I live on a tree-lined street close to the Saudi consulate here, where the journalist and fellow Global Opinions columnist Jamal Khashoggi walked in and hasn’t been seen since.
I never met him personally but have read all his columns expressing deep anxiety about his country’s direction. While many in the West were ready to be swept off their feet about the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s promise of reform, Khashoggi was asking us to pause and look closely.
He provided a rare insight into the workings of one of the most hermetic regimes in the world, criticising the wave of arrests of activists and dissidents, and recognising the rot of corruption in the kingdom.
But seriously, was it any different before? “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable,” he explained.
After Khashoggi’s disappearance, I reached out to senior Turkish officials with the hope that any lead in the inquiry would be helpful to my colleagues at the Washington Post. Initially, the Turkish government thought Jamal was being held at the consulate. But soon officials started painting a more sinister picture.
If Khashoggi was indeed murdered, it sends chills down the spine of every activist, journalist and dissident around the world. There are plenty of regimes that repress free speech and target journalists. Turkey itself is among the top jailers of reporters since succumbing to the global trend toward illiberalism.
But even repressive regimes rarely target journalists outside of their borders.
Dissident Turks have felt safe enough to write from Europe; Russians can produce websites from Estonia or France; many Syrians prefer Istanbul as their new base. But the Khashoggi case could establish a new level of authoritarian outreach that would defy the basic premises of international law and order.
No doubt his fate will have consequences beyond the investigation. Turkish-Saudi relations have never been warm, but it has gotten much worse recently. It is a Kabuki dance. Ankara has sided with Qatar during the Gulf dispute and promised military reinforcements if Qatar was attacked. The two countries support different groups in Syria and have differences on Egypt and the Israel-Palestinian issue.
Ideologically, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party feels an affinity to the Muslim Brotherhood movement across the region; Saudis see it as a top threat to their existence. Over the weekend, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who knows Khashoggi personally, said, “I will chase this matter” and vowed to make public the findings of the investigation.
Turkey will not take this breach of its sovereignty lightly. But without the United States weighing in, Turkey’s protests would go nowhere. One Turkish official privately told me that the new Saudi regime is emboldened to pull this on Turkish soil on the strength of their close relations with the US President Donald Trump’s administration. I found it hard to disagree.
I doubt there will be much noise from Washington beyond State Department calls for an investigation. The Trump administration’s refusal to uphold the liberal order and disregard for global human rights have clear ramifications beyond the group of democracies that make up “the West.”
Someone needs to explain to the White House that upholding “the liberal order” is not about running the world according to Amnesty International; it is about preserving norms and rules established after two costly world wars. Without this, lawlessness and Hobbesian disrespect for sovereignty would creep in everyday.
With Vladimir Putin targeting opponents in the United Kingdom, Saudis possibly taking out journalists in the heart of Istanbul or the Chinese detaining the head of Interpol, the entire Westphalian order seems to be crumbling.
Washington needs to show leadership before it is too late.
What should not be acceptable is a diplomatic clean-up operation conducted by the Trump administration for a regime and a ruler it has grossly indulged, despite its mounting excesses both at home and abroad. Until the full truth about Khashoggi is disclosed, US businesses should shun the Saudi regime and Congress should block all military sales.
Writer is a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. This article was first published at the Washington Post