Why Jamal Khashoggi Was Killed
In the early summer of 2005, during the height of the U.S. war in Iraq, I arranged to have lunch with Jerry Jones, a special assistant to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. I had heard rumors that Jones and a number of senior U.S. military leaders were holding quiet talks with prominent Islamists and other officials representing Iraq’s tribes at a hotel in Amman, Jordan. The discussions were part of an effort by Jones and senior military officers to end the Anbar insurgency, which was responsible for a lengthening list of U.S. casualties in Iraq.
For the outset of our meeting, Jones (a gangly and affable Texan who’d served in influential positions in several Republican administrations), detailed the challenges facing the U.S. military in Anbar and provided a summary of the “brutal,” “bloody” and “harrowing” fighting there. America’s military deaths were spiking, with no end in sight. “We’re in trouble,” Jones concluded. While much of this was known at the time, Jones’s narrative stunned me. “Are you telling me that we’re losing the war in Iraq?” I asked. Jones chuckled and shook his head: “Losing? We’re not only losing,” he said, “we’re on the wrong side.”
Not much has changed in the intervening years, as the recent murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi kill team has shown. While the U.S. was able to quell the Anbar insurgency, America has stumbled from position to position in the region, primarily because we’ve continued to make the same mistakes that we made in Anbar—we’re losing in the Middle East because we’re on the wrong side, a side that is represented by leaders like Mohammed bin Salman. Khashoggi knew this better than anyone.
Last August, Khoshoggi authored a Washington Post article cataloguing these stumbles, and offering a solution. Khoshoggi wrote that America’s failure in the Middle East was the result of its failure to recognize the importance of the region’s Islamist parties—primarily the Muslim Brotherhood. “There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it,” he wrote.
Khashoggi’s critique was both eloquent and controversial. It’s why he was murdered. “The United States’s aversion to the Muslim Brotherhood,” he wrote “. . . is the root of a predicament across the entire Arab world. The eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood is nothing less than an abolition of democracy and a guarantee that Arabs will continue living under authoritarian and corrupt regimes.”
While eloquent, Khoshoggi’s views weren’t a surprise. He had made the same point to me back in 2005 (we were only acquaintances, though we found ourselves singing from the same songsheet), during a conference of Islamist organizations in Beirut, which included the senior leaders of the Brotherhood. America was fated to fail in the Middle East, Khoshoggi told me then, because it was “unable to distinguish real enemies from true friends.” More simply, since 9/11 (as he described it), the U.S. had failed to distinguish between Islamists who have constituencies and are political parties (like the Muslim Brotherhood), with those who have no constituencies and are networks—like al-Qaeda and, later, ISIS. Conversely, the leaders whom we then and continue to identify as secular reformers and our closest friends and allies (a list that includes General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia) are neither. They are policemen.
If there is any compensation in this sordid tale, it is that America’s mistakes have been bipartisan. George Bush’s invasion of Iraq did not end al-Qaeda’s threat, but actually strengthened it (and empowered Iran), while Barack Obama’s pledge to the Egyptian people that the U.S. would support “a democratic political order with participation from all sides” breathed its last when, in August of 2013, the Egyptian military massacred over 600 pro-democracy demonstrators in Cairo’s Rabaa Square. Obama looked the other way.
Put simply, when the chips were down, America’s political leaders didn’t support hope and change, they supported reaction and murder. They put American on the side of the thugs.
The idea (momentary, fleeting) that this would change under Donald Trump, died a comical death on May 21, 2017 in Riyadh, when our president placed his hands on a glowing orb that symbolized the establishment of Saudi Arabia’s “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology.” Joining him in this decidedly perverse celebration was Egypt’s dictator Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. “This groundbreaking new center represents a clear declaration that Muslim-majority countries must take the lead in combating radicalization,” Trump said during the ceremony, “and I want to express our gratitude to King Salman for this strong demonstration of leadership.”
Among the onlookers that Sunday evening was son-in-law Jared Kushner and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Jared was then ensconced as the administration’s new point man on Middle East peace (the bar is low, so why not?), while bin Nayef was on his way out the door —escorted there by Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s newly anointed and photogenic strongman. And so it was that while many of America’s journalists recoiled from Trump’s decision to make common cause with Fatah al-Sisi, they safely ignored him as they tripped all over each other to praise his alter-ego, and supporter, bin Salman or “MbS.” Bin Salman, they said, was a leader who promised to create “a more modern, more entrepreneurial, less-hidebound and more youth-oriented society.”
That promise, it seems, has now been drowned out by the screams of a reporter who dared tell the truth. It’s no wonder that many foreign policy officials view Khashoggi’s death as a possible turning point in U.S.-Saudi relations—and one that might spur a rethinking of U.S. policy in the region. But even that hope is now beginning to fade, led by the reaction of a community of voices—including National Security Adviser John Bolton, his allies at Frank Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy, and the new Kushner-linked Strategic Studies Group—have mounted a well-documented “whispering campaign” that Khashoggi “pimped for the Brotherhood.”
In one sense, of course, they’re right. For what Khashoggi was telling us (and what he wrote in his August piece in the Washington Post) is that the U.S. has gotten the Middle East terribly wrong. That we have miscast our enemies and misidentified our friends. That the forces for change in Cairo and Riyadh are not in its governments, but in its prisons. That America is not only losing in the Middle East, it’s on the wrong side. That Mohammed bin Salman is not a friend of democracy, but its enemy.
Khashoggi was right. Which is why he was murdered.