Why Khashoggi Murder Was a Red Line

The Saudis have been awful for generations. Why this?

The disappearance and presumptive murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi while in the Saudi embassy in Turkey has spawned a level of outrage that has surprised me. After all, the Saudi government routinely murders dissidents and has killed tens of thousands of civilians in its ongoing spree of atrocity in Yemen with hardly a peep.

Yet, as Dylan Byers reports for NBC,

Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance has become a litmus test for business leaders.

The allegation that Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who wrote for The Washington Post, was brutally murdered at the hands of Saudi officials has forced executives to reckon with their ties to the Arab kingdom. Some, like Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, have suspended business dealings there. Several, including JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, have backed out of the high-profile Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh.

Powerful lobbying groups, not exactly known for their scrupulous concern for propriety, are dropping the Saudis like hot potatoes.

Responding to Byers’ tweeting of his story yesterday afternoon, I observed, “Truly odd to me that THIS is the thing the Saudis did that crossed the line for polite society.”

Chris O. Ogunmodede, a foreign policy professional, responded, “At the risk of seeming like *that guy*, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that much of the political and media elite are reacting against something bad happening to someone many of them know personally. It has to be said if we are being sincere.”

Dan Drezner responded with a link to a longish piece he’d written for his WaPo blog. The key part is this:

Why has Khashoggi’s suspected death rattled the relationship so much more than previous policy miscues? Let me suggest that the same dynamic that affected U.S. soft power in the wake of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations is now affecting the Saudis’ ability to influence U.S. elite public opinion.

Immediately after the Snowden revelations, Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argued in Foreign Affairs that what made Snowden so damaging was twofold. First, as they wrote, Snowden’s disclosures “undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it. Their danger lies not in the new information that they reveal but in the documented confirmation they provide of what the United States is actually doing and why.” Second, the damage put U.S. allies in an impossible situation. What made Snowden so damaging was that long-standing allies such as Brazil and Germany curtailed cooperation because the evidence of U.S. surveillance could no longer be denied.

The foreign policy community in the United States could forgive a lot from the Saudis, because the other alternatives for allies in the Persian Gulf region seemed worse. Yes, the war in Yemen has been a humanitarian disaster, but it is also a civil war on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, so its intervention was not entirely surprising. This meant that U.S. elites were willing to look the other way even as the Saudis screwed up.

It is impossible to look away from Khashoggi’s disappearance. He was a permanent U.S. resident and a Washington Post columnist, and therefore had a higher profile than other Saudi dissidents. He went into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and did not return to his waiting fiancee outside. This is a brute fact that cannot be denied. There is no cover story that can explain this away. Even if all the gory details about Khashoggi’s disappearance are not true, there is enough that is indisputable to appall.

Whether the Trump administration will take coercive action against MBS is a question for another day — tomorrow, to be specific. What cannot be contested now, however, is that the Saudis look guilty and have offered no exculpatory evidence. Khashoggi’s disappearance also allows outside observers to retrofit a more unflattering narrative onto MBS’s supposed reform efforts. It’s almost as though he resembles Kim Jong Un more than Peter the Great.

That’s as plausible an explanation as any. Few Americans are even aware of what’s happening in Yemen and the politics of the region are sufficiently cloudy that one can adopt a “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” take on Saudi brutality there. Murdering a well-connected permanent resident of the United States, a journalist for a prominent newspaper no less, is much less complicated. The gory story of cleaners, bone saws, and suitcases makes the case all the more evil.

Ogunmodede is almost certainly right that Khashoggi’s personal connection with so many top journalists is driving some of the outrage. But this is more of a case of the old adage, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” It’s bizarre intellectually but it’s how humans are wired.

FILED UNDER: Media, Middle East, US Politics, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. The fact that Khashoggi’s murder has become a red line for so many people is somewhat frustrating given the fact that the Saudis have been engaging in a brutal war in Yemen that is doing little except destroy that country and leading to starvation, disease, and death among its civilian population.

    This is the way the Saudis have been for a long time. I suppose it’s good to see people finally recognizing it, but I’ll be more impressed when I start hearing people speak out more forecefully about things like the war on Yemen.

