Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts What the Khashoggi Affair Tells Us about American Journalism, Politics, and Policymaking in the Age of Trump
What the Khashoggi Affair Tells Us about American Journalism, Politics, and Policymaking in the Age of Trump

What the Khashoggi Affair Tells Us about American Journalism, Politics, and Policymaking in the Age of Trump

  • Adam Garfinkle
  • November 28, 2018
  • Center for the Study of America and the West

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2 has tripped off one of the grandest cascades of news copy, electronic and print, in many recent weeks, and perhaps even many months. Why is that?

Several reasons come to mind. First, the deed itself was both gruesome and spectacular, surprising and utterly beyond the pale of civilized diplomatic protocol. Mainstream media markets in the United States and, less so in the main in the West generally, love that sort of thing because it registers high on the all-critical shock meter. The fact that Khashoggi allegedly entered the Consulate in order to secure a document necessary to enable his marriage to a Turkish woman, knowingly putting himself at some risk as she tells the tale, just makes the plotline juicier for an audience that has become increasingly challenged by the task of untangling reality from fiction (of which more below). Then there ensued for several days an undulating uncertainty about what actually happened, revelations of the existence of surreptitious Turkish tapes promising to reveal the Truth, and the subsequent lateral entry of the CIA into the investigatory mix amid howls of righteous indignation from assorted congressmen and journalists. So the plot thickened, the decibel level rose, and the drama intensified. Think of it: murder and much blood courtesy of a bone saw; love and certainly sex implied; Oriental intrigue, jet-set hit squads, and high-tech eavesdropping in diplomatic inner sancta: This is market share manna from entertainment heaven for mainstream media. No wonder they played it to the hilt.

Second and related, there was as well an unmistakable comedic element to the story as it quickly developed, giving the entire affair the flavor of an old Pink Panther farce. In the early days, when we were not sure what really happened to Khashoggi, we had a choice as to whether to believe Turkish state spokesmen or Saudi state spokesmen. This is roughly akin to having to choose between believing Oliver Stone or Pinocchio on one of his bad, very wooden, days. Most observers chose to believe the Turks because they wanted to, even before knowing that the Turks had tapes revealing much, or enough, of what had gone on inside the Consulate.

That was pretty funny, but not nearly as hilarious as watching the Saudis change their story about what supposedly happened a half dozen times, in mostly mutually contradictory ways, within about as many days. It was to say the least hard to reconcile how Khashoggi could have walked out the back door of the Consulate on October 2—those darned security cameras being on the blink, wouldn’t you know it?—only to be declared indeed dead two days later….only to have a pathetic looking double walking around after that! Saudi public relations craft obviously needs work, seeing as how these folks lie about as persuasively as a typical nine-year old boy caught red-faced in some naughty act. But in the meantime, anyone who cannot appreciate the entertainment value in the bottomless mediocrity of Saudi mendacity has to constitute a really tough audience.

Third, to the extent that responsibility for Khashoggi’s murder pointed to the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)—as it increasingly did—it constituted a line of indirect attack on President Trump and his son-in-law, who, as is well known, has held several wee-hours conversations with MbS in Riyadh. The American mainstream media is schizophrenic on this score, but not at all in a humorous way.

On the one hand, Donald Trump sells media, which is why during the 2016 primary season and campaign it showered Trump with free exposure. Who can forget Leslie Moonves’s infamous February 2016 remark that the campaign was a “circus” and that, while Trump’s candidacy might not be good for America, “it’s damn good for CBS.” Moonves could have stopped there, but he didn’t:

Donald’s place in this election is a good thing. . . . Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? . . . The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.

It’s the sort of remark, redolent of the sort of behavior, that makes one wish there really was such a thing as eternal damnation, even if just for those senior journalists who set aside their most solemn professional responsibilities not to turn the news into spectacle in pursuit of lucre.

