With Biden’s Whiff on Ghastly Khashoggi Killing, Autocrats Get What They Crave — Impunity

Carla Seaquist
9 min readMar 6, 2021

Human rights — the pre-eminence of the rights of the human being vis-à-vis the state — was presumably to be restored as a central focus of American foreign policy, once the Transactor-in-Chief (Donald Trump) left office and President Joe Biden assumed power.

Proponents of realpolitik — pragmatic, interest-driven politics — discount a human rights-based politics as a moral nice-to-have. But, at present, another kind of realpolitik, global in scope, is in play: Democracies around the world are losing ground and autocrats are gaining it, by takeover — and thus, the human being needs all the help he/she can get.

In an early test, President Biden has whiffed on full restoration of human rights, with a mere slap on the wrist of a gross violator — Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who, as a just-released Office of the Director of National Intelligence report confirms, ordered the murder and dismemberment of journalist/dissident Jamal Khashoggi (pictured above), even though Khashoggi was on foreign soil. (Trump withheld this report.)

And what, exactly, is to keep MBS — and his autocratic ilk — from doing it again? In their quest for absolute power, autocrats brook no human rights, certainly not dissent.

All the world remembers the ghastly 2018 incident: the video on endless loop, showing Khashoggi crossing the sidewalk and entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on a mundane (and so human) errand — to pick up papers finalizing his divorce so he could remarry — only to disappear forever, killed by a team that included an expert in using a bone saw, while his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, waited for him outside. Khashoggi, a Saudi exile and resident of Virginia, proved to be, as a contributing columnist to The Washington Post, too critical a voice of the kingdom and had to be quashed.

As to MBS’ culpability, the ONDI report states: “We base this assessment on the Crown Prince’s control of decision-making in the Kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of [his] protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support of using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.” Translation: The Crown Prince did it; he ordered Khashoggi eliminated.

President Biden’s response? A mere phone call to the Crown Prince’s father, King Salman, who at 85 and mentally ailing still nominally rules. (It is not known if the Crown Prince was even discussed.) U.S. State Department has announced the “Khashoggi Ban,” which imposes visa restrictions on individuals representing a foreign government who, outside their country, “harass, surveil, threaten, or harm” journalists and activists, complete with a list of 76 sanctioned Saudis — but not including MBS. And U.S. Treasury froze the assets of senior Saudi security officials and the Rapid Intervention Force, whose hit squad (“Tiger Squad”) killed Khashoggi — again with MBS excluded. The realpolitik here is blatant… The administration also cut off sales of offensive weapons to the Saudis for their war in Yemen, site of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, but will continue defensive arms’ sales.

This small-bore response contrasts dramatically with Biden’s campaign promise to make the kingdom “pay the price” for human rights abuses and “make them in fact the pariah that they are.” President Biden’s policy makes Saudi Arabia a “pariah with benefits.” White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended the policy, saying U.S. administrations customarily do not sanction heads of state with whom we have diplomatic relations. But: If those heads of state murder their critics who seek asylum abroad….

Appropriately, Khashoggi’s home paper, The Washington Post, ran a stern editorial in response. Titled “Mohammad bin Salman is guilty of murder. Biden should not give him a pass,” it states: “That heinous crime…should not go unpunished. Under U.S. law, Mohammed bin Salman…ought to be banned from travel to the United States and subjected to an asset freeze. That President Biden has chosen not to pursue that course suggests that the ‘fundamental’ change he promised in U.S.-Saudi relations will not include holding to account its reckless ruler, who consequently is unlikely to be deterred from further criminal behavior.” Yes, Mr. Biden stopped Trump’s “grotesque and unprecedented coddling” of Saudi Arabia. But: Mr. Biden is “granting what amounts to a pass to a ruler who has sown instability around the Middle East…while presiding over the most severe repression of dissent in modern Saudi history. It is a risky course to adopt in the absence of evidence that MBS is prepared to fundamentally alter his regime.”

