Disappearance of Saudi Dissident Jamal Khashoggi Threatens Trump's Middle East Strategy

David Barrows, center, with Code Pink, wears a mask of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a protest outside of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia about the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

David Barrows, center, with Code Pink, wears a mask of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a protest outside of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia about the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)



On October 2, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to do some type of administrative activity associated with his marriage and never exited. And now he’s become a cause célèbre among a strange coalition of American media, liberal Democrats, anti-Saudi Arabia proponents, Erdogan supporters, Iranian supports, and think tanks receiving Qatari money.

Khashoggi was an opponent of the new Saudi regime headed by Mohammed bin Salman. He left Saudi Arabia in 2017 and took up residence in Washington, DC, and carved out a niche for himself as the go-to guy in the US for criticism of bin Salman’s rule and the Saudi involvement in Yemen. The Saudi government wasn’t all that enamored with his point of view. According to reports, he was offered bribes to shut up and when that failed a plot was hatched to return him to Saudi Arabia.

The intelligence pointing to a plan to detain Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia has fueled speculation by officials and analysts in multiple countries that what transpired at the consulate was a backup plan to capture Khashoggi that may have gone wrong. But, Khashoggi was not some kind of democratic reformer. His opposition comes from his alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The fate of Khashoggi has at least provoked global outrage, but it’s for all the wrong reasons. We are told he was a liberal, Saudi progressive voice fighting for freedom and democracy, and a martyr who paid the ultimate price for telling the truth to power. This is not just wrong, but distracts us from understanding what the incident tells us about the internal power dynamics of a kingdom going through an unprecedented period of upheaval. It is also the story of how one man got entangled in a Saudi ruling family that operates like the Mafia. Once you join, it’s for life, and if you try to leave, you become disposable.

In truth, Khashoggi never had much time for western-style pluralistic democracy. In the 1970s he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, which exists to rid the Islamic world of western influence. He was a political Islamist until the end, recently praising the Muslim Brotherhood in the Washington Post. He championed the ‘moderate’ Islamist opposition in Syria, whose crimes against humanity are a matter of record. Khashoggi frequently sugarcoated his Islamist beliefs with constant references to freedom and democracy. But he never hid that he was in favour of a Muslim Brotherhood arc throughout the Middle East. His recurring plea to bin Salman in his columns was to embrace not western-style democracy, but the rise of political Islam which the Arab Spring had inadvertently given rise to. For Khashoggi, secularism was the enemy.

A former U.S. intelligence official — who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter — noted that the details of the operation, which involved sending two teams totaling 15 men, in two private aircraft arriving and departing Turkey at different times, bore the hallmarks of a “rendition,” in which someone is extra­legally removed from one country and deposited for interrogation in another.

But Turkish officials have concluded that whatever the intent of the operation, Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate. Investigators have not found his body, but Turkish officials have released video surveillance footage of Khashoggi entering the consulate on the afternoon of Oct. 2. There is no footage that shows him leaving, they said.

The intelligence about Saudi Arabia’s earlier plans to detain Khashoggi have raised questions about whether the Trump administration should have warned the journalist that he might be in danger.

Intelligence agencies have a “duty to warn” people who might be kidnapped, seriously injured or killed, according to a directive signed in 2015. The obligation applies regardless of whether the person is a U.S. citizen. Khashoggi was a U.S. resident.


Nothing here is as simple as it looks.

  • Turkey and Saudi Arabia are at odds over Turkey’s policy in Syria.
  • Saudi Arabia and the United States are growing much closer as the Saudis react to the threat of Iranian hegemony and Turkey moves closer to Iran and Russia.
  • Saudi Arabia is locked in a nasty little war/humanitarian crisis in Yemen (though, let’s be honest, it’s damned hard to tell a conflict generated humanitarian crisis in Yemen from Yemen’s natural state of affairs on any day ending in “y”) opposing an Iranian led rebel faction and has been vociferously criticized for this by Iran’s friends and by the Turks.
  • Saudi Arabia is putting the screws to Qatar, Iran’s ally in the Arab world and a major funder of Washington think tanks like Brookings Institution.

Into this mix is thrown the TDS of our media. Trump’s criticism of US media is being portrayed as a green light by Trump to kidnap and/or kill Khashoggi.

And the incident is generating calls from people like Rand Paul to cut relations with the Saudis. This is an odd throwback to the Cold War where we often convinced ourselves that our allies in fighting Soviet expansion had to be spotless angels which frequently resulted in our allies being punished for actions that we accepted from Soviet bloc nations. (Full disclosure, I’m pretty much where FDR was in describing Anastasio Somoza, “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”)


This, in turn, has generated a diplomatic kerfuffle in which Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo have all demanded answers from the Saudis about the fate of Khashoggi.

And it is complicated by the fact that the Russia-collusion story has collapsed into a smoking heap of #Fail and a new Puppet-master of Trump is needed. And the Saudis are nominated.


My views, for what they are worth, are pretty much echoed by my long-time acquaintance Jim Hanson:

The outcry over Khashoggi is driven, in my view, by three separate and symbiotic impulses. The United States is making strides toward creating a defense scheme in the Middle East which involves Israel and has Saudi Arabia as the linchpin. Creating a crisis that will result in some kind of formal sanctions being applied against Saudi Arabia will defeat that and hand Iran and its sympathizers, both in the region and in the US, a huge victory. The Turks and the Iranians and their allies are terrified of the implications. This incident is being used to attempt to drive a wedge between the US and Saudi Arabia that prevents military and diplomatic cooperation.


The political forces in the United States that pushed for Obama’s Iran-First policy, are using the incident to take pressure off Iran and to create a counter-narrative that says Saudi Arabia is a much worse violator of human rights than Iran and that we should cut the Saudis free. Into this mix are some isolationists who actually oppose Saudi intervention in Yemen on its merits and a non-trivial number of anti-Israel people and groups who are concerned by the warming ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The third part is strictly tribal. Khashoggi is a journalist and because he’s a journalist his life has greater value to the press corps than that of other people. The fact that Khashoggi’s death can be bootstrapped into a multi-prong attack on Trump (Trump’s dislike of the press led to Khashoggi’s disappearance; Trump is enamored of despots and will do nothing to Saudi Arabia; Trump is financially owned by the Russians Saudis) is a plus.

On the whole, I’m underwhelmed by this incident and it would be a shame if we let this shape our entire strategy in the Middle East.

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