Then, on the other hand, having been partly responsible for electing Trump to the presidency—and vaguely coming to realize that—the same media moghuls then reasoned that opposing him was now the best formula to compete for market share, because far more “never Trumpers” try to follow actual news than Trump supporters. But the whole push me-pull me thing—first “bring it on, Donald, keep going” and then the Donald-the-Devil tilt—has had the combinate effect of implicitly focusing critical thinking in the American body politic on the man rather than on the deeper political and cultural factors that allowed him to become President in the first place. That constitutes a massive and deeply unhelpful category error, but it is a virtually inevitable error since the dumbing down of the long since electronically driven mainstream press is one of those factors.

So Khashoggi’s murder becomes big news in part because he is an appendage of the never-ending Trump story, which now resembles a mélange of The Apprentice, West Wing, and Pee Wee’s Playhouse. But truly major stories—for example the Benalla-Macron Affair in France—are barely noted in the U.S. press because no connection to Trump is evident.[1]The mainstream press, in short, is afflicted with the DTs—the delirium trempers, let’s call them—because it can’t stop drinking in the toxins he exudes.

Fourth, at the time of his murder Khashoggi lived in the Washington area and, among other activities, wrote for the Washington Post. For publishers and journalists of national and near-national stature, Khashoggi was “one of us,” or could be so construed for practical emotional purposes. It’s not the least surprising that Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post emoted so vigorously over the murder, because he knew Khashoggi personally and, an alleged Muslim Brotherhood affinity aside, he was by all accounts a jovial, knowledgeable, and personable fellow. But it was easier for those of this guild who did not know Khashoggi personally to feel a “one of us”-toned sympathy as well. And of course it is nasty that autocratic governments—Russian, Chinese, North Korean, Turkish, and now Saudi—feel ever less restrained these days in reaching out and whacking some of their own nationals they find annoying who happen to be abroad. The ambient level of thuggishness in the international theater has grown, and the normative decay it both reflects and probably presages is unfortunate.

All true; but Khashoggi himself, and hence his murder, was and is not all that important. If the murder persuaded some Western observers that MbS really is the accident-prone, out-of-control spoiled brat that he has been ever since he grew out of his thobe knickers, fine. Most of us paying attention already knew that from the lengthening list of foregoing outrageous, random, and mostly stupid MbS behaviors—except maybe for some single-issue obsessives who saw only the illusory prospect of a region- and history-altering blossoming public Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran.[2]

And so in this particular regard the flood of coverage points up an uncomfortable truth, one that a few seasoned U.S. Middle East hands, Ambassador Ryan Crocker notably included, have already commented upon: For all the anguish over Khashoggi from the usual mainstream media types, where is the comparable anguish over roughly a half-million Syrian civilians murdered by their own government over the past seven years, or over the bloody mayhem in Yemen to which MbS and the Saudis have contributed much? Celebrity journalist, English-speaking Arabs from prominent families they care about and write about; all the rest, not so much. Alas, Arab blood sells very cheap in Washington, DC when it is merely faceless and ordinary.

….And Then Came the Politics

By now, nearly two months on, it is time that even the Khashoggi affair would have faded from the front pages. But it hasn’t done so to the extent one would have expected, and that is because the whole deal has caught a second wind thanks to the rancid partisan politics whose stench fills the air around us. The tail end of the Khashoggi media coverage merged with the recent midterm elections in such a way as to furnish the Democrats with a bludgeon to smash down Republicans. And the President has made an excellent target by standing utterly alone, even amid his own Administration (such as it is), by defending and exonerating MbS. Indeed, the President’s apparent credulity in this case is approached only by his repeated determination to take Vladimir Putin’s denials of involvement in hacking the November 2016 U.S. elections at face value. In both cases he appears to normal people, in the United States and beyond, as a gullible fool—which would seem, on balance, to be a poor way to shape others’ future behaviors in ways we would like.

