Isn’t it Time to Move Past the Khashoggi Killing?

There are numerous reasons we need to get past the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. Yes, the murder of Khashoggi was gruesome. It understandably offended Americans. Republican Senators Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Todd Young have joined with three Democrat senators to introduce a resolution that would find Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MbS) "complicit" in Khashoggi’s death.

The Democrats are delighted to use the incident because it puts President Trump in an awkward position they can use to accuse him of being chummy with murderers or endorsing autocratic regimes jailing or killing journalists. (Of course they conveniently ignore the cozy if not supportive relationship former Secretary of State John Kerry and former President Obama had with the murderous mullahs of Iran.) The resolution would require Trump to withdraw troops in or "affecting" Yemen within 30 days unless they are fighting al Qaeda. The resolution also calls on the Saudi government to negotiate with representatives of the Houthi movement and agree to a political resolution to end the country's humanitarian crisis. 

Jamal Khashoggi in March 2018 (Photo credit: April Brady)

It’s unclear what advantage this provides the United States other than creating the illusion that we did something about the killing.

Meanwhile, there are 10 legitimate reasons to move on and put the incident behind us.

1. The hit on Khashoggi was undeniably a Crown Prince Salman-sanctioned killing. After the CIA briefing on the matter, Graham said, ‘there was a smoking saw,” a reference to apparent evidence that Khashoggi was literally carved up in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.  For Saudi Arabia, it was the equivalent of a state-sanctioned killing. We have to ask ourselves, what’s the difference between a Saudi state sanctioned killing of Khashoggi and our hit on Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks?  Countries acting in what they perceive to be their best interests routinely knock off their enemies. Consider the ongoing American drone strikes in the Middle East since 9/11, in which hundreds of individuals have been killed without due process, including some Americans regarded as dangerous enemies.

2. It’s important to understand that Khashoggi was not just a mere journalist and writer for the Washington Post. In Riyadh, he was perceived as a threat to the Saudi leadership for damaging their image with Washington. Khashoggi’s articles eloquently railed against repression by MbS and Saudi leaders. But he was no friend of Western style democracy or the United States. He had his own motives for attacking the Saudi leadership. You see, Khashoggi was an operative of the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni organization considered to be a proponent of a radical and violent version of Islam.  One of his closest friends during his life was Osama bin Laden. He dreamed of establishing an Islamic caliphate. MbS labeled him “a dangerous Islamist.” So it’s ridiculous and highly misleading to portray Khashoggi as merely a “Washington Post Global Opinions columnist.”  But this conveniently gives the anti-Trump media a hook to keep the story alive to embarrass Trump.

3.  Saudi politics are not for the squeamish.  As Washington Post writer David Ignatius acknowledged, “The Khashoggi killing had roots in a cutthroat Saudi family feud that has all the elements of Games of Thrones.” If past recent events had gone another way, it would be Crowd Prince Salman who would be locked up instead of his rival Prince Turki bin Abdullah, an ambitious son of the late king. It’s the way the place functions. Over the centuries Saudi leaders have maintained control through violence, intimidation and generous benefits to their allies.  America political outrage, Senate resolutions and cancelled deals aren’t going to change that any time soon. There’s too much money involved. And it’s in conformance with Sharia law.

4. Muslims have been slaughtering other Muslims since Islam was established almost 1,400 years ago. There’s nothing new about it. The life and death struggle between the Sunnis and the Shias is centuries old and not likely to end soon.  The killing of Khashoggi must be viewed in this context.

5. The Saudis operate under their version of Sharia law. The Qu’ran says smite your enemies.  Author Abdullah Alaoudh, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, says in the Washington Post,  “If Khashoggi had been abducted alive and tried in the Saudi courts, he would probably have faced the death penalty through a totally controlled attorney general and vastly intimidated and threatened judges. The judges who are supposed to oversee the Khashoggi case are under enormous pressure from the crown prince.”  Would the US Senate have been so upset if it had turned out that way?  Does anyone think there is any realistic way to change all of that?

6.  Turns out, MbS has taken some real first steps to reform the kingdom. He has played hardball with the ultra conservative Wahhabis who have guided the clerical establishment in the kingdom from its emergence in the late 1920s. The Wahhabis have had free rein to run the education system, enforce strict social morals and license to export radical Islam throughout the world.  MbS jailed 30 Saudi clerics, writers and intellectuals a year go for expressing their opposition to the policies of the Royal Palace.  In the meantime reforms have been introduced.  The Washington Post recently reported,  “Saudi youths . . . insist they own the change and are committed to remaking their country. The drive for change in Saudi Arabia is more credible because it is homegrown, not a response to outside pressure. It is being driven by an understanding that Saudi Arabia cannot sustain governance based on the lowest common denominator among all the factions of the royal family, the approval of the Wahhabi clerics, an economy dependent almost exclusively on oil for revenue and 80 percent of Saudi households dependent on the government.”  MbS and his father, King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, are obviously aware and to some degree supportive of this.

7. Even with current reforms, Saudi Arabia is not a comforting place for Western civilization, Jews or Christianity. How bad is it? Robert Spencer reports, “The kingdom’s new books for the 2018-2019 school year continue to teach hatred or even violence against Jews, Christians, Shiites, women, gay men and anybody who mocks or converts away from Islam. This academic year, once again Saudi Arabia’s high school monotheism textbooks teach that infidels such as Jews and Christians are “the enemies of Islam and its people” and that proper observance of Islam requires “abhorring the infidels” and “enmity” toward them. These textbooks characterize Shiite Muslims — like those who make up the majority in Iran — as polytheists and declare that Jews, Christians, and polytheists are “the most evil of creatures.” Saudi Arabia’s current high school religion textbooks also call for violence against such people." How are any Senate resolutions going to change that?

8. Saudi Arabia is the main counterweight to Iran, the ultimate hard line Muslim country working feverishly, with the help of $150 billon (delivered by former President Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry) to create nuclear weapons that can be delivered with their growing array of medium and long range rockets. Governed by fanatical Muslim mullahs dedicated to destroying “the great Satan,” Iran is the leading supporter of international terrorism and the grave threat to world peace. Like it or not, Saudi Arabia, which has many American educated leaders who tend to be pro-American, is critical to US and Israeli interests in dealing with the Iranian theocracy.

9. Cancelling the $350 billion military sales agreement to Saudi Arabia, as some have demanded, would not only cost many thousands of jobs, it would weaken Saudi Arabia’s ability to counterbalance Iran. Facing what it regards as a mortal threat from Iran, Saudi Arabia would have to turn to Russia for weapons, vastly strengthening Putin’s hand in the Middle East

10. By American standards, the killing of Khashoggi was a horrific crime. But practically speaking, what really can be done about it other than express outrage? Yes, we can sanction certain Saudi officials or force them to reduce their actions in their proxy war with Iran that has wreaked tragedy and havoc on Yemen. But at the end of the day, it is in America’s strategic interests to have a working relationship with the Saudis regardless of who is in power. Almost certainly, MBS will be the next king. We have no choice but to continue to deal with him. It’s the real world out there. That’s why it’s time to move on. But at least we know what we’re dealing with.

Frank Hawkins is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer, Associated Press foreign correspondent, international businessman, senior newspaper company executive, founder and owner of several marketing companies and published novelist.  He currently lives in retirement in North Carolina.

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