How to Get Away With Murder (Saudi Edition)

A primer on Riyadh’s denials, excuses, rationalizations, spin, and other acts of sophistry about the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

A protester dressed as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and another dressed as U.S. President Donald Trump stand outside the White House in the wake of the disappearance of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 19. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A protester dressed as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and another dressed as U.S. President Donald Trump stand outside the White House in the wake of the disappearance of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 19. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Governments sometimes do bad things. Sometimes they do really bad things. When those bad things get exposed, they invariably try to minimize the negative consequences by offering up a cloud of denials, excuses, rationalizations, spin, and other acts of sophistry. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, in my “Defending the Indefensible: A How-To Guide” and “How to Justify Any Policy, No Matter How Bad It Might Be.” The first is a list of 21 steps that can make a bad act seem acceptable; the second boils the list down to a mere 10.

Recent events suggest that now is an opportune time to revisit the list. Specifically, to what extent does Saudi Arabia’s (and to a somewhat lesser extent, the Trump administration’s) response to the killing of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi fit the blueprint I sketched out in these earlier pieces? I doubt anybody in either government read either article; most politicians (and especially a congenital liar such as President Donald Trump) need no lessons from me on how to whitewash bad behavior. Nonetheless, it’s striking how closely their behavior conforms to the techniques I described a few years ago.

To make this simple, let’s stick with the 10-step version.

#1: “It never happened.” When accused of doing something bad, the first instinct is to deny it ever occurred. Bill Clinton “never had sex with that woman,” the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria says it never used chemical weapons, and the Saudi government initially denied that anything untoward had happened to Khashoggi. He came to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the Saudis said, left via a back entrance, and they had no knowledge of his whereabouts. This transparently absurd story fooled no one and fell apart almost immediately, but a blanket denial is nearly everyone’s first instinct when they are caught doing something really bad.

#2: “Blame someone else.” Once you are forced to admit that something bad has happened, the next reflex is to blame somebody else. This tactic was in full view when Trump offered the unfounded idea that maybe “rogue killers” had murdered Khashoggi, implying that it wasn’t an official operation. Trump may have been technically correct, except that the “rogue killers” were in fact Saudi agents acting on behalf of an increasingly rogue leader. A variant of this story is now the official Saudi line: In an attempt to insulate Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from any responsibility, the Saudis will find some unfortunate fall guys in their intelligence services and blame the whole business on them. And they’ll undoubtedly get some help from Trump, who seems eager to give the crown prince a pass no matter how much evidence points to him.

#3: “OK, we did something bad. But we didn’t do it on purpose.” This familiar alibi is front and center, too, in the claim that Khashoggi’s death occurred during an unexpected “fistfight” or the subsequent assertion that he started screaming (gee, why would he have done that?) and died due to an inadvertent chokehold. You see what’s going on here? Yes, we have to admit that the man is dead, but nobody ever meant to kill him. He just shouldn’t have picked a fight with 15 well-trained professional security goons, or he shouldn’t have started yelling when we asked him a few polite questions. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, but it’s not really our fault, and nobody should hold us responsible. And please stop bugging us with pesky questions about medical examiners, bone saws, and the whereabouts of the body.

#4: “We had no choice.” Sometimes governments will admit to having done something regrettable but will then insist they really had no alternative. To be fair, this particular alibi has not been deployed explicitly in the wake of the Khashoggi killing, in the sense that nobody is trying to say that he posed such a grave threat to the Saudi government that his murder was justified. But it is implicit in the argument that the agents involved killed him accidentally (see #3 above). In this version, they were there to interrogate (and maybe kidnap) him and had “no choice” but to use force when he resisted. This excuse doesn’t try to justify the action itself but seeks to make the end result appear less heinous.

#5: “It was for the greater good.” Governments often try to justify misconduct by admitting it is disturbing and ethically debatable but will ultimately be for the greater good. In other words, the ends justify the means. This is the standard line whenever a powerful country launches a war on a weaker one: No matter what the human cost of toppling a Saddam Hussein or a Muammar al-Qaddafi or whomever, it is justified by the claim that this action will eventually lead to a better world.

Here again, I haven’t seen anyone make this argument right out in the open, but Trump and some others have used a milder version of it. When Trump talks about the billions of dollars of U.S. armaments that Saudi Arabia has promised to purchase, or when the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman defends his rose-colored appraisal of Mohammed bin Salman as a beacon for progress in the Arab world, he is in effect saying, “Look, I admit that murdering a journalist wasn’t very nice, but keep your eye on the big picture and look at all the benefits that backing Mohammed bin Salman will bring.”