For some Democrats this leaping upon the Khashoggi affair with all four paws is conscious payback for the Benghazigate nonsense of 2012-16—ten separate Republican-forced congressional committee investigations spilled out over nearly four years that insinuated all they could but found next to nothing remotely improper. For other Democrats it’s just a garden-variety “tribal” reflex. Republican politicos seized on the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, which killed the American Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and one other U.S. diplomat, as a way mainly to pummel then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, already at the time the presumed Democratic presidential nominee in 2016. The accusation was ludicrous, and at least some of those responsible for the political weaponization of the Benghazi tragedy had to know that. The idea that a cable from the security office of a U.S. Consulate would have ended up square on the desk of the Secretary of State is so risible that no serious or experienced person could possibly credit it. But the audience to which this accusation was aimed was on the whole neither serious nor experienced, and anyway did not know what the word risible meant.

But the ploy was necessary as well as opportunistic, because it deflected any lingering memory of the real issues involved in the Libya War. The March 2011 decision to start a war against the Qadaffi regime, a decision opposed by the Secretary of Defense and every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the ur-error.[3] But, alas, most senior Republican congressmen had been more enthusiastic about making that error even than President Obama, who demanded a series of onerous conditions before he would commit the U.S. government to the use of force, only to have his demands unexpectedly met. Obviously, no war, no failed state; no failed state, no terrorist haven bathed in weapons loosed from Libyan stockpiles; no terrorist haven, no deadly attack a year later on the Benghazi Consulate. This isn’t rocket science. So to make sure the American people would not connect these dots, some kind of smoke-and-mirrors deflection became necessary. And so we got the Benghazigate witch-hunt.

And now here we go again with Khashoggigate. Whether the Democrats will demand hearings about what the President and Jared Kushner knew and when they knew it remains to be seen. We should not be surprised if hearings are demanded in an era when investigating one’s political adversaries is vastly more popular than tackling public policy issues. But hearings or no, the silly battlelines are even now being drawn, and are already serving as an invitation for myriad others to screw around in the trenches.

And so it was that on November 16 both the New York Times and the Washington Post bore headlines, above the fold on the right, that the CIA had determined that Mohammed bin Salman had ordered Khashoggi’s murder. Save for readers with exotic personalities, the copy under these headlines offered little to nothing in the way of new information for those who had been following the story. It had been a few days already since the CIA had been able to access the Turkish tapes, and everyone’s body language had been pointing in the same direction—toward MbS’s culpability. So why, asked my youngest son at the breakfast table, the bold headline?

That is when I had to explain to him, as I have done over the years to students, how to actually read a newspaper, to wit: Usually the information in a news story explains why the story is in the paper; but sometimes a supposed news story getting into the paper in the first place is the story. That was the case on November 16. Competitive leaking being a time-honored Washington tradition, in this instance someone out in Langley fed this story to the papers in order to undermine the White House’s line of talk that MbS was not the evildoer. This was a sign, another one in by now a long series, that parts of the U.S. government are more or less at (cold) war with other parts of the U.S. government, and that normal interagency processes are not working well, or at all.

There is, as always, a history here. The President’s insinuations about a “deep state” centered in the intelligence community—a belief that led him to dismiss unredacted signals intelligence about Russian election hacking, shown to him in the Oval Office by high IC officials, as fabricated documents—clearly annoys and at times alarms senior members of the IC, even some of the ones appointed to their posts by this President. They generally suffer in silence as they do their important work, but every so often they feel compelled to make a noise. This was one of those times.

Not long after, on November 22, a long and detailed analysis by two senior journalists appeared in the New York Times concerning the supposed dangers of a pending nuclear energy infrastructure sale to Saudi Arabia.[4] Same thing. Again, the news was not really news to those paying attention. Save for some details about recent negotiations, observers have known about Saudi interest going back deep into the Obama Administration period, and even before that. And the rather uninteresting truth is that a lot of money is involved over a fair number of years, and that, as the article points out, if the U.S. government does not midwife a deal another government probably will. That would dramatically reduce U.S. leverage over what a future Saudi government might do with whatever stuff it may procure. Even a sizable nuclear infrastructure in Saudi Arabia represents only a modest weapons proliferation risk for several reasons (the same cannot be said about a reportedly longstanding Saudi-Pakistani understanding[5]), but the risk is most modest to the extent that the U.S. government maintains failsafe control over it at a respectable distance. As a Thanksgiving Day feature, the article was fine; but what it really represented, from the editor’s point of view, was another volley against the Trump White House’s overly cozy relationship with MbS. Again, the fact of the article’s appearance was its own point; its mostly anodyne content was not.

