It’s an odd thing: Saudi Arabia murders one man, Jamal Khashoggi, and the great and the good of several nations go on the defensive. After all the enormities committed by the House of Saud, why was it this one that sent its apologists running for rhetorical cover? For years, the kingdom has been funding extremism across the Islamic world, supporting every stumblebum Sunni militia that was dumb or fanatical enough to launch a rebellion against a blackguard. Saudi Arabia’s funding of Islamic extremism within Europe is such an embarrassment that the U.K.’s then-home secretary, Amber Rudd, had to hush up her own government’s report on it in 2017. During the later Obama years, White House foreign-policy gurus might vent their “frustrations” with Saudi Arabia even though they tolerated and supported the Saudis’ ridiculous war in Yemen, which created near-famine conditions and the worst outbreak of cholera in modern history.
But it is the grisly murder of Khashoggi that has people defensive. Why?
You might joke that it is because 100,000 dead Yemenis don’t matter as much as a single Washington Post contributor. Though that seems too glib, and too dark, it’s almost certainly true. The Washington Post is a powerhouse institution in the most important capital city on earth. It has every right — even the duty — to stand up for its contributors, and has done so in Khashoggi’s case with a diligence that has undoubtedly kept his story alive. But that alone doesn’t explain why his murder has people so defensive.
You might say that it’s all about Donald Trump. President Trump and Jared Kushner pivoted U.S. foreign policy back in Saudi Arabia’s direction. Trump made the House of Saud his first visit, overcoming his germaphobia to fondle their orb. Then he pulled out of the Iran Deal. With the Russia stories fizzling out, it was time for the press to blast the most consequential, and one of the few consistent, foreign-policy decisions of his administration, one he can sound almost silly talking about it. (“Especially when you have Iran doing so many bad things in the world, [Saudi Arabia’s] a good counterbalance to the world. Iran, they’re as evil as it gets. They’re probably laughing at this situation as they see it,” the president said recently.) But that’s not the whole story either.
It could be that many top-shelf journalists and politicians wanted to believe the denials the kingdom brazenly stuck to for as long as it could. After all, Iran and Syria can’t pay them to speak, or invite them to dine with top corporate executives. Saudi Arabia has dramatically stepped up its lobbying over the last year. Many journalists and media companies have been touting the rule of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. They’ve praised his domestic reforms. They’ve credulously reported that he is tackling the Wahhabists, though you have good reason to doubt their ability to distinguish the moderates from the extremists. (How many American journalists can explain the difference between Madkhalis and Qutbiyya?) Now all that laundered Saudi propaganda is an embarrassment to its launderers, who have reputations to protect. But that’s not the whole story, either.
No, at the bottom of this are the human details. If you think of them at all, diplomatic buildings are places of refuge and safety. They are supposed to do elevated business in an elevated way. Whatever Khashoggi’s previous activism and his ambitions, he was not looking to become a martyr the day he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He was getting documents to prepare for his upcoming marriage. If one believes the details leaking out of Turkey, he was greeted by thugs, who then dismembered him with a bone saw, advising embassy workers to turn up their headphones so as to block out the unforgettable sound of a human body being butchered.
Normal humans have a hard time reconciling such a B-movie horror show with the supposed grand ambitions and undeniable moral pretensions of American foreign policy. But, this is the sort of gangsterism that is at the bottom of it. The journalists who redo their kitchens on speaking fees from Riyadh, the politicians who eat steak with lobbyists, the analysts who make a living pretending to combat “the real evil” in the Middle East, all of these people will have that image of the bone saw somewhere in their conscience for the rest of their days. That’s why they’re backing down.
The most likely result of Khashoggi’s murder is that the usual players will very carefully recommit themselves to the status quo and appease critics like me with a few regretful statements about how they’re doing it. But sometimes events, real human events, reshape the course of history. European powers who get less from Saudi Arabia than we do, and take more of the brunt of Gulf-funded extremism, are changing their posture. Germany has said it is ending arms deals with the kingdom. Perhaps, someday, we will too. If, on inspection, we find that common strategy and common interests underpin the Saudi–U.S. relationship, then we should just demand better terms: The Saudis should end their disgraceful war in Yemen, and end the flow of money to extremist preachers throughout the Middle East and Europe.