Disturbing reports out of Turkey suggest that dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post and former editor of Al Arab News Channel, was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey. If true (any report out of Turkey must be taken with a grain of salt), Khashoggi’s murder will mark a turning point in U.S.-Saudi ties. Even if President Trump turns a blind eye to the murder, Khashoggi’s death will mark the date that Riyadh lost the U.S. Congress once and for all.
Indeed, there are eerie parallels to another case from a generation ago. Many American officials would like to forget their past embrace with Saddam Hussein, but at one point, the Iraqi leader was the toast of the town. That Saddam was a moderate was one of the great fallacies of the late 1970s and early 1980s. A generation of American diplomats and politicians fooled themselves into accepting at face value Saddam’s promises of reform and his self-depiction as a great secularist willing to stand up to Iran. Even after Saddam invaded Iran, unleashing a wave of destruction that would ultimately claim perhaps 1 million lives, U.S. officials stubbornly persisted in their embrace. When Saddam returned an ambassador to Washington in 1985, the Washington Post magazine gave a swooning account of a dinner party hosted by new Iraqi ambassador.
Simply put, wishful thinking supplanted an appreciation of reality. Even when officials recognized Saddam’s autocratic tendencies, they comforted themselves in the belief that diplomacy and engagement could soften the rough edges in Saddam’s behavior. On Oct. 2, 1989, President George H.W. Bush signed a national security directive declaring “Normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests” and calling for the U.S. government to provide economic and political incentives to increase influence and encourage Iraq to moderate its behavior.
What popped the bubble of delusion was the arrest and subsequent execution of Farzad Bazoft, a journalist for London’s Observer, on March 15, 1990, on bogus espionage allegations. The British protested Bazoft’s arrest and demanded his release, but Saddam believed he could get away with murder. Not only did he refuse to speak to the British foreign secretary prior to carrying out his sentence but, when the Iraqi government flew Bazoft’s body back to Heathrow Airport, it issued a terse statement, “Mrs. Thatcher wanted him. We've sent him in a box." Then, in April 1990, the United States expelled an Iraqi diplomat involved in a plot to kill dissidents in the United States. It was against this backdrop that U.S. News and World Report branded Saddam “the world’s most dangerous man.”
Back to the present day. Khashoggi was a man known to many. I first met Khashoggi in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2005. I had been invited to a U.S.-Saudi dialogue with the expressed purpose of throwing a bit of a wrench into it. The dialogue had been organized by the U.S.-Saudi chamber of commerce and most participants not only were hypercritical of the George W. Bush administration and U.S. Middle East policy, but were also apologetic toward Saudi support for extremism abroad. I made interjections which broke consensus and, when the Saudis unannounced took us to the bin Laden compound for a presentation about the rest of the family, I walked out of the group photo so as not to imply endorsement. Khashoggi, whom at that time was in good graces with the royal family, later told me he disagreed with me on Middle East policy, but it was long past time that there was a real dialogue rather than the typical Arab propaganda fest. He was kind and generous and told me he could sponsor a visa for me at any time, though I never returned.
If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or henchmen acting on his behalf killed Khashoggi, they have made a huge mistake from which it may not be possible to recover. It may not be fair to the many other dissidents — women’s rights activists, for example — arrested in recent months, but Khashoggi was better known in Washington and liked by many. U.S. officials might have excused a whole host of Saudi malfeasance in the belief that the crown prince was seeking to implement a century’s worth of reforms in just a couple years, but there can be no excuse for killing a journalist, let alone in such a grotesque way. Partisans of Iran should not, however, cheer because bad behavior in Saudi Arabia can never launder the extremism in Iran or vice versa. Rather, it is time to recognize that Crown Prince Mohammed, like Saddam Hussein, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and a long list of others, is not the great reformist hope that so many seek, but rather just another despot with a silver tongue undeserving of U.S. support.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.