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Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Khashoggi: The Human Rights Lessons for the United States By Anthony H. Cordesman




The United States now faces months, and possibly years, of at least low-level crisis over the Khashoggi murder in dealing with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the nations they influence. No matter how the crisis ends in the near term, it seems unlikely that the Saudi Crown Prince can ever fully separate himself from the fact the killing occurred, or that the U.S. can act as if the killing did not happen. At the same time, the U.S. and foreign media are waking up to the fact that Erdogan’s record – for all his current posturing – is far worse than that of MBS, and that Saudi Arabia is scarcely the worst abuser of civil rights and press freedom in the Middle East or the world.

The U.S. cannot ignore the need to deal with the facts of the Khashoggi murder, but the last few weeks have been a warning of a far broader problem. Key failures include the way that the U.S. government now approaches human rights, and the sloppy, incompetent, and hack-like way in which even some of the best U.S. news media addresses such issues.

The U.S. Government Approach to Human Rights

Somewhere along the line, the U.S. government has turned the international aspects of human rights into a partisan issue. The Republican and “conservative” approach has drifted towards treating concerns for human rights as something of “liberal” lack of concern for America’s practical security and economic interests. The Democratic and “liberal” approach has been to give human right violations higher visibility, sometimes at the cost of America’s other interest, and far more often in ways that do not push towards real progress and solutions.

To its credit, the State Department has continued to issue excellent annual country reports on human rights – although they necessarily lag some six months or more behind events, and there is an awkward separation between the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and the annual report on Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom – which often does a rather weak job of identifying key problems and tensions between given elements of a given faith and sect like the divisions between key Sunni factions.

Some country teams also do a quiet – but meaningful – job of pressing for reform, for more human rights and press freedom, better rule of flaw, less corruption, and fewer police and security abuses. Some do not – or find it difficult – to deal with authoritarian regimes that are key security partners and where Washington and the White House clearly have other priorities. The leadership from the President down through the NSC and Secretaries of State and Defense has been mixed – shaped in part by all too real sets of U.S. national security and economic interests.

The Trump Administration has swung from the Obama “liberal” position – which many in Washington saw as doing more to complain about foreign human rights failures than try to correct them and give proper priority to other U.S interests – to a pre-Khashoggi position that seemed to seriously downplay U.S. concerns for human rights and give priority to security and money. It would be totally unfair to accuse either Administration of ignoring either aspect of U.S. principles and interests, but there was a lack of balance and a lack of clear ongoing U.S. pressure for meaningful change. Too much empty posturing on the one hand, too little activity of any kind – and a vague disdain for human rights activity – on the other.

The Khashoggi murder is a warning that we need a far more systematic and consistent approach to pressing for reform. The U.S. cannot succeed in making real change by sporadically embarrassing other states, demanding instant progress in every area regardless of their security problems, politics and culture. It can, however, use the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and the report on Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom – to highlight the broad need for reform in given regions, focus on the countries that commit serious abuses, and quietly use every relevant Embassy country team to push for real progress, especially in the areas where a country is already making progress or needs progress to reduce its internal divisions and instability.

The U.S. should not posture or take hardline positions. There are good reasons for human rights NGOs to do this, but too much official U.S. pressure simply alienates or is counterproductive. Senior U.S. official scan, however, keep up a constant level of public concern, highlight key needs and priorities, make the annual release of the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and the report on Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom a major media event – with public support from the Secretaries of State, Defense, and the Treasury. The President and Vice President should be tactful, but not silent.

Another key U.S. official report – the Country Reports on Terrorism – can be expanded to cover state terrorism, and acts of authoritarian abuse, misuse of the security services and law enforcement, and imprisonment, torture, disappearances, and killings. Here, it is critical to note that counterterrorism does not consist purely of dealing with terrorists. It also means addressing its causes, and – as the Khashoggi murder shows – the wrong kind of counterterrorism can breed distrust, anger, extremism, and terrorism as much as all the other causes of such violence. Human rights and freedom of expression for the press are key elements of counterterrorism, and any U.S. official or politician who does not understand this is making a serious and dangerous mistake.

In the serious cases, the U.S. can deny quietly or publicly deny visas to the officials, officers, and their families known to direct or commit abuses. Seeking trials and international legal action is often an exercise in futility. Direct, lower-level action can have immediate impact on those who can never be proven guilty.

The key is for official U.S. action that is steady, constant, balanced, and exerts objective pressure for change that never fails to highlight critical problems and abuses but that is shaped to create consistent pressure for change and that emphasize the rates of change and the priorities that have the most chance of success. At the same time, the U.S. should make it clear that it puts a high priority on giving access to, and protecting, responsible human rights NGOs and pays attention to their reporting. The voices for greater and faster rates of change need protection.

The U.S. News Media Approach to Human Rights

The last few weeks have, however, sent another message as well. Anyone who has read the U.S. media coverage of the Khashoggi murder has seen three critical failures on the part of even the best U.S. news media:

  • First, being played for weeks by a thug like Erdogan who has turned the Turkish government into one of the worst human rights abusers in the region.
  • Second, falling into all too common trap of endlessly repeating virtually the same coverage – the media equivalent of the eleven-year-old soccer team where everyone rushes for the ball.
  • And third, failing to do even the most minimal background research by actually reading the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and the report on Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom on both Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Every editor and news director should assemble the full chain of their reporting from the first day the murder become public to the present and look hard at the contents. Every reporter and OPED writer involved should review what they wrote. The very real criticism Saudi Arabia deserves was constantly turned into an indictment of Saudi Arabia as if most of the countries and regimes in the MENA region – and Turkey – did not routinely commit the same abuses and this was not a major regional and global problem throughout all too much of the world.

A deserved focus on MBS ignored the fact that acts like Khashoggi’s killing are all too common in many regimes and is institutional – not personal. Taking more than two days to see that Erdogan was playing the U.S media and not bothering to remember years of reporting as he became steadily more authoritarian and more of a serial abuser of human rights was stupid and incompetent. Rushing out to suddenly focus on human rights, and doing so without proper background and research, because it became a major news story, is terrible journalism and abdicates a fundamental responsibility of the U.S. media.

The U.S. will never live in a perfect world, and for the life span of even the youngest journalists, it will have to deal with nations and security partners who are years or decades away from reducing their human rights and freedom of expression problems to the all too real levels of those that still remain in the U.S. Gross posturing over a single crisis is no substitute for systematic and informed coverage of the key elements of freedom. Yes, the U.S. government needs to do more and do more far more consistently. But, so does virtually every element of the U.S. media.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.


The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.

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