    20
  2. MarkedMan says:

    It might simply be a case of “why was it this straw that broke the camel’s back?” Yemen has been getting a lot of play but it seems complicated to a lot of people. Imprisoning the women drivers was more clear cut. And imprisoning his wealthy cousins for months and taking billions from them without any due process might not make a big impression on the average person but they were the people that most western businesses have been working with. It must have made a large negative impression on those who are already uncomfortable about the laws against foreign corruption.

    Whatever the reason this made an impression, I hope it sticks. For the past decade university presidents and their boards, museum directors, etc have been flying to SA first class, being feted there, and lauded at home for their “genius” in getting major new branch campuses all on the Saudi dime. That era is past. Deals with the Saudis are going to result in protests back home.

  3. drj says:

    Khashoggi’s murder shows that the Saudis no longer care about plausible deniability – which has removed an implicit, but important check on their actions.

    In that sense, Khashoggi’s murder is a meaningful escalation. From a balance of power perspective, not caring about norms is way worse than occasionally breaking norms.

    It’s therefore not surprising (especially in combination with the grisly details) that this has caused significant outrage.

    Of course, the Saudis are just following the lead of their US protector. I’m pretty sure that’s why they thought they could get away with it.

    17
  4. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    given the fact that the Saudis have been engaging in a brutal war in Yemen

    There are often events on the world stage that we have little real power to control.
    The issue here, for me, is that the POTUS has given tacit approval to the killing of journalists and dissidents by authoritarians; whether that be Putin or MSB or Kim. Now other tyrants are sitting back and thinking that they can get away with it.
    While an atrocity, it’s arguable whether the Saudi’s brutal war against Yemen is making us less free.
    There is no question that we are less free, and Democracy is less healthy, after the murder of a journalist goes unanswered for.
    America is nothing but an idea; the Constitution is simply an enumeration of values. The Republican party has sold out that idea and those values. In exchange for what? A tax cut, and the ability to control the bodies of women.

    13
  5. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    I’ll give this one a week or two. Then, “squirrel!”

  6. KM says:

    @drj:

    Khashoggi’s murder shows that the Saudis no longer care about plausible deniability – which has removed an implicit, but important check on their actions.

    BINGO! See, people who should be outraged by Yemen don’t care because Yemen’s all the way over there and full of Others. You aren’t likely to die because of Saudi actions in Yemen if you are not in Yemen right now. They can safely ignore and rationalize it away. Yeah they think it’s sad that kids die but like those commercials with starving children, they don’t feel bad turning the channel. Not their problem.

    But a killing in an embassy? In broad daylight with no concern for deniability or secrecy? Blatant butchery of a corpse for easy transport but “whoops, IDK where he went”? Against a fairly wealthy and powerful, well-known professional person without fear of reprisal?

    Embassies are in host countries – the murderers in inside the walls. Not really hiding what they did. They don’t care who sees or are confident they can kill with impunity. And the victim had more clout in society then Joe Blow ever will – if they can get him, they can get YOU. What’s to stop the next escalation to a Russian-style poisoning in the crowd? What’s to stop them from incurring collateral damage in the process, a few civilians get dosed or were in the wrong spot at the wrong time? What’s to stop them making someone “disappear” in a place that isn’t bugged so we never know anything happened at all? Khashoggi was high profile enough for someone to notice immediately but what about some poor shmuck with the bad luck to piss off the House of Saud and nobody to check up on them?

    Yemen’s over THERE, the embassies are over HERE. People aren’t stupid – if you let a government kill their own in your country, it’s not to far a stretch to see them killing your own citizens because they can. The line is here because Khashoggi was too much like us for people to be comfortable with what happened to him.

    12
  7. @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    You do realize that it is American weapons being used in that war, and that American forces are being stationed with Saudi forces prosecuting the war, right?

  8. Slugger says:

    The Saudis provide us with oil. We accept their leadership of OPEC. We give half-hearted efforts toward alternative energy sources by mocking environmental concerns and alternative energy sources. We go to war on their behalf. We support many of their foreign policy goals with weapons, bombings, and small injections of special forces in their region. I predict that this person’s murder will have no impact. Our President made his first visit to a foreign nation to Saudi Arabia; this was a very explicit signal of where we stand. We have a deal with them; they pump oil, and we are ok with bloodshed to support their throne.

