There are autocrats. Look around. According to Freedom House, a quarter of the world’s states are “not free”. More than a third of the world’s population lives in those states. From Venezuela, the least free state in the Americas, all the way to Vladivostok, an even larger share of the world’s land area is ruled by autocrats of one sort or another: presidents for life, hereditary monarchs, ayatollahs, dear leaders.
“Undemocratic regime kills journalist” is a headline that, most of the time, vies with “Dog bites man” for the bottom right-hand corner of page 5. However, the fate of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — who has not been seen since entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2 — has become front-page news. Why?
Cynical commentators have been reminded of Stalin’s observation that “the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic”. After all, the Saudi regime has been killing a great many people in Yemen, where its armed forces have been fighting Houthi rebels since 2015. Only on a very slow news day does that war make the front pages.
Yet this misses the real point. Democratic states also go to war from time to time and generally kill plenty of people when they do. Making war is not a peculiarity of autocrats. But democratic politicians cannot order the assassination of journalists (even if they may sometimes fantasise about doing so).
The real question here is why Khashoggi’s fate is attracting so much more attention than that of, say, Ibrahim al-Munjar, a correspondent for the Syrian news website Sy24, who was shot and killed in the city of Saida on the morning of May 17.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Khashoggi’s death would make him the 45th journalist killed this year; 27 of them were murdered. Ten of the victims were journalists working in Afghanistan, under a government that depends on US military support. I’ll bet you can’t name a single one of them.
The explanation of the storm around Khashoggi is simple. First, he worked for The Washington Post. Second, the strong suspicion that he has been murdered at the orders of the Saudi government is highly embarrassing to the administration of Donald Trump — if not to the president himself, who is of course incapable of being embarrassed — because resuscitating the relationship between Washington and Riyadh has been central to its strategy in the Middle East.
It is embarrassing, too, for the very large number of western businessmen and journalists who over the past year have accepted the invitations of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). That clicking sound you hear is hundreds of emails being sent to cancel the earlier acceptances of invitations to MBS’s Future Investment Initiative (“Davos in the desert”), which is due to take place later this month.
It should go without saying that I deplore the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, if that was indeed the fate that befell him. But I deplore all murders, not just the murders of journalists who work for The Washington Post. I am also quite strongly opposed to wrongful imprisonment. The government currently pointing the accusing finger at Saudi Arabia is none other than Turkey’s. Right now, 68 journalists are serving jail sentences in Turkey, with a further 169 held awaiting trial.
In Washington the chorus of the permanently indignant — after a brief pause to digest its failure to derail the confirmation of the Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh — is now demanding that the Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, join the boycott of Davos in the desert. But some Republicans are also up in arms. On Thursday the Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, Bob Corker, said America should impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia if Khashoggi has indeed been murdered.
Wait a second. The Turks say they have audio and video evidence to prove their allegation. Let’s see it first, shall we? Because I no more trust the Turkish dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, than I do MBS. And Erdogan has no shortage of motives for skulduggery of his own. He has every reason to mistrust his Russian spouse-of-convenience, Vladimir Putin, when it comes to Syria. His currency just fell off a cliff and his banks are in trouble, so he could use some help from the International Monetary Fund. Funny how the Khashoggi story broke a few days before the Turks released the US pastor Andrew Brunson this weekend.
As I said, there are autocrats — lots of them, especially in and around the Middle East. When it comes to press freedom, it’s a really close ugliness contest. Is the US supposed to have diplomatic relations only with liberal democracies? If so, that means just Israel in that part of the world. Hands up, all those in favour of that approach. (At this point Jeremy Corbyn and all those on the left who share his deep antipathy to Israel start hissing.)
The problem is not a new one: it is as old as American foreign policy. You can’t be a great power, much less a superpower, and not have dealings — and sometimes alliances — with nasty, undemocratic regimes. And the mere fact you form alliances with them won’t make them change their ways.
You would think by now this simple truth would be obvious. But no. There will always be a market for hacks wanting to write “J’accuse” articles about any president or secretary of state (so long as he’s Republican) who has “blood on his hands” because he shook the hands of dictators.
What’s more irritating is the inability of the authors of such articles ever to get the orders of magnitude right. For reasons that are hard to fathom, Henry Kissinger has been condemned over and over again for having conveyed American support to General Pinochet’s regime in Chile, yet he has been praised to the skies just as frequently for having brought Richard Nixon to China to shake the hand of Mao Tse-tung. Which dictator killed more people? There’s no contest.
I’m still waiting for the “J’accuse” about the Obama administration’s restoration of military aid to Egypt in 2015 — two years after the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi and the bloody repression of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In 2013-14, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, eight journalists were killed in Egypt, two in crossfire. Since 2013 Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government has imprisoned 20 journalists. Where were the headlines when the F-16 fighters were delivered to Cairo in 2015?
In foreign policy, sad to relate, the measure of success is not the cleanness of the hands you shake; it’s how far the strategy you pursue achieves its intended goals. I still rate the Trump administration’s strategy higher than that of Obama, because confronting Iran with a broad coalition — from Israel to Saudi Arabia — makes more sense than betting on good behaviour by Tehran, which was the essence of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Will this strategy make the Arab autocrats nicer people? Did the Iran deal made the ayatollahs any sweeter?
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford