine, all messages that David Leonhardt described as being rooted in truth but “fundamentally misleading” in today's newsletter. I'm curious what you think—do U.S. health experts (and journalists) have a messaging problem? Do they put too much emphasis on uncertainty and risks at times?

— Jacob, Detroit, Michigan

Tangle: Yes. I think they have a messaging problem and I think it is going to damage our long-term prospects for defeating the coronavirus.

I think for many Americans the message being received right now is “if I get the vaccine, I have to keep wearing a mask and social distancing.” Which is true, but only because not enough other people have the vaccine yet.

I understand there are things we don’t know — like whether a vaccine will prevent transmission or not (it’s looking increasingly as if it does). But in order to ramp up interest in a vaccine, we need to show the public that it is, actually, the way back to normalcy. Most news outlets and indeed a lot of health experts seem to emphasize the unknowns of the vaccines while downplaying the knowns: that they almost entirely eliminate the chance of getting seriously ill or dying of COVID-19.

Recently, I’ve heard health experts are predicting that supply will outstrip demand this spring, and I think that reveals the problem: there still aren’t enough people who want one. While vaccine skepticism is moving in the right direction, we’d benefit a lot from better messaging on just how incredible these vaccines are, and how effective their use appears to be.

Personally, I’d maybe even take it a step further. A friend and I were recently kicking around the idea that President Biden should remove his mask now that he’s been vaccinated, symbolizing to Americans that this is what lies on the other side of being vaccinated. Of course, this may increase the risk of people thinking the “pandemic is over,” but if properly framed it could send the message we should be sending: that we’re one major vaccine push away from going back to a life resembling normal.

The counterpoint to all of this is that the current messaging, or whatever health experts are doing, does appear to be working: cases are plummeting, vaccine inoculation is up to over 2 million doses administered per day and most Americans appear to still be observing social distancing rules. But on the whole, I do feel the vaccine messaging has centered far too much on its unknown potential weaknesses (i.e. its effectiveness against alternate strains or whether it will stop transmission) and not nearly enough on what I see as the most important fact: a vaccine virtually guarantees that you will not become seriously ill from coronavirus.

A story that matters.

Last week, we released a new podcast episode with Ciaran O’Connor from Braver Angels. Normally, I wouldn’t use this section to promote our own material, but in this case, I think it qualifies: O’Connor’s organization works to depolarize America by facilitating conversations between people with stark political differences. I had been in touch with him for some time, but we finally got to sit down and talk about how these conversations work, whether America is really divided, if bringing the country together is possible and what he’s learned from working at Braver Angels. I thought it was a really interesting interview with some important, tangible tips about how to have difficult political conversations. You can listen to it here.


  • 97%. The percentage of CPAC attendees who said they approved of the job Trump did as president.
  • 68%. The percentage of CPAC attendees who said they wanted Trump to run again in 2024.
  • 32%. The percentage of CPAC attendees who said they did not want Trump to run again in 2024 or had no opinion.
  • 4.7 million. The number of consumer scam reports in 2020, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
  • 3.2 million. The number of consumer scam reports in 2019, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
  • 16. The number of states that have now voted to legalize cannabis after Virginia passed a new legalization bill on Saturday.

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Have a nice day.

Finding a vaccine is not easy. The CDC is trying to make it easier. In partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital and Castlight Health, the CDC launched a new tool this week that builds on the existing Vaccine Finder platform and tries to capture data in areas near you to tell you where you can get a vaccine if you want one. "The idea is to show where COVID-19 vaccine providers [are] that are open to the public — how to contact them, how to book an appointment, and try to show the daily inventory status so people are clear where there's vaccine and where there isn't," John Brownstein, the founder of VaccineFinder and chief information officer at Boston Children's Hospital, told NPR. I took a brief look at the tool and it seems more sophisticated than what is on the state government websites I’ve seen. If you’re having trouble, give it a shot (pun intended).

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