  9. @Slugger:

    Actually that’s not true anymore, at least not to a significant degree. The Saudi’s main customers are in Europe and Asia. Thanks to fracking and other resources, the United States is close to being self-sufficient when it comes to energy. Indeed, in some areas, such as Liquified Natural Gas, we’ve actually become a net exporter.

    That being said, the Saudis do have significant control over the flow of oil into world markets and thus the price of oil. The problem they face is that trying to repeat something like the embargos they were a part of in the 70s would end up hurting them as much as it would the rest of the world, perhaps more. Outside of oil, they’ve basically got no economy. And they know it.

  10. Kathy says:

    In part, it’s like when napoleon sent troops across the border to seize and execute Louis Antoine de Bourbon, a French noble suspected of being involved in a royalist plot. This caused a lot of outrage in Europe, but keep in mind France had been at war with several European nations for years.

    Talleyrand, one of Napoleon’s most important ministers, is reported to have said about it “It’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.”

    The implication is that crimes committed by states to further their interests are not as bad as mistakes made by states in the attempt to further their interests. Mistakes may be costly, crimes may or may not be.

  11. Guarneri says:

    “The Saudis have been awful for generations.”

    Generations. But apparently, according to your buddy in the next post, only Trump is cowardly etc. Let’s get past that type of silliness. What is the correct policy response? For “generations” its been look the other way. Schuler, over at his place, has an idea rooted in image and face saving for the Saudis. I thought it mild, but yield to his probably better handle on Saudi culture.
    What say ye, or anyone who can get past “Trump sucks.”

  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’ll say it again: Saudi Arabia is the wrong ally and Iran is the wrong enemy. Set aside the governments and look at the populations. The Venn Diagram of Americans and Saudis barely touches; the diagram of Americans and Iranians overlaps substantially.

    Our uncritical support for Saudi Arabia – a brutal, anti-democratic, Islamist, terror-supporting, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, misogynist monstrosity of illegitimacy – does nothing but add legitimacy to Iranian efforts to make nukes.

    The Saudis are literally paying Trump. He is on their payroll, as he himself has acknowledged. They, along with the Russian mob, saved Trump’s incompetent, bankruptcy machine of a business, and Trump obeys his paymasters.

    17
    1
  13. Franklin says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Saudi Arabia is the wrong ally and Iran is the wrong enemy.

    I would once again like to renew my subscription to your newsletter. I know a couple families (who consider themselves ‘Persian’) that are an absolute delight to be around, and they love America. I don’t know if it’s changed much, a number of years ago the polls showed that most Iranians were actually pro-America. It’s the governments that are enemies, not the people.

  14. PJ says:

    @Franklin:

    I don’t know if it’s changed much, a number of years ago the polls showed that most Iranians were actually pro-America. It’s the governments that are enemies, not the people.

    I was going to point this out, with the addition that Saudis don’t like the US. But old numbers, and I’m not sure what effect Trump has had on them…

  15. Ben Wolf says:

    A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” It’s bizarre intellectually but it’s how humans are wired.

    No it’s not. It’s how the immoral are wired.

    2
    3
  16. Gustopher says:

    It’s the brazenness of it.

    The “I don’t care if you know we did it, you can’t do anything about it” smug arrogance that just pisses people off and makes them want to humiliate those who act that way.

  17. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Kathy: To alter slightly another quote from Talleyrand, “The Trumps have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” There may be a Danton or Robespierre out there, waiting.

  18. Kathy says:

    @SC_Birdflyte: You’re right.

    For example, Trump has not learned he’s teaching the world’s miscreants how much they can get away with. All they have to do is flatter him and/or pay him off, and issue a strong denial.

    He won’t just believe them. He’ll defend them.

    “I don’t care what the satellite shows happened over Seoul or how high the radiation count is! Kim told me he has dismantled all his nukes! FAKE NEWS!”

  19. Dave Schuler says:

    Never pick a quarrel with somebody who buys ink by the barrel.

