Why Understanding Jamal Khashoggi is Important

An individual with values can rise above political self-interest.

Posted Oct 19, 2018

The disappearance and likely death and dismemberment of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by what the Turkish government claimed as Saudi agents is an example of a government acting in its own interest. If the Saudi government did it, and they have slowly allowed us to believe that they did, it was poorly timed and undertaken without awareness of Turkish surveillance. This surveillance apparently has the doctor sawing up Khashoggi's body while saying, "When I do this job, I listen to music." 

Nonetheless, it was an apparent act of government self-interest. Khashoggi was a member of several organizations that worked strongly to support freedoms in Saudi Arabia, including advocating democracy in the Arab world. He was a strong critic of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As Khashoggi noted in many of his articles, the Saudi record for dealing with dissidents like this is consistently poor.

According to an article in Foreign Policy by Steven A. Cook, the Turks leaking information about Khashoggi's death have national interests of their own and are not beyond creative press releases. According to Cook, Turkey leads the world in jailing journalists.  However, it's not clear what their motive would be in this case, unless it is the usual political jabberwocky of turning our attention away from some greater crime. Turkey has plenty of motive in that case. 

But now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be acknowledging that Jamal Khashoggi may have died at the hands of "rogue" Saudi actors. This may be the best course of action for the Saudis, who are now being questioned by European nations and seeing boycotts from the business community to their Davos in the Desert in Riyadh.  Perhaps it is better to admit to a lesser charge, a kind of national manslaughter, in hopes of restoring faith in their business interests. I think they shouldn't worry too much. Money has a way of healing old wounds.  

You might wonder why they bother at all. The Russian assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London and botched poisoning of Sergei Skripal have largely left our collective imagination. If there were any repercussions, I missed it. Trump met with Putin in July 2018, and came away with praise and a convincing show of self-interested submission.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un had his exiled brother killed in Malaysia with VX nerve agent. Trump met with Kim in June, in a meeting he described as "very positive." A few conservative pundits, like Ben Shapiro and Jim Geraghty, noted that the conservative response to this meeting was diametrically opposite to their apparent interests when Obama proposed meeting with the North Korean leader, but out of continued self-interest, conservative politicians held their tongues for Trump. 

Trump's response to the murder of Khashoggi is the usual political doubletalk. He claims "it's bad, bad stuff," and that the consequences will "have to be very severe." He also notes that Saudis are "spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs for this country" in reference to a deal that he is currently making. This is commonly referred to as a conflict of interest. These weapons, by the way, are being used to fuel the humanitarian crisis that Saudi Arabia is creating in Yemen as it attacks civilians with US weapons. It may be in American interests to sell Saudi Arabia these weapons, but I'm at a loss to identify the values that would support such an action. 

These are all cases where people's interests trump their values. By values I mean principles and standards of behavior, some set of guiding precepts by one which evaluates the good or bad of a thing above and beyond one's personal interests.

There is a problem with not having values beyond self-interest.  When your interests are your values, anything that happens in support of those interests is irrelevant. All that matters is that your interests are supported. The end justifies the means.

The stereotypical case is the drug addict who lies, steals, and kills to indulge his habit.  His value is his interest, and everything else doesn't matter. 

If you have no interest in other people's lives, then their deaths are of no interest. Trump makes the point clearly in response to Khashoggi's death: "Well, he wasn't a citizen of this country, for one thing."  But Trump's American-interest argument seems to come in and out of focus as it suits him.

Just last week, in the Ford-Kavannaugh debacle, Trump was rooting for Kavanaugh, so on that day, it didn't matter if you were an American citizen.  If you sided with Ford in this case, you were on wrong side of conservative interests, and therefore you were wrong.  The BBC reported Trump's mocking of Professor Ford's testimony before the hamstrung FBI investigation was even complete.

The problem with putting your interests in front of your values is that principles of belief and personal integrity do not come from interests. 

Values come before you know what's in it for you.

You cannot get to Gandhi's principle of nonviolence through self-interest.  You cannot arrive at Jesus's principle of forgiveness (Mark 11:24-25) through self-interest. You cannot arrive at the Five Pillars of Islam through self-interests (Shahada:Faith, Salah: Prayer, Zakat: Charity, Sawm: Fasting, Hagg: Pilgrimage). You cannot arrive at the principles of secular ethics (logic, empathy, reason, and the golden rule) through self-interests. 

As Michael Posner put it in his article in Forbes, "Great democracies advance their national interests by upholding their values." If you don't know your values, then it may take a week or so to figure out what your interests are before you can make a statement about Khashoggi's case, as it did for the White House.  The "America First" approach must inspect its interests before it knows what it values.

Khashoggi had values. He valued change in Saudi Arabia and in the Arab world more generally, change that would inspire people, educate them, and help them improve their lives. His last column in the Washington Post is one of many demonstrations of this.

He was willing to give up his interests for his values. He criticized his home because he valued that home, even as he lost his ability to return there, and eventually his life. There is not a shortage of people like Khashoggi in the world,  but it's is sometimes easy to forget they're there.  

So here is Khashoggi in his own words: 

"A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative. Sadly, this situation is unlikely to change.

"It was painful for me several years ago when several friends were arrested. I said nothing. I didn’t want to lose my job or my freedom. I worried about my family.

"I have made a different choice now. I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot."

Khashoggi reminds us that an individual with values can rise above political self-interest.

Thomas Hills on Twitter