At the beginning of our report on the Khashoggi affair, the Security Studies Group noted that the death happened at the same time as one that might have garnered at least as much attention. It did not. Why not?
The disappearance of Khashoggi is contemporaneous with the disappearance, and possible murder, of the head of INTERPOL, Meng Hongwei. In one of these cases a highly visible individual with international position vanished without a trace and little fanfare; in the other a stunning amount of media coverage resulted in one of the largest news stories of the year. The US Secretary of State was personally dispatched to investigate, as was later the Director of Central Intelligence.
Now the Senate has decided to issue a mostly-toothless but extravagantly staged statement on the subject of this one death, while still ignoring China’s disappearance of the head of INTERPOL. What explains this lack of concern by the Senate?
We might ask again today, as Jason Rezaian at the Washington Post notes the murder of an actual American citizen by the Assad regime. The torture and murder, I should say:
Last month the U.S. government confirmed that an American citizen had died in Syrian captivity. Sources concluded that Layla Shweikani, a U.S. citizen with Syrian roots, had been tortured and then executed.
The response? Nothing. Neither the U.S. government nor the American public reacted in any noticeable way.
“It’s disheartening that there not only has been no outrage over the murder of an American by the Assad regime, but that there has been little to no coverage on her story by our national media,” Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) told me this week.
One might have expected the Senate to react to the killing of an American citizen by a regime noted for its tyranny. Where is the virtue the Senators were at such pains to display yesterday?
A brief by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) explains, I think, the real game at play. The real issue is not the extrajudicial murder of American citizens, American residents, or anyone else. The real issue is that the class of foreign policy elites have decided that the Saudi royalty has gotten above itself. Or, as the brief phrases it:
The crown prince seems to think that Saudi Arabia is a great power and can act with the kind of impunity that Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China do on the international stage. His uncles who ruled the Kingdom before him had a much better understanding of the limits of Saudi power.
I do not wish to be harsh on the subject of the CSIS brief, which I think is generally sober and well-considered, although it is institutionally less motivated by advancing American interests than SSG. All the same, the question does turn out to be not, “How can we punish international actors for killing Americans?” but rather “Who is so great a power as to be allowed to kill with impunity?” The answer includes China and, to a very large degree, Russia.
It also includes, of course, past Presidents of the United States of America. I am not sure it includes the present one, who seems to be held to a different standard than those who were credentialed members of the elite themselves. It certainly did include the previous one, who — as the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is accused of having done — sent a team of men to kill and dismember one of his own citizens without any judicial process. Well, one is naturally enough dismembered when struck by a 12-pound warhead atop a Hellfire missile; and it takes a team to ensure the accurate strike. Of course, in this case the US citizen killed extra-judicially by his own government was a member of a terrorist organization — but so, from Saudi Arabia’s perspective, was their citizen.
There is no coherent principle at work in the Senate’s action. Several are possible. An honest debate might conclude that it is best to demand that no governments engage in extrajudicial executions even of declared terrorists. Alternatively, a reasoned debate might find that it is best to allow allied nations to clean up terrorist organizations, but not to trust totalitarian regimes like China to do so responsibly. A thoughtful body might decide that only some governments were adequately committed to principles of justice to be trusted to carry out killings of terrorists. That might include some allies and even some non-allies, but definitely would not include China or Syria.
What we have instead is a pure attempt to exercise power to subordinate a sovereign nation. It is dressed up as opposition to a practice that these same Senators studiously ignore when it is carried out by governments they think beyond their power. They ignore it when its carried out by their own government, as long as they like the president who ordered the extra-judicial killing.
Either this practice is something you oppose, or it is not. If it is, then the Senate’s refusal to hold Syria or China to account is the vice of cowardice. If it is not, then the Senate’s grandstanding here is the vice of deception. Quite likely it is the vice of self-deception.
The Senate should wait to signal its virtues until it has some. A disciplined examination of what principles it is prepared to sacrifice to defend — even against China, even against the strong — is a good place to begin.