  20. Eric Florack says:

    Let’s do a little background check on this animal. Asnip from John Bradley at The Spectator

    The truth is that Khashoggi became wealthy beyond his dreams by, firstly, working for Saudi intelligence and media outlets, and afterwards by justifying Saudi regime human rights abuses in the Western media in his role as a government adviser. All the while he harboured deep sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was tolerated because he was bought off and not therefore politically active. Finally, he threw his lot in with Turkish President Erdogan – every political Islamists’ wet dream, who last week described Khashoggi as an ‘old acquaintance’. Khashoggi did so because bin Salman had turned against radical Islam in Saudi Arabia, jailed prominent the Muslim Brotherhood clerics who were Khashoggi’s fellow travellers, and silenced Khashoggi himself after he criticised moves towards normalising relations with Israel.

    Whichever version of the story of his murder you believe, bin Salman emerges from this sorry saga weakened. If these really were rogue elements from the top-level of his security apparatus, he clearly does not rule with the total power and control he needs to turn his vision of a modern Saudi Arabia into reality. Taking note will be his many enemies inside the royal family, as well as the bitter military chiefs bin Salman has summarily dismissed. Alternatively, if bin Salman is about to throw to the wolves a bunch of assassins he did in fact send on their mission, including three of his personal bodyguards, he will be betraying the only people surrounding him he can trust apart from immediate family. The result is that Saudi Arabia is about to enter an era of even greater paranoia and political repression.

    Looked at another way, though, it’s a win-win for all sides. Bin Salman’s most powerful opponent outside of the royal family is dead, and he can get back to dragging the kingdom into the 21st century.

    this of course is a different picture than the one that the left in this country who was so greatly upset by khashoggi’s disappearance. Unwittingly or not, they’re defending an Isis cheerleader, and possibly a great deal more.

    2
    8
  21. Eric Florack says:

    From The Spectator, and the Hand of John Bradley:

    https://spectator.us/2018/10/trump-cleans-saudi-mess/

    The truth is that Khashoggi became wealthy beyond his dreams by, firstly, working for Saudi intelligence and media outlets, and afterwards by justifying Saudi regime human rights abuses in the Western media in his role as a government adviser. All the while he harboured deep sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, which was tolerated because he was bought off and not therefore politically active. Finally, he threw his lot in with Turkish President Erdogan – every political Islamists’ wet dream, who last week described Khashoggi as an ‘old acquaintance’. Khashoggi did so because bin Salman had turned against radical Islam in Saudi Arabia, jailed prominent the Muslim Brotherhood clerics who were Khashoggi’s fellow travellers, and silenced Khashoggi himself after he criticised moves towards normalising relations with Israel.

    Whichever version of the story of his murder you believe, bin Salman emerges from this sorry saga weakened. If these really were rogue elements from the top-level of his security apparatus, he clearly does not rule with the total power and control he needs to turn his vision of a modern Saudi Arabia into reality. Taking note will be his many enemies inside the royal family, as well as the bitter military chiefs bin Salman has summarily dismissed. Alternatively, if bin Salman is about to throw to the wolves a bunch of assassins he did in fact send on their mission, including three of his personal bodyguards, he will be betraying the only people surrounding him he can trust apart from immediate family. The result is that Saudi Arabia is about to enter an era of even greater paranoia and political repression.

    Looked at another way, though, it’s a win-win for all sides. Bin Salman’s most powerful opponent outside of the royal family is dead, and he can get back to dragging the kingdom into the 21st century.

    of course this is a different picture than most liberals here in the United States want to paint of the man. And maybe the reason there for that this was such a red wine, James is because the truth once again that runs afoul of the liberal storyline.

    In short, they’re defending an Isis cheerleader.

  22. An Interested Party says:

    I’ll see your John Bradley and raise you Daniel Larison:

    Between Pompeo’s embarrassing sycophancy and Trump’s disgraceful attempts to cover for the Saudis, the Trump administration has lived down to my extremely low expectations for how they would respond to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It comes as no surprise that they are making excuses for Mohammed bin Salman and his government, since this has been an important part of the “Saudi first” foreign policy that the administration has been conducting for the last twenty months. If Pompeo was willing to lie to Congress for the Saudis and their allies last month in his bogus Yemen certification, we should expect him to endorse Saudi attempts to whitewash their role in the murder of a prominent critic. Pompeo may not realize how much damage he is doing to his reputation and his relationship with members of Congress, especially those on the Foreign Relations Committee, but the damage is significant and lasting.