“Recalibration, not rupture” of Saudi-U.S. relations, we learn, is the Biden administration’s overriding objective. Saudi Arabia remains the region’s most powerful player and our key national-security ally there. And once he assumes power, MBS, only 35, could hold power for decades. A modus had to be found. About this realpolitik, veteran Post columnist David Ignatius notes any administration has to “thread the needle” between pragmatism and human rights; opting to “name and shame” MBS was Biden’s best choice. As his friend, he says Khashoggi understood power: “He understood better than most the compromises that are necessary to survive in a world where government leaders can order a murder, cover it up and maintain control. He would have been glad that the United States told the truth about his murder, but he would have wanted to be sure that the new Biden administration had truly resolved: Never again.”

But, is “Never again” possible? Again: What, exactly, is to keep MBS — and his autocratic ilk — from eliminating their critics? Saudi dissidents living abroad fear MBS’ long reach. Just weeks after Khashoggi’s killing, Canadian customs officials stopped MBS’ Tiger Squad from entering the country, after finding two bags of “forensic tools” that could dismember a body.

As long-time foreign affairs observer Robin Wright of The New Yorker notes, in “The Sweeping Impact of a Broken Biden Campaign Promise”: “Biden has done nothing to punish MBS. Absolutely nothing.” She quotes the executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), founded by Khashoggi shortly before his death: Biden’s sanctioning of MBS’ underlings but not MBS himself is “laughable,” saying it “sends a warm and comforting message to despots around the world: carry on, nothing to see here, folks, murder and chop up your perceived enemies as you see fit.”

Human rights groups, in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder, were at the forefront pressing for investigation and prosecution. In its investigation the following June, the U.N. Human Rights Commission adjudged Saudi Arabia had engaged in “premeditated execution” and recommended prosecution: “The killing of Mr. Khashoggi…constitutes an international crime over which other States should claim universal jurisdiction.” (Saudi “justice” does not count: Its courts in 2020, after earlier convicting, overturned five death sentences in a ruling that jails eight of Khashoggi’s killers from seven and 20 years — a development the UNHRC called a “parody of justice.”)

Now, human rights groups, unhappy with Biden’s response, urge direct action on MBS himself. Forty-two (42) human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, are launching #SanctionMBS, urging the U.S. impose “the full range of sanctions” available under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act — including asset freezes and visa bans — on MBS. It also urges the U.S. “reset its entire relationship with this brutal monarchy, starting with a ban on all arms sales to Saudi Arabia” and, notably, goes on to advocate the protection of all human rights workers inside and outside the kingdom. Echoing other groups chiding Mr. Biden’s response, #SanctionMBS states: “The release of the ODNI report is a much-welcomed act of transparency, but it will ring hollow unless accountability follows. There must be equal application of the law to all people, no matter how high the position in government an individual may hold. It is critical for the U.S. government to send a clear message to MBS and all other world leaders: this heinous crime will not be forgotten, and there will be justice.” Along with Human Rights Watch, other groups including Human Rights First and Amnesty International have launched similar campaigns.

Fittingly, as Khashoggi was a journalist, journalist groups are mounting actions. The Committee to Protect Journalists, allying with PEN and Human Rights First, urges Pres. Biden to impose sanctions and other punitive measures on MBS and Congress to pass the Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act, introduced by Rep. Adam Schiff and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, to prohibit foreign assistance to governments committing human rights violations against journalists. And Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, taking the legal route, has filed a criminal complaint against MBS with a German prosecutor, citing MBS for crimes against humanity. Importantly, it also cites “widespread and systematic” persecution of journalists, notably the arbitrary detention of 34 journalists by the Saudi government. “[T]hose who silence, imprison, assassinate, or otherwise target journalists” cannot “get away it with impunity.”

