Once upon a time, there was a brutal and reckless dictator of an oil-rich Arab country who, despite his well-documented excesses, was stroked and supported by the United States and other Western governments. His crimes were terrible, went the rationale, but he was modernizing his country and he was holding the line against Islamist jihadism and Iran. Anyway, there was probably no alternative.

The ruler heard that message. He concluded that, as long as he kept supplying oil and opposing Iran, he was free to butcher his opponents and bully his neighbors.

His name, of course, was Saddam Hussein. The bet made on him by the U.S. and its allies directly led to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and from there to the “endless wars” in the Middle East.

And yet, 30 years later, politicians are blindly repeating the mistake. They say they abhor the blatant crimes of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the torture and imprisonment of women seeking greater rights. They see his bombing campaign in Yemen as a war-crime-ridden disaster.

Yet, at the recent summit of the Group of 20 in Osaka, Japan, world leaders cheerfully clustered around him.

Ask them why, and you get an all-too-familiar response: The crown prince is the best chance for modernization in Saudi Arabia. He’s fighting the Islamist extremists, and he’s allied with us and with Israel against Iran. The alternatives to him are worse.

The determination with which politicians and policymakers cling to this blinkered view can be seen in the lonely quest of Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. She conducted a five-month investigation into Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October. On June 19, Callamard released a powerful report making the case that “Khashoggi has been the victim of a deliberate, premeditated execution, an extrajudicial killing for which the state of Saudi Arabia is responsible” — and that Mohammed bin Salman was almost certainly complicit in it.

The official silence that has greeted the report has been deafening. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres did not respond to Callamard’s call for an investigation. Europe, too, has been silent. At the G-20 summit, President Trump met the crown prince for breakfast and declared he was doing “a spectacular job.” Later, the president answered a question about Khashoggi by saying there was no “finger directly” pointing at the crown prince — though both Callamard’s report and a CIA assessment have done just that.

During a subsequent visit to Washington, Callamard said that “many governments have attempted to bury it and say, ‘Let’s move on,’ but that killing is not going to disappear.” Trump notwithstanding, she is counting on justice to come from the U.S.: “I think this is the only place where political accountability is going to work,” she said during a meeting at The Post.

There is still some hope of that: Legislation pending in the House would require the director of national intelligence to report on those responsible for the Khashoggi killing, and would require a visa ban to be applied to them. But as long as Trump is president, Mohammed bin Salman is unlikely to face direct U.S. sanctions.

Like Hussein before him, the crown prince has concluded that he is immune. Women he ordered tortured are still in prison. His planes are still bombing Yemen. And he is taking the first steps toward acquiring nuclear weapons. Because Western governments are not stopping him now, they will have to do it later — when the cost is likely to be far higher.

© 2019 WASHINGTON POST NEWS SERVICE

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