Image: Natalie Wu
By Matthew Petti
An interventionist foreign policy is supposed to protect “American interests” and spread “American values.” But after the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, it’s not quite clear what those words mean.
It’s been two weeks since Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He hasn’t been seen since. Leaks from Turkish police and intelligence agencies paint a grim picture: Khashoggi was allegedly tortured, killed, and dismembered by members of the Saudi Royal Guard in a premeditated plot. Contradicting its previous claims that Khashoggi left the consulate alive, Saudi Arabia now maintains that the 59 year old newspaper columnist died in a fistfight with Saudi officials.
Without a thorough and impartial investigation, it’s possible that the truth will become another casualty of the bitter Saudi-Turkish cold war. But above the chaos and uncertainty, the silence of the U.S. has been deafening. In the quest to maintain its influence in the Persian Gulf, our government refuses to hold anyone accountable for the murder of an influential Washington, D.C. resident.
Normally willing to say bold claims and make U.S. allies uncomfortable, President Donald Trump has been shockingly deferential to Saudi Arabia on the Khashoggi case. He finds every excuse, including the credulity-stretching results of their self-investigation, credible. It’s a twist on Reagan’s old “trust, but verify” motto: trust them to verify.
Trump was quick to remind reporters that Saudi Arabia buys $110 billion in weapons from the U.S. every year. U.S. foreign policy is not a jobs program—at least not a very effective one. Instead, its stated purpose is to advance the “interests of the American people, their safety and economic prosperity.” But the permanent U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf, and the entangling alliances that come with it, are forcing the U.S. government to abdicate its moral responsibilities to its own people.
Make no mistake: even though Khashoggi was a non-citizen traveling through a foreign country—as Trump is keen on pointing out—his disappearance affects all Americans. A father to three U.S. citizens, Khashoggi came here because he did not feel free in his home country. More important, he was a prominent journalist for the most prominent publication in America. Whoever harmed Khashoggi was trying to control American coverage of the Saudi princes.
Karen Attiah, global opinion editor and Khashoggi’s former boss at the Washington Post, called his disappearance “an attack on us.”
And in doing so, whoever silenced Khashoggi sought to influence domestic U.S. politics as well. Khashoggi’s last article for the Washington Post called for an end to the war in Yemen. Because a bipartisan coalition in Congress is now trying to block US support for the Saudi war effort, Khashoggi’s work had domestic implications.
Khashoggi was also in the process of founding a U.S.-based nonprofit to “to push for democratic change [in the Arab world] even when it ran counter to American foreign policy goals.”
American activists and journalists can’t work with exiled dissidents from around the world if those dissidents are at risk of disappearing. American news organizations cannot cover foreign affairs if outside powers can target their employees without consequences. If the U.S. government is truly working to uphold the Constitution, it should not allow foreign governments to violently threaten journalists for their work on American soil.
But the Trump administration, which won’t even stop Saudi Arabia from hurting itself, is unlikely to push Saudi authorities very hard. Monarchies around the Persian Gulf have taken President Trump’s assurances as a “green light” to murder dissidents.
If Khashoggi’s death was premeditated, Saudi Arabia would not be the only country to target opponents living overseas. The poisoning of Russian defector Sergei Skripal in Britain, allegedly carried out by Russia, is a recent reminder that repression often spills across borders. But when US adversaries target dissidents living in America, there is an extensive counter-intelligence network primed to stop them, and a government willing to confront the attackers.
US intelligence services allegedly knew about a Saudi plot to harm Khashoggi. It isn’t clear if he was warned.
Even if the Trump administration didn’t know about the plot beforehand, its current stance is tantamount to encouraging the assassins. Trump has taken a stance in defense of the Saudi rulers, comparing them to his own Supreme Court nominees. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, send to kindly beg Saudi Arabia to investigate itself, told reporters: “I don’t want to talk about any of the facts.”
Despite Pompeo’s heartfelt pleas, Saudi Arabia has not exactly been forthcoming. Just before Turkish police were set to search the consulate, the consul general brazenly brought in a cleaning crew with mops and bleach.
More importantly, Trump has preemptively removed arms deals—$110 billion of laser-guided leverage—from the negotiating table. “America First” is starting to sound like strongman globalism.
The princes’ defenders in America caution against pressing them too hard. If we use our leverage at all, we might find ourselves without useable leverage, they claim. Any adjustment or pushback would be tantamount to abandoning Saudi Arabia.
When American families, American institutions, and American freedoms are directly at risk, both Trump supporters and neoconservatives warn against decisive action.
The more the Trump administration runs interference for Jamal Khashoggi’s killers, the more vulnerable U.S.-based journalists and academics will appear—including American citizens. U.S.-friendly regimes currently holding American citizens will take note. Turkey, whose President’s bodyguards and supporters have violently attacked protesters on US soil, will certainly take note.
For all the theoretical benefits of U.S. policies in the Middle East, there are very real costs to domestic society. The Khashoggi case is the most dramatic example thus far.
In other words, interventionists might say that dead Washington Post writers are a small price to pay. But they haven’t explained what it’s buying.
Matthew is a rising senior and Foreign Language Area Studies (Arabic) fellow at Columbia University, and a former documentary production intern at CNBC. Matthew’s work on minority rights and migration has been published in Reason Magazine, the National Interest, and America Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewpetti!