Ronan Farrow wrote about the collapse of American diplomacy and of American leadership in creating a liberal global world order; diplomacy had been militarized. Ben Rhodes also wrote about the destruction of diplomacy, but about the replacement of professional diplomacy with personal transactional gestures. In the current case of Jamal Khashoggi, what we are witnessing is the economization of both military coercion and diplomatic persuasion. There remain a few foreign proxy wars, but economic pressure, wheeling and dealing, have become the way international relations are primarily conducted while autocrats blithely ignore all civilized norms of international conduct in their conduct of domestic wars on their enemies.
Jamal Khashoggi believed, as many do, that America is the world’s richest, most creative, most influential and most powerful country, even as it has lost its position as a moral leader of the world. However, whatever America’s failures, Khashoggi was convinced that it is in America that the heart beat of the world still pulses. That is where Khashoggi chose to live in exile from his homeland in Saudi Arabia, though he planned to move to Turkey and marry Hatice Cengiz, a doctoral student in Istanbul.
However, Khashoggi could not escape Saudi Arabia (SA). The world of international norms is in great disorder. Putin hacks into the businesses and elections of Western countries with virtual impunity. States like Russia go abroad to poison and murder their critics while Trump insists that it is not his business since the poisoning did not take place on American soil. Khashoggi, in addition, was not an American citizen.
The possible evidence for Khashoggi’s murder: intelligence intercepts of SA intentions; camera pictures of Khashoggi entering but not leaving the embassy; the arrival on two chartered flights and the movements of the alleged 15-man hit squad, including an autopsy specialist, into and out of Turkey; three of the Saudi operatives included a close friend of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the head of security for MbS and an intelligence operative close to MbS; the repainting within the Saudi embassy; Turkish audio and visual recordings; even a watch recording of what happened to Khashoggi with sounds of a bone-saw transmitted to his fiancée. Then, after two weeks, instead of an outright denial, we are served a concocted story of rogue elements, an interrogation gone wrong and possibly a botched abduction, echoed by Donald Trump and Saudi allies in the region and the Muslim world.
This evidence all points to Saudi Arabia following the same path as autocrats and would-be autocrats in other states. And Donald Trump, President of the USA, which provides the military equipment to enable Saudi Arabia to carry on its war in Yemen, mouths empty words while Donald insists that, in America’s economic interests, the country he leads will do nothing effective. In the meantime, twelve million Yemeni mouths face actual starvation as fighting intensifies around the port city of Hodeidah in what UN officials warn may be the worst famine in a century.
Khashoggi, it must be remembered, has not only been a critic of SA, but had been a forthright critic of Trump even after Trump became president. SA is a close ally and major purchaser of billions of dollars of American military equipment.
In Canada, we experienced the wildly disproportionate and bizarre response to our Foreign Minister’s very justified twitter comments on Saudi Arabian human rights abuses. Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic relations, cancelled business orders, stopped flights between the two countries and recalled the large number of Saudi students studying in Canada whose fees contributed significant income to Canadian universities. If states get out of line in the view of another state, if the latter state has the economic clout, it will avenge sleights seventy-seven fold. Following its domestic pattern of rounding up and jailing its critics and dissenters, has Saudi Arabia gone much further and taken one step too far in its widely believed initiative in using its consulate in Turkey and a 15-man hit squad to eliminate Khashoggi as a thorn in its side?
Though very knowledgeable, friendly and even devout, Jamal Khashoggi was not a saint. He was an accomplished journalist who once interviewed Osama bin Laden, an old friend whom he later lamented had “surrendered to hatred and passion.” More recently he covered Saudi Arabia. He used to be on the inside with the Saudi establishment, traveling with King Abdullah and enjoying a close friendship with the Saudi billionaire, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. Khashoggi is rumoured to have not simply been employed as an “adviser,” but had been an intelligence officer working for Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, the head of Saudi intelligence. Except the Saudis had reservations about him. Khashoggi had once been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and, as NYT writers put it, had a “tangled mix of royal service and Islamist sympathies.”
Why he went into exile is unclear, though what is known is that, MbS, the new 33-year-old authoritarian reform-minded crown prince and close friend of an American “prince,” Jared Kushner, had Khashoggi’s column in a Saudi-owned newspaper canceled. Given the alleged murder of Khashoggi when he went to the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to obtain some citizenship documents needed for his upcoming remarriage, the regime appeared willing to go far beyond the sanctions they had placed on his family in forbidding them to travel and the arrests of his associates. Khashoggi may have been more than just a critic of the regime who lived in exile; it is believed that he held many secrets.
