The Khashoggi skeletons in America’s closet

Donald Trump’s commitment to “remain[ing] a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia,” despite the regime’s gruesome torture and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, is clearly symptomatic of the malignantly self-serving nature of US foreign policy, which has long propped up dictatorships and enabled atrocities around the world for the sake of profit and power.

However, many of Trump’s most vocal critics on the Saudi file show signs of an equally dangerous pathological condition: a profound historical amnesia that permits some of the most prominent proponents of the US’ own torturous and murderous policies to now parade as champions of human rights, without any apparent sense of irony.

Obama-era CIA Director John Brennan, for instance, has insisted that “the US should never turn a blind eye to this sort of inhumanity [referring to the murder of Khashoggi] … because this is a nation that remains faithful to its values” – a curiously self-righteous stance for a man who not only repeatedly turned a blind eye to the inhumanity of past and present CIA practices such as extraordinary rendition, torture, and drone assassination, but actively defended and (in the case of drone use) expanded them.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell decried the brutal murder of Khashoggi as “completely abhorrent to everything the United States holds dear and stands for in the world”. Yet he praised another perpetrator of abhorrent deeds, CIA “black site” torture prison manager Gina Haspel, as an “excellent choice” for Director of the CIA.

Republican senator and drone war enthusiast Lindsey Graham called Saudi’s extrajudicial killing of Khashoggi a “barbaric act which defied all civilized norms” – even while maintaining that casualties of US’ own international norm-defying extrajudicial killing programme “got what they deserved.”

The idea that the US is in a position to hold anyone to account for “barbaric acts” of extraterritorial violence defies reality. Far from serving as a model to be emulated, the American precedent exemplifies the dangers of lethal state power wielded without adequate restraint.   

“If other states were to claim the broad-based authority that the United States does, to kill people anywhere, anytime, the result would be chaos,” UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston presciently warned in 2010.

Among the global targets of the US’s lethal drone programme – which have included first responders at missile strike sites, mourners at funerals, and families celebrating weddings – are, allegedly, at least two media workers.

In 2017, Al Jazeera’s former Islamabad bureau chief Ahmad Zaidan and American media activist Bilal Abdul Kareem filed a lawsuit against the US government,  claiming they had been placed on the government’s “disposition matrix” – although the absolute secrecy surrounding who is on the extrajudicial kill list, and why, makes it impossible to know for sure.  A US court shot down Zaidan’s case but allowed Abdul Kareem’s to proceed, rendering it the first legal challenge to the drone programme to make it past the preliminary stage.

While Trump may have been the first US president to openly and explicitly declare the media “the enemy of the people,” the treatment of journalists as a hostile force has been a consistent feature of the US’s so-called “war on terror”.

The Pentagon’s 2015 Law of War Manual stated that journalists may in some instances be considered “unprivileged belligerents” (enemy fighters without the protections and privileges accorded to lawful combatants), since “reporting on military operations can be very similar to collecting intelligence or even spying” – an apparent licence to target journalists that was only revised because of a sustained outcry from media organisations.  

The illegal US-led war of aggression on Iraq has been one of the deadliest wars for journalists in modern history. In its first year, it “inflict[ed] a proportionally higher number of casualties on journalists than on members of the coalition’s armed forces” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

At least 16 journalists and six media workers were killed directly by US fire, including several “at checkpoints or near US bases, in most cases without [the US military] accepting responsibility,” as the Guardian reported. “Often they promised to hold investigations but never released the findings.”

In addition to dealing out death to journalists with impunity, US powers also made a habit of arresting and jailing them for long periods of time without charge, including journalists working for Reuters, CBS News, and the Associated Press.

“By early January 2006, Camp Bucca, an American detention centre in southern Iraq, had become the biggest prison for journalists in the Middle East,” observed Reporters Without Borders. Journalists were also imprisoned in the detention and torture camps at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Alhaj was held in Guantanamo for more than six years; tellingly, 125 of the 130 interrogations he was put through had nothing to do with the activities of any terror organisation but with the operations of Al Jazeera.  

While US commentators have rightly called out the farcical nature of Saudi Arabia’s investigation into the death of Khashoggi, the pretence that the US government has provided anything resembling accountability for its own crimes against journalists and other civilians is equally laughable. None of the senior officials implicated in the Iraq torture scandal, for instance, have ever been prosecuted, and authorities ignored reports of abuse from human rights organisations for six months before they were publicly exposed – a fact cited by Saudi’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in an attempt to rationalise his own country’s delayed response to Khashoggi’s disappearance.   

Perversely, punishment has primarily been reserved for those who have dared to call attention to the assault on journalists, rather than those responsible for the assault itself. Chelsea Manning was incarcerated for seven years in a military prison under conditions the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded violated international law, for leaking evidence of US military atrocities including video footage showing US soldiers slaughtering two Reuters journalists and several other Iraqi civilians. In 2005, CNN’s chief news executive Eason Jordan was forced to resign because he suggested on a panel discussion that coalition troops were targeting journalists in Iraq.

The popular conceit that American “values” are inherently antithetical to the torture and killing of journalists renders invisible the victims of US torture and killing policies. Propagating such myths in the name of advocating for justice for Jamal Khashoggi only serves to bury the Khashoggi-like skeletons in America’s closet further out of sight.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

The Khashoggi skeletons in America’s closet

Donald Trump’s commitment to “remain[ing] a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia,” despite the regime’s gruesome torture and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, is clearly symptomatic of the malignantly self-serving nature of US foreign policy, which has long propped up dictatorships and enabled atrocities around the world for the sake of profit and power.

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