As with Benghazigate, a thickening political overlay obscures the policy realities beneath the inchoate obfuscations of Khashoggigate. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. government has no better and available options in Saudi Arabia than the Al-Saud, and if that were not depressing enough, it has no significant or reliable leverage to influence the staying power of Mohammed bin Salman as Crown Prince and presumptive King. It is not as though hordes of eager liberal democrats are waiting with baited breath to transform the Kingdom into an Arabian version of Denmark; the most likely actual alternatives to the current regime are more hidebound, not less. Bloviating in public about Saudi human rights violations and the like may make some U.S. officials feel better, and it may appeal to some U.S. domestic audiences—which readily enough explains why some politicians do it. But it won’t change anything on the ground in the Kingdom, and it won’t make parsing reality in the bilateral relationship any easier as the future intrudes upon the emotions of the moment.

The politicization of foreign policy judgments and debates is of course nothing new. Politicos end up in the room where the National Security Council makes consequential foreign policy/national security decisions for a good reason: because political weakness undermines the authority of the office of the President in whatever it seeks to do. The pristine notion that politics should not enter at all into such decisions is just that—pristine and hence both impractical and impossible.

But there are limits. The Iran nuclear deal, in addition to Benghazigate and a potential Khashoggigate, illustrates them through two administrations. Trump’s opposition to and eventual withdrawal from the Iran deal was ill advised despite flaws in the agreement, but the political message, meant mainly for a domestic audience, took pride of place. Similarly, the Obama Administration arguably cared more about the political optic of the deal than it did about specific terms or regional consequences. So, for example, the President was loath to show any backbone over the civil war in Syria partly out of concern that it might undermine the effort to bring Iran “in from the cold” via a nuclear deal. That same concern, incidentally, led the White House to exhibit a strange and anxious detachment from quiet but promising efforts to make progress on the Israel-Syria axis of the peace process that was ongoing from late 2009 into the first two months of 2011.

The Obama White House exhibited a naïvely feckless realism, for being tougher with a regime allied to Iran was more likely on balance to result in a better deal with Tehran than the one agreed to. That said, evidence since surfaced suggests that the Iranian leadership, which sought the deal for its own reasons (mainly sanctions relief), discounted any link between U.S. policy in Syria and the nuclear deal negotiations. Still, a White House that never really lost the vibe of a Senate office in permanent next-campaign mode, and hence that too often cared more about optics and rhetoric than about policy and outcomes, overthought the matter. As with the Trump decision to withdrawal from the deal, here too politics intruded overly much on the policy that took us into the deal.

The Rubble Heap

As noted, it is not good when the President of the United States acts like a mark, gullibly swallowing obvious lies in plain sight of more than 190 governments worldwide. It could tempt some of them to think that they, too, can lie to us for fun and profit. But maybe President Trump is not the fool he appears to be in all cases. Maybe he simply reasons that to call out a boldfaced lie would obligate him to act publicly in ways that would end up, under the circumstances, as mere posturing, and hence make both him and us look weaker in the end. Call MbS a liar and create a rupture in the bilateral relationship to what end, given the paucity of alternative Saudi interlocutors? Call Vladimir Putin a liar, sow even worse U.S.-Russian relations by so doing, and then what happens when a Sea of Azov incident occurs? We can mainly shut up in public about that right now, and hence not tease World War III any closer; had we been leading with our chin all these months, it would be harder now to speak in moderation, and we might also be deeper in riskier efforts to make the Russian pay a price for their taunts and lies.

