Jamal Khashoggi was a decent man who suffered an unjust and brutal fate. But he doesn't matter as much as many journalists and politicians are saying.
What happened to Khashoggi isn't that surprising in the context of Middle Eastern politics, or that momentous for U.S. interests. As brutal as it might read, Khashoggi's fate is a reflection of standard-fare regional politics. The Middle East is a region in which power is shaped by the intersection of personal whims, desperate aspirations, venomous ideologies, and the paranoid balance of power interactions. And I'm sorry — considering American interests in the context of Middle Eastern politics, Khashoggi isn't that important.
First, though, one caveat: I respect those who suggest that Khashoggi's fate might require America to reassess its relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and that because of what he did to Khashoggi, bin Salman has shown himself to be an impossibly unreliable partner. While I don't believe that to be true (I believe the Saudis can be made to learn their lesson), I respect the consideration.
But I don't believe Khashoggi matters that much. I get that some readers will view my words here as callous, arrogant, and even delusional. But I would simply ask them two questions: How did you perceive Saudi Arabia before this happened, and how do you perceive Middle Eastern politics per se?
When it comes to the first question, the nature of the Saudi regime has long been clear. It is a regime that has no qualms about restricting human rights, treating women as second-class citizens, and paying off fanatical Sunni clerics in return for political patronage. The House of Saud uses force broadly and without adequate humanitarian caution or strategic hesitation. It beheads not just criminals, but also revered religious figures seeking religious emancipation.
In short, the Saudi regime is not nice.
Yet, it is not uniquely bad, nor, in its factional consolidation of power, is the Saudi regime politically unique. In Iran, we see the flip side of Saudi power as rendered under the warped theological authoritarianism of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's relentless revolution. Pummeling their people into poverty, Iran's false prophets export violence and sectarian hatred across the world. And unlike the Saudis, which have in the past few years begun to take counterextremism more seriously, the Iranians direct their violence against civilians and democracies.
But my central concern here isn't simply that Saudi Arabia is the lesser of two evils. Rather, it is that Saudi Arabia and Iran are far from unique. In Lebanon and Syria, for example, we see the violent intersection of politicized sectarianism and feudal politics. Yes, Lebanon today is in a better position than Bashar Assad's killing fields in Syria, but its legacy of violence and possibility of new bloodletting is a lingering and ever-present function of its society. And just as Assad's father annihilated the civilians of Hama in 1982, his son stands ready to annihilate the civilians of Idlib in 2018.
Put simply, Israel aside, the Middle East is not a place where politics are pleasant, or where circumstances like Khashoggi's are surprising.
The question for America, then, is deciding what policies best respond to these realities and serve our interests. I believe we should focus on engagement which serves our security interests alongside stable political reform. Reality points to this being a good guide. Consider that the relative human interest-political stability of authoritarian Jordan, and democratic Iraq, is largely maintained by American consolidation. Absent American engagement, those states and our security would be far worse off.
That brings me back to Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman's reform program offers the best and, at present, only means of that nation being able to escape what it will otherwise become: a destitute kingdom full of demographically-explosive young men and Salafi-jihadist ideologues — in other words, a recipe for ISIS 2.0.
Is it in America's security interest to avoid that dystopian Saudi Arabian future? Yes. How best can we help do so? By fostering Saudi economic diversification and social emancipation.
In turn, if the Saudis are willing to learn from their Istanbul mistake, realism demands that America maintain our relationship with them. Yes, that calculation is neither morally pure nor politically palatable at present. But it is a realistic appraisal of Saudi Arabia and the politics of the broader Middle East.
To borrow from Matt Gallagher's book, Kaboom, we have to embrace the suck.