Here’s what we know. A resident of a Western country was tortured to death by agents of an authoritarian, Middle Eastern U.S. ally, which receives copious arms from the United States. The victim had been engaging in activity considered a threat to the power of this dictatorial regime.
The government of this Middle Eastern country surveilled the victim in connection with his activities and stands accused of plotting his murder using its national security agents. The country’s leaders have repeatedly denied involvement in the death and initially gave many false explanations for the incident.
There were crucial gaps in the CCTV footage showing the individual around the time and place he disappeared. The government tried to pin the blame on scapegoats who allegedly acted without the government’s knowledge or consent. Must be journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia, right?
Actually, no. The incident I’m referring to is the torture and murder of Italian doctorate student Giulio Regeni, 28, in Cairo, Egypt, in January 2016, allegedly at the hands of government security agents.
The vastly different reactions by the American media and politicians to these strikingly similar events — the pearl-clutching vapors over Khashoggi versus relative silence on Regeni — point to how hatred for Donald Trump and still simmering resentment over his withdrawal from Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, the Iran nuclear deal, are dangerously distorting our foreign policy debates. In true cut-off-our-nose-to-spite-our-face fashion, we are trashing an actual ally, Saudi Arabia, while elevating Iran, a country that not only offers us zero regional or economic cooperation, but is actively opposing our interests everywhere, including Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.
There are the usual suspects. We aren’t surprised when Elizabeth Warren tells The Washington Post, the paper that employed Khashoggi: “We must face reality head-on: President Trump’s actions and instincts align with those of authoritarian regimes around the globe. He embraces dictators of all stripes. … He undermines the free press and incites violence against journalists.”
When, shortly after the Khashoggi killing, the same newspaper prints an article with the alarming headline, “2018 has been a brutal year for journalists, and it keeps getting worse,” in which Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, fingers “the way President Trump and other leaders … have vilified the press as a major factor” in increased threats against journalists, it’s no shock to find that the CPJ’s own figures contradict this claim.
But we should expect better from Republicans, right? Unfortunately, some Republican leaders, like senators Lindsey Graham and Rand Paul, are attacking Trump’s handling of the incident, but they’re jumping into a situation they either don’t understand or are pretending not to understand.
Paul, with his well-known stance against foreign intervention and funding, is at least consistent in his miscalculations. He called “to cut off all funding, training, advising, and any other coordination to and with the military of Saudi Arabia until the journalist Jamal Khashoggi is returned alive,” and he continues to demand an end to arms sales, “not only because of the killing [of Khashoggi] but until they stop bombing civilian populations [in Yemen].”
On the other hand, the usually reliable-on-foreign-policy Graham, who got a taste of media stardom during his spirited defense of embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, continues to court headlines with his newfound bold rhetoric. When CIA Director Gina Haspel, whose agency has linked Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to the killing, was absent from a Senate briefing on the Khashoggi affair last week, Graham vowed that he would not vote for any significant legislation, including a spending bill, until he had heard from her.
He also warned that if the Saudi government ordered the killing, there would be “h-ll to pay” (whatever that means). He continued: “I’ve never been more disturbed than I am right now. If this man was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, that would cross every line of normality in the international community.”
In stark contrast, when Graham visited Cairo barely a month after the discovery of Regeni’s mutilated body, he praised Sisi as “the right man at the right time.” Was his message then and now that a regime can do what it likes as long as it acts within its own borders? If it was acceptable to turn a blind eye to Egypt’s foul play because of more important considerations, surely Graham could do the same for Saudi Arabia. But because of the strange Trumpian time we live in, where previously understood ways of handling bad behavior by allies have suddenly become unacceptable, he chooses now to channel his inner human rights activist.
But it’s not simply rhetoric; actual foreign policy is at stake here. At the same Senate briefing, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unsuccessfully lobbied the Senate to table a bill proposed by senators Bernie Sanders, Mike Lee, and Chris Murphy, to end U.S. involvement in the increasingly brutal war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The bill had previously stalled in March by a 44-55 vote, but this time it advanced by a surprising 63-37 vote.
Graham and fellow Republican, Sen. Bob Corker, a frequent Trump critic, switched their votes from nay to yea this time around, with Graham saying he changed his mind because he was “pissed.” There is little doubt that the deciding factor in changing the outcome was the murder of Khashoggi. The endgame of pulling out of the conflict in Yemen is less clear, however, and theatrics and temper tantrums should have no place in the debate.
The outsized response of politicians and pundits on both sides of the aisle to the Khashoggi killing threatens to do real damage to a vital alliance and our national interests. Iran, through its backing of the Houthi rebels, will be the main beneficiary of the United States pulling its support of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and anything that strengthens the regime hurts the ordinary Iranians who have been protesting the government in large and growing numbers since April.
ISIS and AQAP are both active in the war-torn country, too, and could stand to gain from further destabilization and lack of effective governance in Yemen. Most importantly, none of these scenarios are going to alleviate the Yemenis’ terrible suffering . Are we prepared for a rising Iran-backed Hezbollah-like regime in the Arabian peninsula, a fertile ground for a clash between Al Qaeda and ISIS, and continued suffering for the people of Yemen?
Our leaders should tread carefully. If the United States steps back, Saudi Arabia has other options, and Russia stands ready to put the kingdom on its side of the chessboard, just as it did with Syria when Obama essentially took the United States out of the game there. Furthermore, we will have given up or weakened a strategic alliance for nothing in return except the hollow comfort of patting ourselves on the back for our virtue. It won’t end the conflict in Yemen or make the threat of Iran go away.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is poor, and we should be using all the levers of power we have to nudge the country in the right direction. If it turns out that MBS is not the hero we were hoping would lead us to the promised land, the fact is that progress toward change is slowly but steadily taking place in the kingdom, including the privatization and diversification of its economy, its pledge to fight extremism, women’s rights, and religious freedoms.
Just this week, astonishing news began filtering out that, for the first time ever, Saudi Arabia welcomed a Coptic archbishop and publicized his celebration of a Coptic liturgy in the kingdom. While healthy skepticism is in order in any news from Saudi Arabia, and any number of other regimes the United States deals with, the global geopolitical and economic stakes and scope have never been greater. The United States will be left behind if we follow the Rand Paul path and disengage from crucial international issues.
Khashoggi’s murder was barbaric, deeply disturbing, and, to put it mildly, a step back for the Saudi regime. A more constructive approach now is to encourage Saudi Arabia to turn from its traditional ways of handling dissent, while realizing that this will be a two steps forward, one step back process. However, the lack of concern for the equally horrific death of Regeni in very similar circumstances makes clear that the outrage from Democrats, some Republicans, and the media is in varying amounts politically motivated, naïve, shortsighted, disingenuous, calculated to do harm, and frankly, dangerous.
In case you were wondering, the search for justice for Regeni continues. After three years of stonewalling from the Egyptian authorities, the Italian government last Thursday named seven members of Egypt’s national security agency as suspects in Regeni’s death. Due to a lack of American or international outcry, it is highly unlikely that the suspects will ever face a court of law.