    The good news is that Trump is making the relationship with the Saudis more politically toxic by embracing it, and the Saudis are bringing discredit on the Trump administration for its uncritical, reflexive support for them. The more that Trump and his officials lie and cover up for a reckless client, the worse it is for both the administration and the Saudis.

  23. Franklin says:

    @Eric Florack: I actually appreciate a more complete look at the victim here. It’s certainly not the full story, though. He was against the Kingdom’s various crackdowns on the media, and he was for equal rights for women (supporting bin Salman’s reform allowing them to drive, for example). I realize these are against Trump values, so you might not agree with him.

    Regardless, I don’t see how this gives Saudi Arabia the right to kill and dismember him.

  24. NW Steve says:

    @Eric Florack: @Eric Florack:
    of course this is a different picture than most liberals here in the United States want to paint of the man.

    Here’s the basic question your comment raises for me, and I’m directly asking you to provide your answer.

    If the man fits the right picture (as defined by you), then summarily snuffing him is acceptable practice?

  25. Eric Florack says:

    James asks a valid question on a couple of levels I don’t think he even understands.

    Here’s one that seems to have given him the slip.

    “Why now?”

    The answer clearly is because raising a stink about it previously wasn’t politically useful for people here in the states until now. One political group in particular finds it useful, just now.

    As to the timing, what’s coming up next month?

    In the piece Stephen Green laid out over at instapundit…

    “In truth, Khashoggi never had much time for western-style pluralistic democracy. In the 1970s he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, which exists to rid the Islamic world of western influence. He was a political Islamist until the end, recently praising the Muslim Brotherhood in the Washington Post. He championed the ‘moderate’ Islamist opposition in Syria, whose crimes against humanity are a matter of record. Khashoggi frequently sugarcoated his Islamist beliefs with constant references to freedom and democracy. But he never hid that he was in favour of a Muslim Brotherhood arc throughout the Middle East. His recurring plea to bin Salman in his columns was to embrace not western-style democracy, but the rise of political Islam which the Arab Spring had inadvertently given rise to. For Khashoggi, secularism was the enemy.”

    Isn’t it interesting that this guy was totally wrapped up in the kind of Islamic politics encouraged by the Middle East policy of Barack Hussein Obama and Hillary Clinton…(Arab Spring?)

    And of course it fits that the Crown Prince there is trying to drag the Middle East Kicking and Screaming into the modern world. Something that Jamal Khashoggi desperately against as it turns out… And if we judge by the Middle East policy the Democrat Party was against it here in the us as well.

    All of which would seem to answer rather nicely the question posed by James.

    I suspect he’s not going to like the answer. I’m quite sure I don’t but for different reasons.

  26. Eric Florack says:

    @NW Steve: oh please. It’s interesting how you jump to that conclusion without so much as a thought.

    Read the response just above and tell me that the picture that the US press is painting of this guy and the reality are a match.

    and that of course is assuming that the guy was actually killed.

    and yes that’s still an issue because just like Christine Ford, we have absolutely no evidence that there’s been a murder. None.

  27. Eric Florack says:

    @NW Steve: the answer of course is no, except in times of War. It’s an interesting question as to whether or not we are actually in that state, particularly were militant islamists are concerned… But I’ll let that pass for the moment.

    But in the end, it comes down to James original question.. why now?

    And I think I’ve answered that really well also

  28. Eric Florack says:

    @Franklin: wasn’t the left just a short while ago telling us that we weren’t the world’s policeman? That we couldn’t manipulate foreign governments? That they couldn’t manipulate us?

    Not our circus, not our monkeys.

    And as I’ve said elsewhere, all of that assumes that the man was killed, a point for which we have absolutely no evidence whatsoever.

    Christine Ford was unavailable for comment

  29. An Interested Party says:

    And of course it fits that the Crown Prince there is trying to drag the Middle East Kicking and Screaming into the modern world.

    Who could have guessed that trying to drag the Middle East into the modern world involved cutting off fingers, beheading, and dismembering someone