20 October 2018

The Khashoggi Mystery

According to the Saudi government, dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed after getting into a fight at the Saudi consulate at Istanbul. Their story is meant to end suspicion that Khashoggi's death was the result of a deliberate attack condoned if not ordered by the power behind the throne. The distinction won't mean much to liberal observers worldwide, who even if they believe the official story will still see the affair as of a piece with authoritarian efforts to silence dissent outside their borders. The Saudi hope is that their story will suffice to mollify the Turkish and U.S. governments. The Turks raised the initial stink, resenting that it was done on their soil, even though a consulate is technically Saudi property, and presumably sympathizing with the dead journalist as a democratic Islamist of the Muslim Brotherhood sort. On the American side, President Trump has been under pressure to chastise the Saudis,in part because Khashoggi can be seen as an American journalist, having written recently for the Washington Post. He's more concerned with finalizing the latest arms sale and no doubt cares little for a journalist who was another country's problem. In recent days the Post has reported a posthumous smear campaign against Khashoggi, the argument being that the victim was unworthy of American sympathy because of his presumed ideological leanings. One of their own columnists, Cal Thomas, split the difference by denouncing both Khashoggi and the Saudis while whining about being labeled an Islamophobe. My own view is that so long as Americans remain free in this country  to denounce tyranny and violence against freedom of speech anywhere, the U.S. government should not make radical changes in diplomacy based on the fate of one person. While doing otherwise appeals to the moral sense of many people, it isn't wise in a practical utilitarian sense. It's deplorable when foreign governments take action to silence dissidents in exile, but 'twas ever thus and will be unless something like the sort of "world government" that Americans themselves fear can effectively enforce the rights of exiles. We still need to resist the hysterical narrative, endorsed by neocons and liberal Democrats alike, that every such incident as Khashoggi's killing is an advance for authoritarianism in its spread across the globe. If you must be outraged against a foreign  government, why not bother the Chinese, who reportedly are jailing relatives of naturalized American citizens in an effort to intimidate them into silence about the mass internment of Uighurs in re-education camps? The reason why not, I suspect, is that Americans doubt their ability to influence China, despite the President's efforts to change their trade policy, while there persists a sense of Saudi dependence on American power, as well as a hate for Islam greater than any antipathy toward China. But if you're looking for a threat to American freedom in foreign lands, it's not clear that critics of Saudi Arabia are looking in the right direction.

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