Why do we care about journalist Jamal Khashoggi?
He had an appointment at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to collect some documents he needed to marry his Turkish fiancee — a certificate showing that he was divorced from his first wife. He entered the consulate Oct. 2 at 1:14 p.m., asking his fiancee to wait outside for him. She did. Until 2 a.m. He never emerged.
A number of news outlets, citing Turkish sources, are reporting that Jamal Khashoggi, the former editor of a Saudi newspaper, regime critic and Washington Post contributor, was murdered. The New York Times quoted sources who said that 15 Saudi agents from the security services, including one autopsy expert, entered Turkey that same day on two chartered flights. They departed that evening. The Saudis claim that Khashoggi left the consulate an hour after he arrived and have no idea what became of him. The Turks would like to send a forensic team inside, but the Saudis have refused.
The story is making headlines worldwide. Murder and possible dismemberment in a diplomatic facility will do that. President Donald Trump, who has forged very close ties with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has described it as “a very sad situation.” Trump continued: “It’s a very bad situation. We cannot let this happen, to reporters, to anybody.”
If, as looks very likely, Khashoggi was kidnapped and murdered on the orders of the crown prince, it should be a cautionary tale for his overly enthusiastic fans in the West. Just six months ago, the 33-yearold spent three weeks in the U.S. meeting leaders of business and government. In addition to an Oval Office session, he met Hollywood bigwigs Morgan Freeman, James Coleman and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. CBS’s “60 Minutes” hailed Mohammed bin Salman as a “revolutionary” who was emancipating women. He was received by Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Rupert Murdoch and Stephen Schwarzman of the Blackstone Group.
But Crown Prince Mohammed’s nods in the direction of reform — he has permitted movie theaters to open for the first time in decades, and women now have the right to drive — shouldn’t cause hearts to flutter. The history of western wishful thinking about “reformist” dictators is very, very long and nearly always ends in tears. After Leonid Brezhnev died, the American press was suddenly enamored of former KGB head Yuri Andropov. He spoke English! He “relaxed with American novels.” The Washington Post reported that he
“is fond of cynical political jokes with an antiregime twist ... collects abstract art, likes jazz and Gypsy music.”
It was the purest KGB disinformation, but we so wanted it to be true.
Crown Prince Mohammed has made reformist noises; it’s true. But the arrests and convictions of peaceful protesters have not abated. If anything, they’ve increased.
The crown prince seems to have hair trigger about criticism from abroad, too. When Canada’s foreign minister tweeted a call for the Saudi monarchy to release two jailed dissidents, the crown prince went to Defcon 4. He cut all ties with Canada, ordered all Saudi students home from Canadian universities, and expelled the ambassador.
According to The Washington Post, intelligence intercepts reveal that Mohammed bin Salman devised a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him. It looks as if he might have ordered something worse.
Sometimes you have to deal with bad actors. But you don’t have to delude yourself about who and what they are.