Suppose incontrovertible evidence proved that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman ordered the detention, rendition and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. The question is not only what America and others will do. A more interesting question is how will Mohammed react.
He and the Saudis are fiercely denying any involvement with Khashoggi. If and when proof becomes overwhelming, King Salman will likely order an investigation with the promise to hold the perpetrators accountable. But there is another scenario.
Mohammed could boldly admit: "Yes, I did it, and how can you Americans be so foolish to object? After all, we got the game plan from you. Did President Trump not honestly reveal 'that we kill people, too.'" Mohammed could then lay out his case.
"During the Cold War, you Americans supported any government, no matter how ruthless, if they sided against the Soviets. Iran under the shah used SAVAK to imprision, torture and kill any opposition. That was never a problem.
"You allowed autocratic states to join NATO. Assassinations and renditions have been used by your CIA going back to the 1950s. You were responsible for overthrowing Mohammed Mosadegh in Tehran in the '50s; Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1960 and his subsequent assassination in 1961; Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam's president, in 1963; attempts to kill Cuba's Fidel Castro in which you even tried to engage the Mafia to help; and eliminating Libya's Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
"During the Vietnam War, you launched Operation Phoenix to eliminate Viet Cong with 'extreme prejudice,' i.e, kill. Some 50,000 Vietnamese died, not all of whom were guilty. After Sept. 11, you used torture; arrested without due process and imprisoned hundreds as 'enemy combatants,' with some still serving life sentences in Guantanamo without a trial.
"You fly drones controlled in a base in Nevada to kill suspects tens of thousands of miles away in the war on terror. You say you minimize collateral damage. But how many innocents have been killed?
"Your aims have been to defend the homeland against future attacks. Well, that argument cuts both ways. I viewed Jamal Khashoggi as a direct threat to the kingdom and to my reform program. Words are weapons. And Khashoggi was fomenting discontent and possible rebellion. You would not tolerate that. And neither do we. This view is not limited to the kingdom.
"Russian law authorizes the government to take action against enemies of the state irrespective of domicile or location. How many enemies of the state has Israel assassinated, including Iranian scientists, and of course many Palestinians in Hamas and Arabs in Hezbollah? No doubt France, Turkey and the U.K. practice 'wet work' when necessary.
"So what did I do wrong?"
While the chances that Mohammed would be so aggressive and arrogant to take this approach are remote, surely some Saudi PR will remind the world that hypocrisy infects America, too.
It is easy to say that when principle is involved, be deaf to expediency. It is far more difficult to act on that basis. Is the president prepared to take action against the kingdom and Mohammed over this murder if established beyond a reasonable doubt? American de facto policy was to cultivate a Saudi-Israeli-Turkish coalition against Iran. Will this murder alter that? And will President Donald Trump's policy toward the region and the Gulf be affected?
For the moment, Congress is likely to pass veto-proof legislation, possibly using the Global Magnitsky Act, to impose sanctions on responsible Saudis and/or to limit arms sales. But as the president says, if we don't sell them arms, someone else will. If Congress acts, as Riyadh did with Canada over a tweet, will it retaliate, possibly cutting oil production to drive up prices, particularly as stock markets are retrenching?
How will Turkey respond since the rendition occurred within its borders, though within a diplomatically protected consulate? Would we be better off to allow Ankara to take the lead, along with Interpol and the police? And there is another easily ignored matter.
The American security establishment uses war games to prepare for crises. This incident most likely was not war gamed. In the turbulent 21st century, one wonders what other situations likewise have not been anticipated? Those answers should give us pause.
Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.