I rarely incline to give Donald Trump the benefit of any doubt. I don’t know what he thinks, or if he thinks. But a Randian, who is advised by another Randian, who believes that the world is an unmitigatedly nasty and brutish place is not above, or below, such ways of reasoning. Why he feels a need to display his own presumed gullibility in public is another matter; it owes, probably, to his narcissistic inability to resist attracting attention to himself. Trump is at the same time unvarnished in his authenticity compared to previous Presidents, but he is also embedded as if by an acquired second-nature in a world of crass reality-TV entertainment. He is the quintessential embodiment of the by now nearly complete mash-up of news, entertainment, and advertising that most Americans expose themselves to nearly without respite.

So is the Khashoggi story news, or is it entertainment, or is it a platform for competing forms of political advertisement? In the age of Trump, it is all three, blurred into one huge mess. Not so long ago we recognized and appreciated these three distinct forms for what they were. News was fact-based, objective as far as professional journalism could make it, and it rested in a continuum of unfolding events—in other words, a line of connected dots enabling contextualized understanding. Entertainment was fictive, imaginative, and rested in its capacity to excite, shape, and cultivate our emotions. Advertisements were explicit attempts to sell us something, in return, usually, for either useful information about products and services or for the programming they brought us—as in sitting through myriad beer and razor commercials to see a ballgame on television, for example.

These forms are no longer distinct. As media business models struggle and mutate thanks in part to the technological tsunami we are now experiencing, news has become in effect a form of entertainment, with an eye ever on both the shock meter and the salacity scale. What used to contain lines of interpretive continuity has been mostly reduced to mere dots that don’t connect as images largely displace text. It has been so to some degree ever since electronic media overtook print journalism as the gold standard of the genre, and now with Facebook having become the main source of news for many Americans any pretense of objectivity or balance has become a bad joke. But media must follow the leader to stay solvent, wherever that leader may gallop.

Mass-market entertainment, too, has long since politicized itself, obscuring the dividing line between reality and make-believe, between documentaries and dramas. The bellwether moment, in the swoon of Watergate and the fall of Saigon, was the 1975 release of the Hollywood hit “Three Days of the Condor”; ever since, the meme of the U.S. government, in whole or in part, being the seat of conspiracy and evil has proliferated beyond recall.[6] And that is not even the half of the generic obscurantism now afoot.

As for advertising, its language has colonized political discourse, bent entertainment in ways that render it, too, subtle forms of advertising, and now works via internet algorithms to colonize consciousness itself—even to the point that people are part product as well as consumer. How so? Consider what it really means that Facebook is basically an advertising platform in which users in effect create content for each other.

The Khashoggi affair illustrates how these once distinct forms have collided at top speed, the explosion blowing off the roof and collapsing most of the walls of our edifice of understanding, leaving most of us with a smoldering rubble heap to sift through, if we dare. For most Americans, that rubble heap represents the profound disorganization of our stock of knowledge about how foreign and national security policy works, and even what it is.

Foreign and national security policymaking has always been an elite, professionalized affair for the most part, and except perhaps in wartime it didn’t matter much whether typical citizens understood how it was done. Now that this once-cloistered domain has entered the age of Trump, the chasm of comprehension between those responsible for this business as their day job and nearly everybody else has widened beyond hope of measurement. And the mainstream media, which once felt responsible for narrowing that chasm to the extent possible, has switched sides. It has all but abandoned the burden of making calm distinctions, and has instead mostly resigned itself to decorating the blur. That, ultimately, is what the Khashoggi affair means.

[1] See Claire Berlinski, “Jupiter and Rambo,” The American Interest, August 21, 2018.

[2] See my “The 1,002nd Arabian Night?” The American Interest Online, November 9, 2017.

[3] It was possibly even at the time to predict many of the dire consequences of this error. See for example my “Down the Rabbit Hole: An Introduction to Operation Rapid Serpent,” The American Interest Online, March 22, 2011.

[4] David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “Saudis Want a U.S. Nuclear Deal. Can They Be Trusted Not to Build a Bomb?” New York Times, November 22, 2018.

[5] See Christopher Clary and Mara E. Karlin, “The Pak-Saudi Nuke, and How to Stop It,” The American Interest VII:6 (July-August 2012).

[6] For just one example, see my “Hollywood Argonistes (with Apologies to John Milton),” The American Interest Online, February 28, 2013.