Also fittingly, the Post’s Ignatius now stresses human rights. Downplaying his earlier realpolitik — “a finding of wrongdoing without consequences” is a “bootless action”: “Khashoggi deserved better” — in a second column he now sees, after speaking with State Department officials, real “opportunity” in the Khashoggi Ban. Potentially the ban provides universal protection: “Dissidents and freethinking journalists from Russia, China, Egypt, Turkey, and a range of other repressive regimes could gain a measure of protection through the new U.S. approach.” Noting the larger context — “Autocratic governments have grown increasingly brazen” — he cites stark numbers in a Freedom House report on “transnational repression”: 608 cases of physical repression since 2014, including assassinations, kidnappings, assaults, and detentions, implicating 31 nations using these methods to harass dissenters living abroad in 79 countries. Writes Ignatius: “People like Khashoggi may flee repression, but the autocrats have pursued them mercilessly. Khashoggi might be alive today if the U.S. government had penalized foreign governments that harass journalists and dissenters. He was a victim of a world where autocrats and their stooges seemed to have the upper hand, and the United States didn’t speak out in his defense.”

Visa bans, frozen assets, naming and shaming: To the conscientious reader, such tools seem of little utility. To counter the growing phenomenon of lawless autocracy, more powerful tools are imperative. It seems necessary that the U.S. rethink its policy of not sanctioning heads of state — charging henchmen while leaving the absolute rulers free to wreak more havoc. Just now the U.S. has sanctioned various Russian security officials for the poisoning of courageous democracy activist Alexei Navalny, while leaving head of state Vladimir Putin untouched. What’s wrong with this scenario?

I think of Herman Melville’s novel “Moby-Dick,” in which the mad and evil Captain Ahab knows first-mate Starbuck would shudder at the idea of Ahab in a cage and would not organize a mutiny against him. Assessing his first-mate’s “soft humanity,” he knows: “Starbuck is mine.” Decency and its discontents. How do we solve for “soft humanity?”

Autocrats, notwithstanding their brutality, seek to be players on the world stage. As Human Rights Watch notes of Saudi Arabia et al., they have “highly image-conscious governments that spend billions on P.R. firms, celebrities, artists, and sports figures to whitewash their terrible human rights records.” MBS just hosted his “Davos in the Desert 2021” conference for high-stakes financiers. Perhaps with the U.S. rejoining the world stage, autocrats will find tougher rules for entry in the bolstered club of nations?

Of course, there is also the fact that, on human rights, the United States has been AWOL for the last four years, shamefully so. Along with surrendering our mantle of Leader of the Free World, Donald Trump also surrendered our once-proud claim as International Champion of Human Rights. After all, it was America who spearheaded the enactment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, led by Eleanor Roosevelt at the newly-established United Nations after World War II. The falling-off from that high point, spearheaded by Trump, was nausea-inducing; for me the lowlights were the separation of migrant children from their parents and Trump’s pardoning of accused war criminals. Trump also imperiled journalists with his constant cries of “fake news” and “enemy of the people” — labels autocrats around the world now regularly fling. Perhaps Pres. Biden and his team were factoring for all that: that, after surrendering our role, America cannot expect to take the lead again without first re-establishing trust.

Pres. Biden is, I believe, a good man. In a culture taking pride in “breaking bad” and defining humanity downward to pathology, Mr. Biden represents a higher humanity, leavened by suffering; thus putting human rights at the center of his campaign — and his presidency — is natural, laudable. I am thrilled he is in the White House (and the amoral Trump is not). In his first few weeks in office, he’s shown himself sure-footed handling the pandemic and the economy, skilled in gathering a talented team. And, appropriately, Pres. Biden will return the U.S. to the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Still, the question remains for human rights — the pre-eminent rights: Given the weak tools available and given the growth industry of autocracy, what, exactly, is to keep their ilk — autocrats like MBS — from continuing to commit crimes against that humanity…?

For my earlier commentary, “Inaction in the Ghastly Khashoggi Killing Gives Autocrats What They Crave — Impunity,” see here.



Carla Seaquist

Our times examined via politics, culture, morality. Author, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?" (Vol. II). Playwright. Fmr. HuffPost. www.carlaseaquist.com.