What Jamal Khashoggi's Case Says About America's Values-Free Leadership

Great democracies advance their national interests by upholding their values.  British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt exemplified this approach earlier this week when he warned Saudi Arabian Foreign Minster Adel al-Jubeir that “friendships depend on shared values.” The impetus for his comment was the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was last seen entering the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul last week. After speaking with the Saudi Foreign Minister, Hunt tweeted that “violence against journalists worldwide is going up and is a grave threat to freedom of expression.”

Sadly, the Trump administration’s slow and flat-footed response to the Khashoggi case stands in sharp contrast to the UK’s clear and principled diplomatic stance. The American government’s ambivalence starts at the top.  Though on Wednesday President Trump finally expressed concern about Khashoggi’s case, and senior U.S. officials are seeking more information from Saudi authorities, it took the President more than a week to publicly express any concern about his fate.  This despite the fact that Turkish authorities have been reporting for several days that he was murdered inside the Saudi embassy.  The administration is resisting bipartisan Congressional interest in exploring various sanctions against Saudi Arabia, even as U.S. intelligence seems to confirm official foul play in the Khashoggi case.   And next week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is scheduled to lead a U.S. delegation to an investor conference in Riyadh, dubbed “Davos in the desert,” which would reinforce a business-as-usual approach to U.S.-Saudi relations.

In countries around the world, the U.S. government has gone AWOL on a wide range of human rights issues.  The President’s “America First” approach to global affairs takes our values out of the equation. Last month, in his address to the UN General Assembly, the President emphasized: “I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship. We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.” This is music to the ears of autocratic leaders in places like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Myanmar, Egypt, Hungary, Turkey and the Philippines. They see the U.S. as missing in action and are taking full advantage of this lack of American resolve to attack or disable their critics, by whatever means they deem necessary.  This apparently is the approach that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken in the case of Khashoggi, who had become a leading critic of the royal family.

The Trump human rights doctrine was best articulated last year by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. In a town hall meeting with State Department diplomats, he defined U.S. core interests around the world as “strengthening our national security and promoting economic prosperity. “ He contrasted these interests with “values around freedom, human dignity, [and] the way people are treated.”  He made the distinction clear. “Those are not our policies, they’re values.” He then took the Trump doctrine to its logical next step, saying “if you condition our national security effort on adopting someone else’s values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals or our national security interests.” In a stunning abandonment of a bipartisan commitment to human rights that has helped ensure U.S. global leadership since World War II, Tillerson concluded that if we pursue values like advancing human rights, we are creating “obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.“

Which brings us back to Jamal Khashoggi.  A prominent journalist in his own country, Khashoggi was for years a close friend and adviser to members of the Saudi royal family. But as the Crown Prince began to arrest journalists and others who were critical of government actions, Khashoggi became an increasingly outspoken detractor himself.  And now he has paid the price. Under the Trump human rights doctrine, Khashoggi’s case is an “obstacle” to the pursuit of U.S. national interests—specifically to its relationship with Saudi Arabia, an important U.S. ally for decades. Saudi oil reserves have helped to meet U.S. energy needs and to ensure U.S. economic prosperity.  The Saudis also have served as a strategic partner in a dangerous corner of the world.  And now it is a country that apparently feels it can dispose of its critics anywhere around the globe without fear of condemnation by the United States in the age of America First, values-free diplomacy.