As the consensus grows that the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, there’s been a growing backlash to the regime in Riyadh.
High-profile luminaries and media and business sponsors are bailing on Saudi initiatives and on a major upcoming investment conference in Riyadh. Thomas Friedman, who wrote a gushing endorsement of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last year, walked it back, a bit. Even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, no friend of press freedom or civil society, is pressing the kingdom.
Yet the U.S. government remains markedly reticent. First, President Donald Trump pleaded ignorance. “I know nothing right now,” he said Tuesday. “I know what everybody else knows—nothing.” He added, “I don’t like hearing about it, and hopefully that will sort itself out,” as though as president of the United States, a key Saudi ally, he had no way to push for new information and no role in the matter sorting itself out.
Since then, the administration has backed away from even that soft stance. On Thursday, Trump took pains to emphasize that Khashoggi, a permanent U.S. resident, was not a citizen. “It’s in Turkey, and it’s not a citizen, as I understand it,” he said, and added later, “Again, this took place in Turkey, and to the best of our knowledge, Khashoggi is not a United States citizen. Is that right?”
Then, on Friday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC he planned to attend the conference in Saudi Arabia later this month.
“We are concerned about what is the status of Mr. Khashoggi,” Mnuchin said. “Although I haven’t had direct conversation with the Saudis, I know other people within the executive branch have, and those discussions are under way. I am planning on going at this point. If more information comes out and changes, we could look at that, but I am planning on going.”
Paradoxically, this equivocation does make one thing clear: For now, at least, we’re seeing the end of American lip service to human rights. Past U.S. administrations were willing to overlook abuses by allies—including, notably, Saudi Arabia—but continued to rhetorically support human rights and frown at abuses. The Trump administration is either unwilling or uninterested in going even that far.
“Other administrations, some have been more aggressive, some have been less aggressive,” in calling out human-rights abuses, Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen who also served in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, told The Atlantic. He is now at the Middle East Institute. “Frankly speaking, I think that really, over these past years, for the most part, administrations have been less focused on human rights and civil liberties. But I would also say that I’m not aware of any administration, certainly not in the last 40 years, which has been so vocal in saying that they don’t care about human-rights issues.”
The U.S. has tended to spin a narrative of itself as the noble defender of freedom and human rights around the globe, whether against abusive superpowers (the Soviet Union, China) or smaller-scale killers (Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein), but it is easy to construct an alternative history of the U.S. turning a blind eye to abuses. To pick a few lowlights, that history runs from the U.S. assent to genocide in Bangladesh in 1971, documented by Gary J. Bass; the painfully slow move to squeeze apartheid South Africa; backing for Jonas Savimbi in Angola and right-wing paramilitaries in Latin America; and, more recently, inaction in Darfur.
Saudi Arabia was always a notable fly in the ointment of American moral leadership. Because of the country’s regional importance and oil supplies, Washington generally overlooked the kingdom’s repression of women, brutal handling of dissent, crackdowns on Shias, and exportation of extremism to elsewhere in the Muslim world. Most recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo certified continuing support for Saudi-led military operations in Yemen, reportedly over the objections of State Department officials and growing outrage in Congress over the civilian toll of the conflict.
The Obama administration illustrates the contradictions that characterized American stances. Obama had a notably rocky relationship with the Saudi royal family, largely because of his willingness to deal with Iran but also because he spoke out in favor of human rights and democratic reforms. Yet in a new book, David Kirkpatrick chronicles how the U.S. also effectively allowed a 2013 military coup against a democratically elected government in Egypt.
There is no such contradiction on display in the Trump administration. The president has resolved it by essentially deciding not to talk about human rights at all. Whereas Obama described working with the Saudis as a necessary evil, Trump embraces it without apparent reservations. Trump made clear his view on American moral superiority early in his tenure: He doesn’t believe it exists. When Bill O’Reilly pressed him on Vladimir Putin’s record, in February 2017, Trump replied, “You think our country is so innocent?”
Obama waffled over how to handle new Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and briefly gave a cold shoulder to other leaders who presided over sham elections before ultimately giving in, but Trump has rushed to congratulate them, no matter how flawed the circumstances. He has shown similar affection for Rodrigo Duterte, the proudly villainous president of the Philippines. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has praised Trump for what he described as a lack of interest in human rights.
There are occasional, notable exceptions. Trump has twice ordered air strikes on Syria after chemical-weapons strikes. (The president seems unusually moved by images of suffering children.) He has also spoken out forcefully against Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela, though his motivation there appears largely ideological, as a way to attack socialism.
For the most part, however, Trump has remained uninterested in human rights. When, in August, Canada and Saudi Arabia got into a diplomatic dustup over the issue, Washington remained on the sidelines.
Among some of those who have spoken out against Saudi Arabia and pulled out of prior commitments since Khashoggi’s disappearance, there seems to be a feeling of betrayal, a sense that Mohammed bin Salman had broken an implicit deal to keep his repression quiet and internal while he touted his modernization drive. But the alleged abduction murder of a journalist, living in the United States and working for an American newspaper, while in Turkey went too far and embarrassed many of bin Salman’s defenders.
Not so for Trump, who is exceedingly difficult to embarrass. Beyond that, and beyond Trump’s lack of interest in human rights, he places little importance on civil liberties in general and detests the free press in particular, making Khashoggi an unlikely cause for him.
During an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Trump made explicit the trade-off he has made between God and mammon, or at least between morals and mammon. Shannon Bream asked the president about congressional discussions of cutting off arms sales to Saudi Arabia as retaliation for Khashoggi’s abduction.
“I think that would be hurting us,” he said. “We have jobs; we have, you know, a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that’s doing probably better economically than it has ever done before. A part of that is what we’re doing with our defense systems, and everybody’s wanting them. And frankly, I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country. I mean, you’re affecting us, and you know they’re always quick to jump that way.”
The answer is remarkable for its internal contradictions—Trump at once boasts about the economy’s strength and yet also suggests it’s so fragile it couldn’t withstand pulling back some arms sales—but also for the blunt statement of purpose. For Trump, economic development is the ne plus ultra, while human rights isn’t even on the map.
In the past, some members of the administration have been far more proactive on human-rights matters than the president. Foremost among them is Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations. But as Haley announced on Monday, she’s leaving the administration and going home. Mnuchin is going to Riyadh. That’s likely to symbolize the path to come for this administration on human rights.
Krishnadev Calamur contributed reporting.