An Irredeemable Miscalculation?


The grim details of the extrajudicial torture-execution of the Post columnist are now clear. The most astonishing fact to emerge is that MBS did not even bother to cover his tracks. Instead of sending expendable killers-for-hire to maintain plausible deniability, the standard operating procedure for kinetic intelligence operations, MBS sent men from his own personal security detail to assassinate the journalist.

2017 imprisoned
Journalists imprisoned. Source: CPJ.

Killing journalists is not a new trick for mafia states. On average a journalist is killed every week, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Some 44 have already been killed this year, although that number does not include Khashoggi.


Of the 1,323 journalists reported killed since 1992, 912 have been killed since the Iraq War began in 2003; including 159 Iraqi journalists and 110 Syrians. Outside these two warzones, the greatest rate of scribe killing is in the Philippines, followed by Algeria, Pakistan, Russia, Somalia, Colombia, India, Mexico, and Brazil. The next graph shows the notorious double-digits scorers in the CPJ database.


We can think of the number of scribes killed as measuring to what degree the state formation approximates a mafia state. This is not exactly right because the 1,323 total scribe killings since 1992 include some 131 involving criminal gangs, as when the Chicago mafia gets rid of a pesky reporter with the understanding of the local judge and politician. More generally, only 1,083 killings can be attributed to specific actors. The next table shows the breakdown. It’s clear that the vast bulk of the killings are ordered by political or military authorities.

Attributed killings of journalists.
Killer Number Share
Government 194 18%
Military 242 22%
Political 436 40%
Paramilitary 62 6%
Mob 14 1%
Criminal 135 12%
Total 1,083 100%
Source: CPJ.

So it cannot possibly be the case that the prestige media is up in arms about the mere killing of a journalist. Why then does it look like MBS has his feet to the fire? And why does it look like his days are numbered? Are they? What precisely can be done about MBS? and more generally, the Saudis?

What the extraordinary opprobrium in the Western press reflects, I think, is Said’s Orientalism in reverse. What was so egregious about the Khashoggi business was not that he was a scribe. It was that he was a columnist at the Washington Post. Indeed, he probably thought that his association with a prestige paper in the United States made him bulletproof. Put bluntly, the implicit norm said: You can kill a journalist in your backyard, especially one writing in the vernacular. And if you’re going to kill a prominent critic who is known internationally, you better have plausible deniability. But you can’t kill a card-carrying member of the Western Press, especially not without even a fig leaf of deniability. So MBS miscalculated badly. It may be because he has always lived in the Kingdom and has no first-hand experience of the rigidity of the liberal-democratic discourse in Western civil society.

Now what? What is the West to do with MBS? Must he go? Oh it can be arranged. And if you are thinking of European dependence on gulf crude, there are operational solutions to the problem of stabilizing oil prices. There is no need to occupy Saudi cities and the vast bulk of Saudi territory. All you need is to secure a small portion of the eastern province. US forces can secure the oil fields in the gulf with a light force, as a joint Anglo-Saxon plan had it in the 1970s, and as someone, probably Kissinger (Grey Anderson tells me that Edward Luttwak admitted to having authored the article in 2004) wrote about anonymously in Harper’s at the time of the Arab embargo. Since all of Saudi oil sits under a zone of Shiite predominance, the political problem can be solved by working with Iran just as the United States has to already in the arc of weakness that stretches from the gulf to the Levant. The micro-oil monarchies of the gulf are already under US protection. They would have to move closer. We cannot allow the Saudis to mediate between the United States and the Trucial States.


