On Oct. 2, prominent Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi walked into his country’s consulate in Istanbul and never walked out again. The government adviser turned critic, who entered self-exile last year and lived outside D.C., was there to finalize paperwork for his upcoming marriage to his Turkish fiancée. Once inside, according to Turkish authorities, a Saudi team lying in wait killed him and took his body away.
Khashoggi’s disappearance and possible killing is a fork in the road for the West’s relationship with the new Middle East taking shape amid the ruins of the Arab Spring. Even if Khashoggi were to emerge alive—which seems less likely by the day—his enforced disappearance would signal a dangerous expansion of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s already-extensive efforts to silence critics at home and abroad. If a Saudi team did kill Khashoggi, the implications are far worse.
Seven years on from the revolts that swept across the Arab world, it’s now possible to see the shape of what’s lurching out from the wreckage: a new generation of Saddam Husseins and Muammar Qaddafis ready to impose their authoritarian visions in the name of “reform,” with the blessing of the West.
European and U.S. foreign policies may have long been duplicitous, but norms and public opinion typically forced them to treat murderous regimes, at least officially, as pariahs. Impunity for Khashoggi’s killing would usher in a frightening and more brutal age, one in which we would be complicit. A report by the Washington Post on Tuesday that U.S.
intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to “capture” Khashoggi before his disappearance raises the disturbing possibility that our government may have known about the plot and not warned Khashoggi, as it is required to do.
The scandal has sparked angry arguments that the Trump administration’s eager embrace of the crown prince encouraged his worst tendencies, leading to Khashoggi’s death. That could be true, but to understand the rise of the new authoritarians, we need to look back to the Arab Spring’s original sin.
The uprisings of 2011 were without modern precedent, a true shock to long-lasting dictatorships and the client relationships with the West that had helped sustain them.
The path taken afterward was not foreordained, and for at least two years, the outcome hung in the balance. It all fell apart in 2013.
In Egypt, the breakdown of the Muslim Brotherhood–led government, helped along by an unreformed state apparatus that did all it could to ensure its failure, ended in a July coup led by then–Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The following month in Syria, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad launched rockets loaded with sarin gas into a rebel-held suburb of Damascus, killing at least 1,400 men, women, and children. In both cases, the Obama administration reacted with the ambivalence that defined its nonresponse to the Arab Spring writ large.
By refusing to label Sisi’s takeover in Egypt as a coup in order to avoid severing a useful decades-old relationship, Obama’s top advisers accepted the emergence of a new military junta in the Middle East as a fait accompli. In a new book about the Egyptian uprising and its fallout, David Kirkpatrick, the New York Times correspondent in Cairo at the time, persuasively portrays the administration as an abettor of the counterrevolution, happy to see stability return at any cost. Weeks after the coup, Secretary of State John Kerry would infamously claim that the military was “restoring democracy.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, ordered to talk Sisi down from massacring his opposition, instead told him that he knew what was best for his country, later explaining to Kirkpatrick that officials from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had inundated him with complaints, telling Hagel it was time to “extinguish” the Brotherhood.
Sisi did just that, orchestrating the Aug. 14, 2013, massacres in Cairo that left more than 900 protestors dead, the worst such incident in modern history.
That same month, Obama’s dalliance with military action in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria ended in a punt to Congress and a last-minute deal facilitated by the Russian government. What followed were years of further chemical weapons use, especially of chlorine gas. At the same time, the administration intentionally offered Syria’s rebels only enough clandestine support to ensure a bloody stalemate. Obama publicly declared Assad an illegitimate leader who must go, while U.S. policy ensured that would never happen.
U.S. acquiescence to the death of the Arab Spring stemmed from both the cynical realism of key Obama officials and heavy pressure from the Saudis and the Emiratis, both of whom viewed the regional uprisings as mortal threats to their style of monarchical rule. The reactionary kings and princes of the Gulf did all they could to smother Egypt’s democracy movement, funneling billions of dollars to Sisi and his supporters. Such was their antipathy to the Arab revolts and the political Islamists they empowered that they viewed even the Obama administration’s tepid openness to the Muslim Brotherhood as a foul conspiracy.
They had it wrong, of course. If 2011 represented a historic opportunity for the United States to reset a relationship with the Arab world that had been based on decades of support for dictatorships, and if 2013 was the final chance to avoid re-embracing the same strongman pathologies that had led to revolts in the first place, the Obama administration failed both tests. A major source of this failure, it seemed, was a surprising void that had opened up at the core of Obama’s vision of the world. The man who had come to Cairo in 2009 professing his desire to seek a “new beginning” and support human rights “everywhere” had, when the time came to lay down a marker for history, instead resigned himself to the cold comfort of realism. When MBS launched the Saudis’ disastrous military campaign in Yemen in 2015, the first indication of the crown prince’s dangerous audacity, the Obama administration lent its support.
The Trump administration is different primarily in the enthusiasm with which it has enlarged the United States’ stability fetish, especially through Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who has reportedly formed such a close relationship with MBS, his fellow “princeling,” that he shared the names of Saudis “disloyal” to the crown prince in a late-night meeting in October 2017. Since then, neither Crown Prince Mohammed’s brief detention of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in November nor his coordinated crackdown on Saudi women’s rights activists just ahead of lifting the kingdom’s ban on women driving in June have prompted much official U.S. dismay.
Even the Saudis’ long practice of kidnapping dissidents abroad and forcibly returning them to the country—as happened to activist Loujain al-Hathloul in the United Arab Emirates in March—has been ignored. Informed observers have speculated privately in recent days that Khashoggi might have been killed accidentally during a similar abduction attempt. But such an accident would be the predictable consequence of abuses too long permitted.
What happened to Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist with more than 1 million Twitter followers and an influential circle of friends, has already begun to vaporize any remaining sense of safety held by Arab dissidents around the world. It has shocked a typically jaded worldwide community of Middle East journalists, analysts, and human-rights activists into a chorus of anger and horror, prompting an unusual bipartisan threat of consequences from the senators who authorize and fund U.S. support for the kingdom. On Monday, nearly a week after Khashoggi disappeared, President Trump, Vice President Pence, and Secretary of State Pompeo each finally weighed in, expressing concern. On Tuesday, in a major speech on progressive foreign policy, Sen. Bernie Sanders demanded accountability for Khashoggi’s disappearance and singled out Saudi Arabia as a prominent member of a “worldwide movement toward authoritarianism, oligarchy, and kleptocracy” that demands opposition.
The Saudis have responded with the obfuscation that has become typical of the region’s new authoritarians, offering blunt denials, conspiracy theories, and the false promise of investigations to find out where Khashoggi “really” went. They have failed to produce any evidence that Khashoggi ever left the consulate, while journalists have reported key pieces of circumstantial evidence, such as the Saudis’ dismissal of Turkish employees on the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance, their removal of surveillance footage from the consulate, and the arrival and departure of the private jets said by Turkish authorities to have carried the hit team.
If the Saudis are allowed to play this game, and Khashoggi is allowed to disappear without consequence, we will have entered a dangerous new world in which a regime’s promise that its “hands can reach you wherever you are,” as one Saudi dissident in London put it, will be made real as long as it is strategically useful to the West. Once again, we are being offered a choice.