Not surprisingly, the most despicable variant of this tactic has come from hard-line pro-Israel neoconservatives, who are eager to preserve the tacit alliance between Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. How do they do this? By smearing Khashoggi as some sort of radical Islamic extremist who was in cahoots with al Qaeda and close to Osama bin Laden. The implication, of course, is that he deserved to be killed or, at the very least, that his death shouldn’t trouble us very much. This storyline is pure fiction: Khashoggi’s support for bin Laden and company dates to the 1980s, and specifically the period of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union, when both Saudi Arabia and the United States were backing the mujahideen as well. When al Qaeda began its murderous campaign in the Middle East and the West, Khashoggi denounced them.

#6: “Everybody does it, and our opponents do it even more than we do.” I haven’t seen anyone marshal this particular alibi—at least not yet—but I’ll bet it’s waiting in the wings. Once the fall guys have been identified and business as usual resumes, expect to hear more denunciations of Iran’s “destabilizing” regional activities and other sins, which will be portrayed as much, much worse than anything Saudi Arabia might have done. The moral: We should continue to back it and continue to threaten war with Iran.

#7: Emphasize restraint. (“We could have done something much worse.”) When governments get cornered and can’t deny that they are doing something wrong, they sometimes insist that they are showing enormous restraint and that we ought to be grateful that they aren’t using all the power at their disposal. I’m not quite sure how this tactic would work in this context—“Hey, at least we’re not killing lots of dissident journalists!”—which may be why it hasn’t been used so far.

But one does wonder if the purpose of the operation was broader than just silencing a particularly well-connected voice. One interpretation of this episode is that the operation had a dual purpose: 1) to silence an influential dissident and 2) to send a chilling message to anyone else who might be inclined to criticize the crown prince and his increasingly erratic and incompetent rule. In this version of events (which I cannot prove), whoever authorized going after Khashoggi knew the operation wouldn’t remain a secret and was perfectly happy to have their responsibility exposed, precisely because it would send a message to others. In this sense, this act was just the most unsavory part of the broader campaign that Saudi Arabia has been waging against even nonviolent dissent. And while the killing of Khashoggi pales in comparison with the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, it is troubling to think that Mohammed bin Salman and his associates regarded Khashoggi as sufficiently dangerous to warrant any action against him at all.

#8: Assert a special status. (“What we did wasn’t really wrong because we’re different.”) Thus far, Saudi Arabia has not been trying to claim that its actions were justified because it is the “indispensable nation,” the “Guardian of the Two Holy Places,” or the fount of Wahhabism. To do that, of course, would require admitting that this was something more than a rogue operation gone awry. But, as noted above, this alibi is also implicit in the claims that Americans should look the other way because of the special relationship that exists between Washington and Riyadh, the supposedly close friendship between Mohammed bin Salman and first son-in-law Jared Kushner, the economic benefits they provide, and the like.

#9: Play the guilt card and apologize. A sincere apology can go a long way to mollifying critics, as numerous celebrities and politicians have proved. For leaders engaged in dodgy activities, a subtle variation is to claim that they feel really bad about having to do these horrible things, to make it clear that they are neither callous about the consequences nor taking pleasure in the suffering of others. Thus, the Obama White House ramped up targeted killings and signature strikes against suspected terrorists (knowing full well that some innocent people were going to die as a result), but it portrayed the president himself as agonizing over these decisions (which may well have been the case). The implication, however, is that sinning isn’t so serious when you feel bad about it.

Right on cue, the Saudi government has expressed “deep regret” over the incident and promised to get to the bottom of it. I hope its future accounts of the incident are more credible than the versions it has offered up so far and that everyone responsible is held to account. But I wouldn’t bet on it. I mean, it’s not like anyone in the U.S. government was held accountable for authorizing or conducting waterboarding, right?

#10: The Rumsfeld Defense (“Stuff happens.”) When all else fails, one can always try the classic Donald Rumsfeld defense that “stuff happens.” In effect, the claim that “stuff happens” is a cloud of squid ink designed to deny that anyone can ever be responsible for anything in this crazy world of ours. “Freedom is untidy,” life is complicated, making policy is an uncertain affair, subordinates sometimes err, and actions undertaken with the best of intentions often produce horrible consequences. Who could have known that poor Mr. Khashoggi would resist our attempt to interrogate, torture, kidnap, or whatever it was we intended to do to him?

Thus, Saudi Arabia is following the classic formula that wrongdoers routinely employ in order to make it easy for critics to lose their outrage and move on. Not surprisingly, it is getting a helping hand from the White House, whose indifference to truth is well-established. There’s nothing really unique about such behavior, however; if anything, a genuine willingness to admit wrongdoing and hold those responsible accountable is by far the exception rather than the rule in most political systems.

But if this sort of behavior is so widespread, why should we care? Because if a government can kill with impunity—even on foreign soil—then those who incur its displeasure by telling the truth are at risk. When trying to tell the truth becomes dangerous, falsehoods multiply, and those with power can wield it with impunity. The end result is usually disaster.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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