American foreign policy tows a tricky line between securing the geopolitical interests of multinational corporations that depend on open markets and access to resources, and in operating in such a way so as not to ruffle the feathers of institutions that are democratically accountable to the citizenry. One might think that this would manifest as the American military mitigating some of its most violent practices or American allies being chosen based on human-rights standards. In reality, the United States has pursued a policy of secrecy and silencing.
Sticking with the post-Cold War period, I find that there is ample evidence of these practices continuing to take place. Historically, the American news-media have played along. In April of 1999, a NATO missile attack destroyed Radio Television of Serbia’s headquarters, killing sixteen journalists.
“Serb TV is as much a part of Milosevic’s murder machine as his military,” then-Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said, defending it.
The Times article reporting on the event only offers space for quotes from those favorable to the bombing. In 2010, Julian Assange, who if extradited to the United States faces up to 175 years in prison, published on WikiLeaks a video of an American attack helicopter killing eleven civilians, including two Reuters journalists. The Times threatened to fire journalist Chris Hedges if he kept up his public denouncements of the war, forcing Hedges to resign while continuing the employment of Judith Miller, who published inaccurate information fed to her from the intelligence community. Barack Obama prosecuted more journalists’ sources under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all other presidents combined. Journalist James Risen battled both Bush’s and Obama’s Departments of Justice, which attempted to legally compel him to identify sources for his 2006 book “State of War.” Abroad, Obama requested that Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who had been brutally tortured in prison, not be pardoned, as Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh had planned. As journalist Jeremy Scahill noted at the time, the U.S. voicing concerns over terrorist operatives being freed is normal; however, “Shaye is not an Islamist militant or an Al Qaeda operative. He is a journalist.” Not a single article about this story can be found on the websites of the Times or the Washington Post.
On October 2, 2018, Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to acquire paperwork to marry his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. Khashoggi had published several articles in the Post critical of the Saudi government. He never left that embassy. According to the findings of the CIA, he was murdered and dismembered with a bone saw by a team of fifteen Saudi agents ordered to carry out the hit by the crown prince himself, Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS). MBS denies the claim.
With Khashoggi a member of the American media establishment, his murder was more or less given the attention it deserved. CNN, MSNBC and Fox spent much of their twenty-four-hour news cycles covering the story and updating the public on new information. Much of the outrage was directed at President Donald Trump for his soft stance and reluctance to condemn the murder. In Bob Woodward’s new book “Rage,” Trump is quoted as saying, “I saved [MBS’] ass… I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.”
In one op-ed titled “Letting Them Get Away with Murder,” conservative political commentator Jennifer Rubin writes in the Post, “In the Trump era, we aren’t tired of winning. We’re tired of Trump and his minions pretending that their appeasement of foes and hostility toward allies amount to winning.” On December 11, 2018, Time named Khashoggi person of the year. Writing for Fox News, Miller herself called the Saudi government’s announcement that the hit-squad had been arrested, “a pathetic attempt not only to salvage the vital strategic U.S.-Saudi relationship but to exonerate the man responsible directly or tactically for Khashoggi’s brutal murder.”
Of course, that strategic alliance was safe. On Nov. 20, 2018, Donald Trump seemed to give the game away as he explained why Saudi Arabia would receive no consequences. “If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it would be a terrible mistake,” he said. “They’re buying hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of things from this country. If I say we don’t wanna take your business, if I say we’re gonna cut it off, they will get the equipment, military equipment and other things from Russia and China… I’m not gonna tell a country that’s spending hundreds of billions of dollars and has helped me do one thing very importantly, keep oil prices down so that they’re not going to a hundred and a hundred and fifty dollars a barrel. Right now, we have oil prices in great shape. I’m not going to destroy the world economy and I’m not going to destroy the economy for our country by being foolish with Saudi Arabia.”
