Let’s stipulate right off that murder — depriving anyone of life — is a heinous crime, no matter where.
What we know for sure so far about the Jamal Khashoggi matter is that he’s dead, but there’s no body. The Saudis say he died in a “fight” with what is believed to be 15 agents. Not much of a fight, it would seem.
The arrogance of such government renditions is appalling. The U.S. has conducted similar snatches on foreign soil. That’s gotten lost in Washington’s outrage in recent days amid the flood of dramatic, distorted storytelling by national media over Khashoggi’s disappearance.
Also lost is what American national security interest is at stake here, beyond the victim’s connection to a D.C. newspaper. Which isn’t a national interest.
Khashoggi was a Saudi citizen. He became an outspoken opponent of the royal family. He decided things were getting too hot in that desert and went into a self-imposed exile.
Khashoggi’s long-term media prominence at home had ushered him into ruling circles where he became an unofficial government spokesman and a friend of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The prince is a “reformer” by Saudi standards who’s now arresting potential opponents and ruthlessly consolidating power for a long reign.
But honestly, Khashoggi was not a journalist in the mold of Bob Woodward. He was an occasional op-ed contributor to the Washington Post, a podium he used to criticize his former cronies back home.
According to unidentified Turkish sources, Khashoggi was snatched during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, tortured and killed, possibly dismembered. Saudi officials claim to have arrested nearly a score of alleged conspirators.
Let’s remember that in the Syrian civil war next door, Turkey is now an ally of Russia and Iran, a sworn Shia enemy of Sunni Saudi Arabia and main backer of Yemeni rebels firing missiles at Riyadh. And when it comes to handling political dissidents, Turkey’s own president is no Mr. Rogers.
President Donald Trump has a love-hate relationship with Washington media: He loves their attention, and for public consumption by his political base, officially hates them.
Unfortunately, following constant media questioning about the missing journalist, Trump inserted himself into the mystery, confidently vowing to get answers and warning of serious consequences if official Saudis were behind the homicide.
This murder mystery is a great change-of-pace story for the media, which is a little bored with midterm politics, and it offers an opportunity to tag Trump with responsibility for something negative.
But wait, let’s think about all this for two minutes: What, exactly, is the U.S. national interest in this killing?
The victim wasn’t American. The murder didn’t happen in the United States, and it doesn’t appear to be connected to this country or its government. The victim was a political insider who engaged in high-stakes criticism of a country that still flogs and beheads criminals.
Sadly, countless thousands of genuine innocents get killed all over the world. There’s a genocide underway now among Rohingya refugees fleeing Burma. But they don’t get daily Washington Post headlines.
Why can’t America’s leaders resist the temptation to wade in and “fix” world problems, to right wrongs, as awful as they may be? Remember President Jimmy Carter’s naïve diplomacy built on human rights? Or saving South Vietnam? Wiping out the Taliban post-9/11? Removing Saddam Hussein?
And Libya’s Moammar Gaddhafi? The West promised to leave Gaddhafi alone if he surrendered his nuclear weapons program. So Gaddhafi did just that.
The reward: In 2011, Nobel Peace Prize winner, President Barack Obama, joined Europeans in ousting him because the Libyan leader had “threatened” to shoot civilians in a nascent civil war.
A mob killed Gaddhafi. That led to Benghazi. Now, Libya is a failed state where terrorist militias roam at will and train to penetrate deeper into Africa, where we then send troops to counter them.
There appears to be a lesson here. Not that we pull back inside ourselves and let the world’s wounds fester. We simply can’t fix everything; truth is, we often make them worse.
However, we can smartly pick the fights that serve our national interests best, which are often not the ones that get maximum media attention, such as l’affaire Khashoggi.
Snatching an opponent on foreign soil is dumb. Also hypocritical. That’s precisely how U.S. special ops forces captured Benghazi ringleader Ahmed Abu Khattala inside Libya, for example.
But shattering political, strategic, economic and energy relations with a longtime, resource-rich ally like Saudi Arabia (a staunch Iran opponent) is dumber and counterproductive to our own national interests.
Perhaps Trump can reject the unbearable moral righteousness of senators and ignore their convenient pre-election indignation. He wisely seems averse to cancelling the historic $110 billion arms sale to the Saudis. That would only help Iran, cost thousands of U.S. jobs and send Riyadh shopping elsewhere.
Now that the president has inserted himself in this mess, he’ll likely have to do something, then endure the inevitable critical media drumbeat for not doing enough, regardless.
As he’s so often vowed, the president’s primary consideration should not be what media or Congress say they think. What’s in the best national security interests of the United States should guide him. And that is certainly not aiding Iran by creating yet another failed Middle Eastern state, all over one heinous homicide.