What's missing in all the Khashoggi analysis
Many years ago, I worked in the Palestinian territories in the first years that the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat had control. The situation was fluid enough that I could travel and make friends all over the area.
During this time, I met a police officer involved in the Palestinian government's first (as I recall) reported death by torture. I asked him what had happened. While we looked at the beautiful Samarian hills, he answered, "Well, one of the guys got a little aggressive, and we accidentally beat the guy too hard, and he died. He [the officer] was known as someone who was aggressive."
I asked, "So what happened to the officer?" My friend replied, "Well he was punished. He was suspended for a few days. It wasn't right that he hit so hard."
A few months later, torture came to my office. A local woman came in, telling us her husband had been beaten to death by the secret police. A coworker investigated, and the local chief of security also told my colleague matter-of-factly, without any seeming remorse or shame, that the man had had a heart attack while they were beating him. They didn't mean to kill him – it just happened. "Of course," the chief said, "he was guilty and deserved what happened to him." A few weeks later, all my coworkers were arrested by security and beaten as well. I made every effort to protest and fight this injustice, but not one human rights organization or news reporter, or anyone with any influence, was interested in Arab human rights abuses – only Israeli abuses. (Only the Swiss Red Cross would assist, but they could merely verify my colleagues' detention.) Thus, I left the area, never to return.
Extrapolating this experience to the Khashoggi incident, I believe that within the context of a culture of routine police beatings, the Saudi government considered its story believable in the sense that every Arab would understand a "fistfight" to mean a police beating. I think the question is not whether the Saudi government meant to beat Mr. Khashoggi, but whether it meant for him to die during the beating.
I would argue that if the Saudi crown prince meant to kill Mr.Khashoggi, he could have been assassinated anywhere, by any number of relatively untraceable means. Almost anything would have caused the Saudis less embarrassment than the way Khashoggi was apparently killed in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Thus, I argue that Khashoggi was killed accidentally during what the Saudis thought would be a routine police interaction – routine, as in every political opponent should expect a police beating.
What should the U.S. government do in response? Any response should be calibrated. Torture is not right. It is reprehensible. Beating political opponents to death is horrific. However, in the Middle East, governments do what they must to stay in power. Every Middle Eastern government understands that peaceful transfers of power are the exception, not the rule in the region, and any government opponents will in turn oppress the former rulers once they gain power.
In this story, there is no good guy – all sides are morally compromised. Jamal Khashoggi was working to bring Islamist rule to the Middle East, Turkey is rapidly becoming an adversary, and Saudi Arabia is the country that produced Osama bin Laden. But that does not mean we need to help sworn enemies such as Iran by weakening significantly our relationship with Saudi Arabia.