President Donald Trump is facing a barrage of criticism from all directions over his refusal to allow the apparent murder of Jamal Khashoggi to derail the relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Where is the outrage coming from and why? What made Khashoggi so special that his death was any more egregious than the killings of thousands of private citizens by their own governments – governments with which the United States has relationships never questioned by the media?
Although the absolute truth about Khashoggi’s demise is not publicly known, certain assumptions may be beyond dispute: The Saudi national died in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2, 2018. He had visited the Saudi consulate, where he was allegedly murdered, likely by individuals connected to Saudi intelligence services.
The Morality of International Relations
Why should this one act, as horrible as it may be, justify ending an extremely important bilateral relationship? Those who frame the issue as a matter of moral principle are performing remarkable feats of selective outrage, given the many countries with horrific human rights records with which these same people are content to do business.
There is a long list of morally bankrupt foreign regimes with which previous administrations, both Democrat and Republican, have transacted business in one way or another. Whether through aid, military treaties, trade, or diplomatic relations, American presidents have dealt with a succession of political leaders of Russia, China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and at least two dozen other countries in which human rights are not respected, in which private citizens are persecuted, imprisoned, and even tortured or executed for their political or religious beliefs, their ethnic origin, or their sexual orientation.
Some of these regimes, such as those of Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran, have been courted by Democratic presidents and spoken of in admiring terms by some of the same people who are now, apparently, horrified that Trump refuses to turn his back on the Saudis over one apparently politically motivated assassination.
This Is Not About Journalism
If Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler of the Saudi kingdom, did indeed order Khashoggi’s killing, it was a political decision. Contrary to how the American legacy media portrays the affair, this has nothing to do with freedom of the press or silencing brave journalists for speaking truth to power. Khashoggi was barely a journalist. He was much more a political activist, a man with ties to the enemies of Saudi Arabia and, indeed, to the enemies of the West – particularly the United States.
The idea that anything Khashoggi wrote in his Washington Post columns piqued the Saudi prince enough to have him killed is quite ridiculous. What got him killed was his ties to Islamist extremists and his longtime political activism against the Saudi regime. That is not, in any way, a suggestion that political activism justifies a man’s murder but a simple statement of the truth: Khashoggi was not killed because he wrote mean things about the Saudi royal family. He was a fierce critic of the regime who also happened to have dangerous anti-Saudi ties and sympathies. Khashoggi’s former associations include the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, and the Turkish regime (Itself an adversary of the Saudis and, incidentally, a virtual dictatorship with its own shocking history of human rights violations).
In their unrestrained hubris, the American legacy media have tried to make this affair about themselves. Ignoring Kashoggi’s political leanings and connections, they identify him only as a “journalist” or a “Washington Post columnist,” though neither of those labels had anything to do with his murder.
Trump and Realpolitik
Trump is not an ideologue but a pragmatist. He operates within the sphere of realpolitik, the philosophy that practical considerations and the national interest must at times override morality and principle. It seems distasteful, but the reality is that all the nations of the world practice realpolitik and always have, even if some claim not to. If the United States were to refuse to continue relationships with foreign leaders who have wrongly imprisoned or murdered their own citizens, it would have few international partners left.
An entire book could be written on the many unsavory acts committed or deals struck by world leaders – including American leaders – in the national interest. America’s previous president sanctioned the drone killings of at least six American citizens who chose to work with America’s enemies. Were these the subject of widespread moral outrage? No, they were not, and, arguably, they should not have been. Many U.S. politicians and business leaders have financial and commercial ties to China, one of the worst human rights violators in the world. Where is the outrage? Certain American politicians have praised murderous dictators such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Cries of indignation from the media were notably absent.
The Saudi Problem
The Khashoggi killing is merely a political weapon to use against Trump by those who resent him and oppose the relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Middle Eastern kingdom is hardly a paragon of virtue and good intentions, but it is a target for its status as one of the world’s leading producers of oil, its considerable spending on American military hardware, and its resistance to a brand of Islamist fundamentalism that threatens the stability of the world. Saudi hands are not exactly clean when it comes to sponsoring terrorism, though, and the kingdom practices a primitive and barbaric form of religious totalitarianism.
Mohammed bin Salman was hailed as a reformer but has yet to lift his country out of repression and corruption. Americans have been told that intelligence points to the prince as the man who ordered Khashoggi’s killing, and perhaps that finding is accurate.
…Khashoggi, by having written a column or two for The Washington Post, has been canonized as a member of the media elite…
While it will always be true that two wrongs do not make a right, this particular incident pales in comparison to the hundreds of thousands of human rights violations, murders, kidnappings, torture, and imprisonments that have occurred across the planet for decades. Very few countries ever terminated relationships with regimes responsible for such behavior. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, in response to questions about America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia: “It’s a mean, nasty world out there.” A case could be made that Trump could express more forcefully his displeasure over the Khashoggi killing, but his words would have changed nothing. In the meantime, his detractors should reflect on the relative morality of many of America’s past relationships and why this one incident is suddenly so much worse than anything that has gone before.
Could it simply be that Khashoggi, by having written a column or two for The Washington Post, has been canonized as a member of the media elite, so that his life was worth so much more than anyone else’s? Could it be that the left-wing media are trying to paint a picture of Trump approving of the killing of a man who contributed to a publication that is so often critical of the president? It seems likely that the answer to both questions is “yes.” Certainly, the outrage over Khashoggi’s untimely end has nothing to do with morality.