Perhaps the reason for his believed murder was only that he was a very tenacious critic once he went into exile and had begun to set up a series of organizations – Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). Tracking the media in SA and reporting on its economic situation were both part of his agenda. The Saudi government felt very threatened, especially if Khashoggi had substantive backing from the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia may largely escape the embarrassing situation it now finds itself in by pointing to some of its operatives, characterizing them as rogue, and sentencing them to “prison.” That line of propaganda has already started as President Trump, after speaking to the Saudi King, stated that the “journalist may be a victim of rogue killers – who knows?” Instead of offering soldiers in combat, states offer up their intelligence officers, first as public relations gestures, and then, if pressed too hard, as sacrificial lambs.
In an era in which we have witnessed autocrats, whether elected or coming into power by other means, war against their critics, MbS has run to the forefront and locked up not only women who advocated for women’s rights, journalists who reported on the deeds and misdeeds of his government, but their relatives and associates as well. MbS has also imprisoned businessmen and clerics who did not fall in line with the government.
On an official visit, the Saudi regime even kidnapped a former recipient of Saudi patronage, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, who held dual citizenship in both Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Hariri was only set free when he was forced to publicly resign and denounce Iran, SA’s rival in the region. The result: after protests by other states, particularly the US and Egypt, Hariri was released. Shortly afterwards, he was restored to his office with even greater popularity and, counterproductively, greater status for both Hezbollah and Iran. Saudi citizens were ordered to leave Lebanon.
Hariri fell into line to defend SA against the tsunami of a backlash against the regime in the aftermath of the Khashoggi affair. “The position occupied by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Arab and international societies puts it in the ranks of the central countries entrusted with the stability of the region and in support of Arab issues.” Harari reiterated that campaigns against SA constituted a breach of this stability. Lacking the in-depth knowledge of diplomacy conducted over a long period and the deep analysis of independent intellectuals, the whole quixotic episode rebounded and covered MbS with meringue pie.
Despotic one-man absolute rule is simply the most extreme version of the rise of autocrats. They operate in the realm of international politics through vendettas against their rivals and deal with others in the international arena, that is other states, as manipulatable by economic pressures as the regime uses coercion, through the military to crush its should-be satraps, and with imprisonment and murder to destroy its individual critics.
Mohammed bin Salman is not simply an “enlightened despot,” as Elliott Abrams dubbed him is his apologetic series on Saudi Arabia, even though MbS pushes through economic and social reforms to modernize his country. For the joining of “enlightened” with “despot” is an oxymoron. One cannot be a despot and be enlightened. The central tenet of the enlightenment is freedom – freedom to think and say, to associate and to advocate. That is why the alleged murder of Khashoggi is so depraved – it cuts to the heart of modernity. And it cuts out that heart when even the most central principles of the modern era are proven to be violable.
This is, of course, magnified a thousandfold when states and international Islamic organizations fall into line and follow the Hariri message of defending SA while characterizing attacks against SA as efforts to undermine the kingdom, and, hence, peace and security in the Middle East. (Cf. Arab News http://www.arabnews.com/node/1387726/saudi-arabia)
- The UAE: Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, after defending SA’s role in the region as a protector of stability and a beacon for peace, characterized the attacks on SA as political incitement against the kingdom;
- Bahrein: King Hamad bin Al-Khalifa accused SA’s critics of trying to undermine the policies and sovereignty of SA;
- Egypt: The foreign ministry dubbed the charges against SA in the Khashoggi affair as “arbitrary” and urged waiting for the results of the investigation;
- Oman: The foreign ministry dubbed any judgment at this time as “hasty” and “premature.”
- Jordan: Media Minister Jumana Ghunaimat attacked the targeted rumours.
- The Palestinian Authority: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas expressed his absolute confidence in the Kingdom, under the leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Diplomacy now means rounding up economic dependents to defend the indefensible and outrageous. The Arab League chimed in, attacking threats to use economic sanctions against SA. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) called the Turkish-SA joint investigation as an expression of good intentions, warned against premature conclusions and insisted that the international media ensure accuracy and professionalism in their publications. Sheikh Dr. Mohammed bin Abdul Karim Al-Issa, the Secretary General of the Muslim World League (MWL) called the worldwide criticisms of SA a threat against SA and issued a categorical rejection of any threats against the Kingdom.
All of this backtracking and obfuscation following MbS’s adamant insistence that Khashoggi had left the embassy, subsequently amended to say that his security forces only intended to abduct the man, as if a forced disappearance was not a heinous crime under international law. In any case, this autocratic ruler and control freak professed that he knew nothing about the operation. Donald Trump bought it and insisted on the presumption of innocence, a serial liar who himself condemns others based on no evidence – the list is enormous – the New York five, eventually proved innocent, “crooked” Hilary.
Donald Trump had laid out the public relations escape plan – MbS told me flat out that they did not do it and I believe him – just as he had believed Putin’s denials, Paul Manafort’s insistence on his innocence, and the list goes on and on. In the meanwhile, Saudi authorities reminded its subjects that a 5-year jail sentence and a $3 million fine would be levied against “rumour mongers” lest public order be undermined.
Will the coverup work?
To be continued.
With the help of Alex Zisman