To jog any memories that need jogging, Boris Nemtsov, Kim Jon nam and Jamal Koshoggi are three prominent dissidents that were alleged – and most likely – murdered by brutal despotic regimes. Nemstov was a prominent opposition leader opposing Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. He was slain within view of the Kremlin.
Kim Jong nam was the older half-brother of North Korea’s ruthless dictator Kim Jong un – and the heir apparent to Kim Jong il until his sibling elbowed his aside. Jong nam was poisoned at an airport in Malaysia by imported assassins, who may have used innocent girls to perform what they believed was a “prank.”
Now we have the probable murder of Saudi Arabian critic and columnist for the Washington Post, Jamal Kashoggi. He was lured into a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey to get the necessary papers for his upcoming wedding. It ranks as one of the grisliest summary assassinations since the murder of Czar Nicholas and the entire Russian royal family – distinguishing assassinations from run-of-the-mill brutal mass murders like those carried out by ISIS.
Though denials abound, it seems inconceivable that any of these actions could have been taken without the consent or direction of some very high authority in the Saudi government – with Putin, Kim or Prince Mohammad Bin Salam on the suspect list. At minimum, these autocrats may have posed that famous “who will rid me of this priest” question that led to the murder of British Archbishop Thomas Becket.
Nemtsov and Kim Jong nam were more typical of such assassinations. Mostly an inside job. They fit the pattern of eliminating individuals who were perceived as direct threats to the respective leaders. Killing off people with any possible claim to “the throne” is seen as far back as Cleopatra knocking off her brother and sister. At least five popes were murdered – and it is believed Russia ordered the hit on Pope John Paul II in 1981.
The taking down of Khashoggi has a whole lot of disturbingly unique facets. Though Kashoggi used his columns to criticize the new Saudi regime of Bin Salam, he was hardly a real threat to the princes’ power. Unlike the other two, Kashoggi was a permanent resident of the United States – not a citizen, but close. He worked for a prominent American Newspaper. While these murderous despots have been known to eliminate journalists, they are usually from domestic publications and they are most often bumped off by a one or two hit men on a quiet street – or not so quiet if they use bombs.
If the earlier media reports are to be believed – and I think they can be – Kashoggi was lured into a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey, He was met by a 15-member assassination team that flew to Turkey for the express purpose of killing Kashoggi. So far, however, we only have media reports. We have claims of evidence, but it has not been provided yet. The only thing that seems to be established beyond any reasonable doubt is that Kashoggi went into the Saudi consulate and never walked out. SOMETHING obviously happened to him. That does not leave a lot of hopeful options.
What is puzzling about this alleged assassination is that is was assured to result in worldwide publicity. It was conducted more like a military action during wartime. The assassination was committed within a consulate of Saudi Arabia – making all denials of official complicity at some governmental level seem ridiculous. Are we to believe that 15 strangers were admitted to the consulate without knowing their business? These consulate offices are highly guarded. They are not your local Walmart.
Whoever planned this assassination should have known that Kashoggi’s entering the consulate without coming out established the scene of a crime – a disappearance, a kidnapping or … a murder. There was visual evidence of his entering, but none of his exiting. Then there was his fiancée waiting outside for hours. Rather than avoiding the appearance of official complicity, the location put the royal stamp on it.
The thought that after his murder, Kashoggi’s body was meticulous dismembered and carried out of the consulate in small attaché cases or suitcases is something you would expect to find only in some gory Hollywood spy movie. There must have been blood everywhere. The dark deed had to be apparent to at least some members of the staff. And where was the consul general when all this was taking place?
Then there is the most astounding development. According to the Turkish government, the murder was confirmed by both visual and audio recordings – but again, they have not been shared with American officials. The report picked up conversations and the sounds of torture. That evidence, however, is yet to be seen by American authorities. If true, it takes reality television to new and grimmer heights.
Such recordings would require the Turkish government to have planted cameras and listening devices throughout the consulate or had an operative on the scene. In either case, it has to have the folks in Riyadh in a state of panic.
There are also unconfirmed reports that Kashoggi may have recorded his own assassination on his Apple watch. That is possible but meaningless if such recording did not transmit beyond the watch. And again, no corroboration.
So, what are the next moves by the United States and by Saudi Arabia? President Trump and the administration are justified in holding back on any action until they review the evidence. Once that evidence is in, however, and if it establishes the obvious official connection, the United States will have to take punitive actions against Saudi Arabia – our American ally in the fight against Middle East terrorism and the ambitions of Iran.
This is not a unique occurrence in the world of international affairs to have alliances with bad actors. One only needs to recall that famous photo of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt smiling as they sat next to one of the most murderous dictators in history, Joseph Stalin – our ally in World War II.
It is a matter of what is most important at the moment. For now, we need Saudi Arabia to continue our mutual fight against terrorists. We need those military bases. We approve the sale of military equipment because it means that they are using it to defeat terrorism and Iran – and Russia – rather than the United States sending our troops to man that equipment. Were Saudi Arabia to fall into civil chaos or revolution, America would pay a very high price. It is the same problem we have with Russia. We oppose their intrusion into the Middle East and the assassinations by a deadly dictatorship, but we rely on them to send our astronauts to the space station and to fight the remnants of ISIS.
We also need to keep in mind that the United States does not sell military equipment to anyone. Our government approves the sale. It is American companies that actually sell the equipment – and that means jobs. It is not callous to put that in the mix of considerations.
And yet, something must be done when all the evidence has been seen and documented and blame can be fixed. Blocking the sale of the military equipment would be potentially more harmful to America than to Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, toothless condemnation would only encourage such murders. There must be significant consequences, and that probably means some form of sanctions against Saudi Arabia or designated individuals – as we have with those Russian oligarchs.
The United States has been the greatest force for democracy in history. We do not want to lose that reputation. But even as we encourage and advance those principles, we are forced to live in the pragmatic world. It is possible and often necessary for the United States to maintain relationships with friendly dictatorships even as we push for the rights and freedoms of the world community. This combination of cooperation and pressure is what brought Democracy to the Philippines. It resulted in the breakup of the old Soviet Union. Often events put those two concepts in conflict – and the Kashoggi murder is one of those events.
If the conspiracy to kill Kashoggi rises to the level of Bin Salam, he will have established himself as one of the most vicious and certainly the most stupid heads-of-state in the world. However planned and authorized the murder of Kashoggi has done no favor to the Saudi leadership, that nation’s image and role in the world or to the relationship with the United States that Saudi Arabia desperately needs.