Jamal Khashoggi was well known and well liked in Washington and in journalistic circles worldwide. He was described by all who knew him as a friendly teddy bear of a man — a Saudi citizen living in self-imposed exile in the United States so he could speak and write freely. He was a former confidant of the Saudi royal family and an informal advisor to Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom. He championed Salman’s stated agenda of bringing a medieval Saudi Arabia into the modern world, including female empowerment and the moderation of the Kingdom’s notoriously rigid and fanatical form of Islam. However, Khashoggi had a dangerous belief; he thought a modern, civilized Saudi Arabia should provide space for freedom of thought and expression. He was a regular columnist for the Washington Post. This is how he put it in his final op-ed referring to the absence of any semblance of democracy in the Middle East: “Arabs living in these countries are either uninformed or misinformed. They are unable to address matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche.” He wanted the stated reform agenda of Salman to succeed, but he also wanted Saudi citizens to have room to breathe.
As the whole world knows by now, on Oct. 2 Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, to obtain papers that would allow him to marry his fiancée. He never came out and questions concerning his fate have intensified ever since. The Saudi government, clearly caught off guard by the resulting furor, initially declared that Khashoggi had left the consulate and it did not know his whereabouts. That story quickly collapsed (there were security cameras at the consulate that show Khashoggi entering but not leaving). The Saudi government has changed its story several times since. The latest version has Khashoggi inadvertently killed as a result of “fist fight” inside the consulate. But the Saudis can’t produce a body or explain why a security detail of 18 men had been dispatched from Riyadh to the consulate just before Khashoggi’s scheduled appointment.
Actually, we now have a good idea of just what happened. It turns out that Turkey had bugged the consulate and could hear everything that was going on inside. [Turkey’s intelligence agencies are known to be quite skilled at this sort of thing.] According to well-placed Turkish officials, what the tapes reveal is beyond horrific. Khashoggi was ushered into the presence of the Saudi consul and immediately attacked. His fingers were cut off (perhaps while he was still alive) and he was then dismembered. The Saudi team included a “doctor” skilled in the use of a “bone saw.” According to those who have heard the audio, the doctor put on earphones with classical music to make his gruesome task “more relaxing.” Khashoggi’s body parts were then put into sealed diplomatic containers and immediately taken to the airport and back to Saudi Arabia.
The White House reaction to all this was to first declare full confidence in the denials coming from Riyadh. President Trump expressed admiration for Salman’s “strength” and reported that he had spoken directly to the King (Salman’s father), who had emphatically disavowed any government culpability. The King was lying, of course, and as the Saudi story kept changing, the White House promised a “serious investigation.” Secretary of State Pompeo made an urgent trip to Riyadh, where he was photographed chatting amiably with Salman. Pompeo announced that he was pleased to report that the Saudi government was taking the matter seriously and would conduct a thorough investigation. Those familiar with state assassinations and their subsequent cover-up know how they typically play out. First come the flat denials that anything happened. When that story collapses, there is an admission that an “unfortunate accident” occurred, but no one is to blame. When that in turn fails, we get the search for scapegoats. Because the government of Turkey revealed the identity of several members of the Saudi security team, Riyadh had little choice but to make some of them the fall guys. Arrests and dismissals have been duly announced. The overriding imperative is to protect the position and reputation of the man who almost certainly ordered the killing — Prince Salman. However, the scapegoat story is transparently ridiculous — so much so that President Trump has acknowledged Saudi “lies” and “deception.”
Throughout the three weeks of this travesty, President Trump has insisted on the importance of close ties with Riyadh. His first overseas visit as President was to Saudi Arabia, where he was famously photographed joining in a “sword dance” with Saudi royals. The White House notes that the Saudis buy American military equipment, supply world oil markets, partner with the United States against Iran and ISIS and support an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. Much of this is misleading. Actual Saudi arms purchases from the United States are a small fraction of the $110 billion figure used by the President. The United States actually imports very little Saudi oil and America today produces more than Saudi Arabia. The much-touted peace plan is an empty shell because the Palestinians are not part of it. Within Saudi Arabia, Salman has imprisoned a wide variety of critics, including women who took his promises of greater gender equality seriously.
The dilemmas for U.S. policy are very real. Saudi Arabia is important, but a policy that coddles a young dictator with a penchant for torturing and killing his critics is not viable. There once was a time when American foreign policy stood for more than money and “strength”; it stood for civilizing values.