It’s a principle that applies on a personal level and on a national level: If you insist on making friends solely with saints, you are going to have a very lonely existence. As a practical matter, effective foreign policy demands recognition of this truism, no matter the nations at issue.
The Middle East presents a particular challenge, as the killing of Saudi Arabian dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi illustrates.
There seems to be little doubt that Khashoggi was murdered and that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, at some level, is likely responsible. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman would seem to be the person most likely to have ordered the hit, if indeed such an order was given.
If we apply Western norms to this incident, there is every reason to condemn the royal House of Saud in general and Prince Mohammad in particular. Civilized governments allow critical journalism. Civilized governments don’t jail, much less execute, journalists critical of the government.
That is all true and very important. One of the requirements for a free, flourishing society is the open exchange of ideas, and an independent press plays a vital role in establishing that sort of dialogue. There is, of course, a difference between an independent press and an unbiased press. The former is a policy of effective governments. The latter is a fantasy.
Admit it or not, every journalistic outlet, no matter how hard they try to be impartial, includes some hard-wired, unavoidable bias that affects their coverage of issues important to the outlet. That’s OK, so long as media outlets are truly independent. In that atmosphere, the best ideas will compete against lesser ideas and the more effective ideas will flourish, sooner or later.
Neither Turkey, the nation in which Khashoggi died, nor the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia supports a free press.
Outside of Israel, to a greater or lesser extent, the free press doesn’t really exist in that part of the world. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president of Turkey, heads up an authoritarian, fundamentalist regime that is widely reported to have more journalists currently imprisoned than any other nation in the world.
Erdogan is no friend of Western values like an independent media, so why would an apparent secular crusader like Khashoggi end up in a home of repression like Erdogan’s Turkey?
One answer is that Khashoggi wasn’t a crusader for free, democratic institutions at all. Rather, he was a radical fundamentalist using his unique position in the Muslim world to undermine the House of Saud’s governance of Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi was tied to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, openly supported former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi who was the Brotherhood’s champion in that country, and was granted access to Osama bin Laden by al-Qaeda when the infamous terrorist was in hiding.
It appears that Khashoggi, like the Greek god Janus, had two faces. One sneered at Saudi Arabia, seemingly appalled at its violations of Western values like freedom of expression and equality that Western nations so value. The other face leered toward fundamentalist Islam, happy in the certain knowledge that he was cleverly undermining Saudi Arabia’s West-leaning royal family, paving the way for a fundamentalist resurgence in the desert kingdom.
I’ve spent substantial stretches of time in Saudi Arabia as part of my job. Like most Westerners, the culture-shock upon being immersed in a theocratic kingdom such as Saudi Arabia was almost overwhelming. There is much about the nation that offends Western sensibilities, and I have often been critical of many of its laws and institutions.
All that said, if America is going to be a force for good in that part of the world, we have to be engaged in that part of the world with more nations than Israel. President Barack Obama understood that, and many of my fellow conservatives criticized him for it. Today, the pious shock over President Donald Trump choosing to remain engaged with Saudi Arabia mostly originates from the other side of the aisle.
Trump and his foreign policy advisers seem to understand two basic facts about the Middle East that anyone who has spent substantial amounts of time in that part of the world know to be true:
One, if you are going to engage with the Muslim-majority states, then you have to pick a side, either the Sunni states (most importantly Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Egypt) or Iran, the big dog on the Shia side. You can’t be buddies with both, and most sober-minded people recognize that for all the ruthlessness that characterizes the House of Saud’s rule in Saudi Arabia, the mullahs who run Iran are far worse and much more dangerous.
Two, the United States is much more likely to be a civilizing influence in Saudi Arabia than we could ever be in Iran. I never thought I’d live to see the day that women were allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. The fact that bin Salman made that happen is a hopeful sign.
To sum up, I do not support murdering journalists of any ilk, for any reason. A free press is a necessary pillar of a free society. But it appears to me that Khashoggi was far from the saint opponents of the Trump administration want us to believe. The evidence suggests he was conflating a cover role as a reform-minded journalist with his larger goal of helping to establish more fundamentalist Muslim states.
That’s what we here in the United States call “the long game”—clever, deceptive, and designed to succeed gradually over time. One imagines that playing the long game in a region as full of brutality as the Middle East takes a mixture of courage and stupidity. Khashoggi’s unfortunate end seems to support that conclusion.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.