But knowing that the United States can secure the oil fields without putting many boots on the ground is an insurance policy, not the proposed strategy. The Policy Tensor has been suggesting for a long time that the United States ought to follow a more even handed policy in the gulf. Indeed, it would not hurt to ditch Saudi Arabia for Iran. To put it bluntly, Iran dwarfs the gulf region in warmaking potential. The United States shot itself in the foot by destroying the garrison state built by Saddam. The result of US debacle is that Iran is now the most influential power in southwest Asia. Iran understands that the US is capable and willing to confront Iranian foreign policy in the gulf region and in southwest Asia as a whole. But it is also true that the United States has little choice but to work with Iran on regional questions. I think it is obvious that rolling back Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq is a fool’s errand.Iran is a natural ally of the West in the fight against salafi jihadism. The US needs a working relationship with Iran; better still, would be a genuine partnership with Iran.

I think there has been increasing cooperation in US-Iranian relations, each has gained an increased appreciation of the other’s strength by fighting side-by-side against Isis. What needs to be recognized now is the congruence of interests between Iran and the West. Because Iran is the potential region hegemon of gulf region, it is best to have good working relations. It makes for stable relations to have potential regional hegemons invested in the status quo.  As Huntington observed, the world is uni-multipolar. The United States is the only state in the world that can project power system wide. But geopolitics is regional. In order to run the different regions of the world, at the minimum, the United States has to reach an understanding with China in east Asia, India in south Asia, Iran in southwest Asia, Russia across Eurasia, and Germany in Europe. This is particularly true under conditions of mutually-assured destruction.


What requires particular attention is gulf terror finance. Whether or not we contain Saudi Arabia more generally, terror finance from the gulf has to stop. Frankly, this requires eyeballs and interdiction by law enforcement in international financial flows from and to the gulf. Congress should fund this right quick and subject enforcement to oversight. But the real problem with Saudi Arabia is not restricted to terror finance even in the narrow sense of the war on terror. For Saudi Arabia is the world capital of salafism. Thousands of little religious schools run by the Saudis dot the Old World from Kosovo to Indonesia, where every attendant is at risk of recruitment by salafi jihadists. These schools are the breeding ground in which salafi jihadism grows. More generally, the propagation of salafism is the principal driver of jihadism. If we are serious about the fight against salafi jihadism, we must arm-twist the Saudis to roll-back their global network of salafi madrasas.

These are all matters of elementary security policy for the United States. But should Saudi Arabia be contained? What exactly would containment entail? Sanctions? Air strikes? I do not believe any of that is required. A simple threat of US abandonment would be enough to concentrate minds in the Kingdom. For if abandoned by the United States, the Kingdom would be faced with a vastly stronger power across the gulf without any security solutions. My proposal is not to jump to containment yet.

If the West were to act jointly, it would inform the Saudi authorities—once the intelligence is verified—that MBS has to go. He would be persona non grata. If the Saudis want to hold on to him even though there are thousands of princes waiting in line for the throne, it will be awkward for a while. But the West could very well stand firm on this. MBS just cut it too close to the bone.

Whether or not the Saudis ought to be subjected to sanctions depends on whether or not they are willing to cooperate in a major reorientation of Saudi policy (on terror finance, the madarsa network, and MBS). It would be best if the Saudis marginalized MBS without US intrigue. Although even intrigue would be better than having to deal with Saudi Arabia without talking to its de facto leader for whatever time it takes for the Saudis to come around.

Here’s how the unipolar world works. If there is a Nash equilibrium in international politics that the United States lays down and insists on, eg Washington Naval Conference of 1922, then a stable order can be secured. But this does not mean that Europe does not have a say. Indeed, the Europeans could unilaterally contain MBS. By declaring him persona non grata and opposing this administration on gulf policy, Europe can prepare the ground for when adults are back in Washington. This is already underway in the sense that the Europeans are working with the Iranians to pushback against the US reneging on the nuclear deal. Merkel would be wise to take this opportunity to extend the pushback to MBS.

When adults are back in Washington, one could move ahead in leaning harder on Saudi Arabia. But two things must be recognized. This is not just about Khashoggi and not just about MBS. This is above all an opportunity to reconsider Western gulf policy tout court. Why is the West containing Iran and arming the Saudis when core Western interests are closer to the former than the latter?


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