While deplorable, Washington’s response to the apparent murder of a Saudi journalist should be based on realpolitik
An audio recording reportedly exists proving that missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi was tortured and dismembered by a hit squad—some of whose members have close ties to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman—in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. The tape purportedly recounts in horrifying detail seven minutes during which the reporter was tied down to a desk and cut apart while still alive. The revelation comes after Turkish authorities finally were granted permission to investigate the consulate two weeks after Khashoggi’s disappearance.
United States President Donald Trump, who has come under heavy fire for not coming down harder on the kingdom, on Wednesday spoke by phone with bin Salman, who earlier in the day met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The American leader thereafter urged the international community to not rush to judgment until the facts were known, adding that the truth would emerge “by the end of the week.”
Meanwhile, the Washington Post published Khashoggi’s final column, in which he presciently emphasized the importance of a free press in the Middle East.
While outrage is the only response to the apparent state-sanctioned murder of any human being, the global reaction, in particular by Western media, has bordered on hysteria. The peculiarity of the frenzy is accentuated when considering that, aside from the fact the alleged killing was perpetrated in a diplomatic mission on foreign soil and that the gruesome details have been widely circulated, there is nothing particularly new about the affair. This is why the kingdom, if responsible, probably thought it could get away with it without even a slap on the wrist.
Saudi Arabia regularly executes its citizens. In August, it “crucified” a man and then publicly displayed his beheaded body in all its gory glory. This came only days after the kingdom cut diplomatic ties with Canada over Ottawa’s criticism of Riyadh’s imprisonment of activists.
Cruel and unusual punishment is par for the course in the Middle East, where apostasy warrants the death penalty; women are stoned for adultery; and minorities are executed en masse. Political and religious opponents are regularly “disappeared,” or, if “fortunate,” imprisoned for life. This also holds true in Russia, which seemingly takes pleasure in poisoning its citizens in Britain.
As regards Turkey, the government of Recep Tayyip Edogan jailed an estimated 150,000 dissidents in the aftermath of a supposed coup attempt, many of whom were subjected to inhumane treatment. Then there is the Assad regime in Syria, which is responsible for the slaughter of about 500,000 people. No introduction is needed for North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whose nation resembles a giant gulag. Speaking of which, China currently is “re-educating” an estimated one million Uyghurs in “camps” in Xinjiang Province, which has been described as a physical manifestation of Orwell’s 1984.
The Iranian regime, meanwhile, is equally if not more ruthless than the Saudis, given Tehran’s internal repression and external involvement in fomenting death and destruction throughout the region. Yet most American outlets currently condemning Riyadh endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal that paved the path to an Iranian bomb within 15 years while providing the genocide-preaching mullahs with a financial windfall to facilitate their hegemonic ambitions.
Historically, the West did little to prevent the genocides in Sudan, Rwanda and Cambodia, all of which happened in the last half-century. Before that, there was no salvation for six million Jews exterminated in the Holocaust, which, incidentally Khashoggi compared to the displacement of some 700,000 Palestinians during the Arab-initiated war in 1948 to destroy nascent Israel.
Indeed, it is ironic that Westerners advocating most strongly for Khashoggi probably share few of his espoused ideological predispositions. The journalist was an old friend of Osama bin Laden and was less than apologetic after the 9/11 attacks. Not surprisingly, Khashoggi was a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, the forebear of al Qa’ida and almost every other Islamic terrorist group, which is committed to the formation of a caliphate governed in accordance with the Koran.
In this respect, the same media presently calling for Saudi blood for the most part also framed the so-called Arab Spring as a democratic awakening that would usher in harmony through the rise of political Islam throughout the Middle East. Instead, it unleashed the same regressive forces promoted by Khashoggi that have caused unimaginable suffering and ruin.
The point is not that Khoshaggi’s likely death is anything but tragic or that he and his family are undeserving of sympathy; rather, to demonstrate the selective outrage which one is tempted to attribute at least in part to President Trump’s courtship of the Saudis. The West—and the U.S. especially—has long cozied up to Riyadh’s despots, but only now are masses calling for a boycott of the kingdom.
In fact, the latest narrative is that the White House is covering up for the House of Saud in order to salvage the bilateral relationship, which President Trump views as crucial to realizing a central tenet of his foreign policy: namely, reining in Iran.
Was President Trump duped from the beginning by bin Salman’s supposed commitment to meaningful reforms? Maybe. Was he naïve to believe that iron-fisted conservative Saudi rulers would suddenly consent to Western-style freedoms? Probably. Is he somehow responsible for what happened to Khashoggi by empowering Riyadh? That is a stretch. What is definite, however, is that the U.S. president has received an abrupt reality check.
Saudi Arabia has long been a brutal and backwards theocracy and, like everything else, change, while not inevitable, will take time if it does occur. In the interim, though, it is inconsistent to demand such a transformation while concurrently urging President Trump to sever ties with a key American ally, which would eliminate Washington’s leverage to encourage gradual improvements and undoubtedly push bin Salman into the open arms of Moscow and Beijing, both serial human rights violators.
True, there should be repercussions, but they should be measured and based on realpolitik, as this is simply how our often shameful world operates. Conditioning future U.S. arms sales to the Saudis on keeping their word would be a reasonable point of departure.