The Sad Saga of Saudi Lies

Riyadh can hide the truth of Khashoggi’s death, but it cannot avoid a time-tested fate.

Osama bin Laden was killed by American special forces on foreign soil. His body was secreted off to a U.S. Navy ship and received ablutions, prayers. It was wrapped in a white sheet out of respect for the dead, following Islamic custom. He was then given a sea burial and returned to his maker.

Jamal Khashoggi‘s body remains desecrated and his spirit despoiled.

This is the sad tale of the death of two Saudis, one a targeted terrorist, the other an innocent journalist.

No matter how you feel about giving mass murderer bin Laden a proper and respectful burial, you have to credit the United States for giving a sworn enemy his last rites. It’s only a small part of what makes America great. It’s also what makes America big.

Under different circumstances, orders, or regimes, American soldiers might have been less respectful of bin Laden’s remains. But they knew they attacked bin Laden’s compound not as vengeful, angry men. They were there on a mission: to capture or kill America’s enemy, not to create new ones.

This mission was, indeed, accomplished. The Obama War Room photo revealed to the rest of us the heightened tension and drama of the moment. As a nation, we were both relieved by the outcome and repelled by what bin Laden represented and the lasting damage he did to our nation and the world.

We laid him and his ideology to rest. The respect we showed was not meant strictly for his dead corpse or his living faith. America would not make him a martyr.

Khashoggi was shown none of this decency. The Turkish account and audio recordings of what happened in the Saudi Arabian consulate reveal that Khashoggi’s person was assaulted and his body defiled the moment he walked in the door.

Strangulation, torture, bone sawing. The purported acts and painful details slowly unfold, each more gruesome than the last. Turkey’s President Erdogan’s insistent calls for the Saudis to present Khashoggi’s body are made with the seeming knowledge that there is no body—only a dismembered bloody pile.

Erdogan suggests this act was an assault on an innocent, a grave insult to Islam, and a direct challenge to NATO. It may seem a little rich coming from a person who has jailed more journalists than any other leader, but it is a welcome message that shows Erdogan can potentially evolve. Whether it’s for reasons of personal affront, public relations, or political expediency is unimportant. What matters is that Erdogan has actually expressed outrage and called for an international inquiry, setting a higher accountability standard to which he, too, should now be held.

Is this a new Erdogan? That’s a question only time will answer. As important, the world is asking if what we are seeing is a new Saudi Arabia? Or is this the same old kingdom suddenly revealed in a new, politically embarrassing light?

Killing inconvenient journalists may seem like a good solution. It is, however, usually a gross miscalculation to believe that such brutal murders will go unnoticed or unanswered—even by an American president who takes a forgiving transactional approach to friends, if not always with allies.

President Trump feels the cranked-up heat of the moment as new Saudi consulate tapes are released to implicate a tightening circle of those who ordered the deed be done. The more the lies, justifications, diversions, and cover-ups come from defenders of the Saudi royals, the greater the resolve and calls for retributory action by the United States and others.

That doesn’t mean the Trump administration will not try to create a binary choice between America’s Saudi friends and Iranian foes. The current narrative favored by White House is that Iran is abjectly evil—an easy narrative to accept about Tehran’s regime—while promoting the story that the Saudi kingdom is going through a hopeful generational leadership change led by a youthful and progressive reformer. In a nutshell: Iran bad, Saudi good.

Things have gotten complicated, however. Iran is not yet seen globally as totally evil, and the Saudis are not seen as entirely trustworthy or even humane. The Saudi-conducted Yemen war has created one of the world’s greatest humanitarian crises, and the sheer butchery of a simple Washington Post columnist is beyond the pale.

In the film version of Homer’s Odyssey, Brad Pitt performed brilliantly the rage of Achilles—a rage that led him not only to kill Hector at Troy’s gates, but to further desecrate his body by tying it to his horse, dragging it, and then leaving it on the open field in the greatest expression of disrespect and dishonor. This is an ancient story, but the deep and true nature of our species viscerally understands the importance we place not only on the living but also the respect we demand for the dead.

Khashoggi’s body was reportedly a beheaded and dismembered mound of pulp, strewn to the fields of dogs or swept by the unforgiving and unblessed winds. If the Saudi murderers have an Achilles’ heel, it is their unbridled pride and the callousness of this cold-blooded killing.

The guilty may be able to bury the truth, but they cannot hide from time-tested fate.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a foreign affairs columnist for McClatchy News, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and President and Publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.