There is a bitter irony in reading Jamal Khashoggi’s final column for the Washington Post. Written in the hours before his disappearance at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, it deals with the subject of freedom of expression and, in particular, of media freedom. It reflects on how, in countries left with little freedom of expression – among which he counts his Saudi homeland – people become victims of state-run controlling narratives which may be entirely false, but to which there are no available alternatives; and it laments the fact that in the absence of such open debate, people in most Arab countries are simply unable to address the real problems their societies face.
In the column, Khashoggi deals only briefly with the sanctions imposed on journalists who try to challenge this grim state of affairs; he refers to his Saudi colleague Saleh al-Shehi, currently serving a five-year prison sentence for writing columns critical of the Saudi establishment. He does not talk about the killing of journalists, although it is well known that brutal regimes often use the murder of over-curious journalists to create the climate of fear that strengthens their control; and of course, he does not foresee what seems to have been his own terrible death in the consulate, at the hands of a Saudi hit squad.
Yet there is no doubt that the killing of Khashoggi – if that is what it was – represents a fairly classic assertion of control by a despotic regime determined to brook no opposition; and the events of this week, as the international community has sought to respond to Khashoggi’s disappearance, have been something of a textbook lesson in the growing weakness of the global response to such outrages, and in the age of impunity into which we now seem to be entering. In the first instance, there is the awkward fact that the government of Turkey, which has this week been taking a hard line in seeking the truth about Khashoggi’s death, has itself, in the last half-decade, committed some truly shocking acts of media suppression, closing down entire newspapers, and imprisoning scores of leading journalists – almost 250 at the last count.
Then, in the second place, we have the strange truth that many governments have protested about the death of Khashoggi, without showing much previous interest in the Saudi regime’s routine and shocking abuse of human rights. Saudi Arabia does not attempt any form of democracy, and does not aspire to any substantial system of civil rights, for women or anyone else; worse, it is currently conducting a near-genocidal war in neighbouring Yemen, where its determination to defeat the Iranian-backed opposition seems to know no limits, including deliberate attacks on innocent civilians.
This week, the British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt described the situation in Yemen as “heartbreaking”, as if it were some kind of natural disaster; but the disaster there is a consequence of deliberate acts of war which would have been much less devastating if Saudi Arabia had not been armed to the teeth by weapons suppliers in the US, the UK and many other Western countries. And through these deep economic ties, many Western countries have made themselves hopelessly complicit with the foreign and domestic security policies of a regime whose conduct is indefensible, in terms of their stated positions on human rights.
It was briefly interesting, in other words, to see so many Western powers so much more appalled by the death of one journalist – grim and significant though it was – than by the current threat of famine facing 13 million Yemenis; it will doubtless be embarrassing for the Saudis to see so many leading business and government representatives withdraw from next week’s planned “Davos In The Desert” conference.
Already, though, in the weasel words of Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, it’s possible to see the process by which Khashoggi’s apparent murder will be swept under the carpet, excused, glossed over, and generally subordinated to the Trump administration’s insistence that Saudi Arabia is an “ally”, whereas Iran is an “enemy”. Trump’s passionate attraction to despotic leaders is fast becoming one of the key features of his administration; he is “in love” with Kim Jong Un, and fairly worships the muscular Vladimir Putin.
It must be puzzling for him when two of his favourite strong-men – in this case, the Saudi Crown Prince and President Erdogan of Turkey - find themselves in dispute; but the pattern is clear. Might is right, democracy and human rights are for the birds, raw power is more exciting than the footling checks and balances of the US Constitution, and national interest – defined in the most crude and short-sighted terms – must trump every consideration of right and wrong, or the long-term sustainability of the global community in which we live. And in every country, including the UK, there are well-funded apologists for this age of impunity, self-styled ‘hard-headed realists’ ready to explain why in international affairs, ethical considerations are for fools, and brute economic or physical force is all that counts.
They are quite wrong, of course; it is a classic delusion of despots to imagine that people will tolerate their unjust rule for ever, and the history of the last century – indeed of all the 250 years since the United States was founded – suggests that the patient men and women who sit round tables painstakingly constructing legal and constitutional order, the ones so despised by Trump and his kind, are the ones who build to last. If our fledgling post-war international order is crumbling now, that is certainly, in part, a measure of its own weakness, and of the hypocrisy of many of those who claimed to uphold it.
Those who rejoice in its collapse, though, and in the post-facto humiliation of “new world order” leaders like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, should not flatter themselves with the illusion that this new generation of political brutes and brigands cannot bring us anything worse. For one glance at the history of our own continent, and of others, is enough to show us that they can; and in ways that our fortunate generation, here in the West, has never yet had to imagine.