The Biden administration formally acknowledged on Friday what President Donald Trump would not, that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia approved the plan to kill the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But Mr. Biden seems to have concluded that the potential cost of taking action against the 35-year-old de facto ruler of a key American ally was simply too high.
In making the intelligence conclusions public with only minimal redactions, the administration did what should have been done a long time ago. The report was demanded by Congress more than a year ago, and its conclusions amounted to a summary of what has been widely reported: Mr. Khashoggi, a critic of the crown prince living in exile and writing for The Washington Post, was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, and there he was killed and dismembered by a team of Saudi assassins. That this could not have been done without at least the assent of the crown prince was generally presumed.
The intelligence community’s conclusion, set out in the two-page report, was that the crown prince’s control of major decision-making in the kingdom, the role of his advisers and personal security detail in the operation and his “support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi,” all indicated that Prince Mohammed was behind the murder.
Mr. Trump knew this but had balked at publicly chastising one of the Middle East’s most powerful rulers, whom he regarded as a close ally in his feud with Iran and as a lucrative client for American arms. “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” was the former president’s morally rudderless public response to intelligence that the crown prince in fact did have a role in Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.
During his presidential campaign, Mr. Biden talked of far sterner measures — “I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to make them pay the price and make them the pariah that they are.”
Earlier this month, the president announced that he was banning billions of dollars in arms shipments to Saudi Arabia for its continuing war in Yemen, which has created a humanitarian disaster. In conjunction with the publication of the intelligence assessment, the administration this week announced more travel bans against Saudi officials involved in the Khashoggi operation, and the State Department added a new category of sanctions, named “Khashoggi ban,” to withhold visas from anyone involved in state-sponsored efforts to harass, detain or harm dissidents and journalists around the world.
But when it came to penalizing the crown prince personally, Mr. Biden ended up in the same place as his predecessor. In effect, Mr. Biden acknowledged that relations with Saudi Arabia, an ally against the ambitions of Iran, a tacit ally of Israel, a trade partner worth tens of billions of dollars and an oil producer with the ability to seriously disrupt the world economy, were too important to American interests to risk by punishing the all-powerful prince.
Still, there is a small measure of justice in letting Prince Mohammed know that the deference he enjoyed from Mr. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is over; that his protestations of innocence are known to be false; and that the world knows that he has a journalist’s blood on his hands.