That strategic relationship seems to have influenced those in the news media and government to ignore a plethora of human rights violations committed by Saudi leadership for years. MBS came to power as somewhat of a mastermind of public relations. He became the crown prince on June 21, 2017 at just 32 years old. In an extremely conservative and theocratic country like Saudi Arabia, any liberalization will seem like progress by leaps and bounds. For a long time, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world to have a ban on women driving. On June 24, 2018, MBS lifted that ban although, of course, at the same time he imprisoned ten women’s rights activists. In Dec. of 2017, a thirty-five-year ban on movies was lifted. In April of 2018, Saudi Arabia kicked of a gender-segregated fashion week, unique in the country’s history. Ishaan Tharoor of the Post called these, “dramatic social changes,” while Nic Robertson of CNN said, the “atmosphere” in Saudi Arabia, “seems more relaxed” now that MBS is in power.
Saudi Arabia has been on the forefront of a brutal air campaign in Yemen, which has been fully supported by the United States, with U.S. aircraft performing mid-air refueling of Saudi planes, many of which were bought from the U.S., in order for bombing to continue without Saudi planes having to land.
As Amnesty International wrote in 2016, “Since the start of the conflict, Amnesty International has documented thirty-six coalition strikes that appear to have violated international humanitarian law, many of which may amount to war crimes. These have resulted in 513 civilian deaths (including at least 157 children and 379 civilian injuries).”
Saudi Arabia has also implemented a crushing aerial, naval and land blockade, creating conditions in which 80% of the population relies on humanitarian aid. By 2017, a quarter of the population was starving according to the UN. Human Rights Watch has called for the UN Security Council to, “impose travel bans and asset freezes on senior coalition leaders, including the Saudi crown prince and defense minister, Mohammad bin Salman,” should the status-quo be maintained.
Nic Robertson writes about the war in Yemen, “Over the intervening years the conflict has escalated, several thousand Yemenis have been killed, a third of the country’s population is short of food, and Houthi-fired, Iranian-made missiles frequently scud over hundreds of kilometers of desert to be shot down near the Saudi capital.” He doesn’t, however, identify why conditions in Yemen are this way but alludes to Iranian aggression as a possible factor. He adds, “The lives of Riyadh’s more than 7 million people are in MBS’s hands, but the region as a whole is at risk: A mass-casualty event in the capital could push the young crown prince into open conflict with Iran,” i.e., the slaughter is justified.
When MBS was interviewed on 60 Minutes, a grand total of two minutes was spent on Yemen. MBS made sure to deflect each question back onto Iran; “The Iranian ideology penetrated some parts of Yemen. During that time, this militia was conducting military maneuvers right next to our borders and positioning missiles at our borders… I can’t imagine that the United States will accept one militia in Mexico launching missiles on Washington D.C., New York and LA.” When bin Salman was asked if he acknowledges that there is suffering, he said that it was “very painful,” and that he hoped that the rebels stop, “using the humanitarian situation to their advantage in order to draw sympathy from the international community.”
Most notably in November of 2017, the New York Times published an article by Thomas L. Friedman, titled “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring at Last.” Written after Friedman’s visit with MBS in Saudi Arabia, the article only uses the word “Yemen” once.
Friedman fails to mention the cholera outbreak, the starving children, or civilian casualties. He does, however, manage to mention that the government that Saudi Arabia is supporting is legitimate and the rebels are pro-Iranian.
On Nov. 4, 2017, Saudi forces rounded up members of the Saudi royal family as well as prominent members of Saudi Arabia’s business community, on charges of corruption and placed them in the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. Among the prisoners were rivals and critics of MBS. For example, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, freed only after paying a fee of $1 billion, is a rival to the throne. Also, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the richest investor in the Middle East and MBS’ cousin, was arrested on no charges.
Despite the setting of the Ritz Carlton, the conditions that the prisoners were subjected to were inhumane. A video surfaced of Alwaleed bin Talal looking visibly thinner than he had before being sent to the hotel. One general who was imprisoned was tortured to death, dying of a broken neck. Sixteen other prisoners were hospitalized due to physical abuse. Human Rights Watch stated, “Saudi Arabia should immediately investigate the claims that authorities physically mistreated or coerced prominent people detained.”
Friedman had a different take on what took place. “One thing I know for sure: Not a single Saudi I spoke to here over three days expressed anything other than effusive support for this anticorruption drive,” he wrote. “The Saudi silent majority is clearly fed up with the injustice of so many princes and billionaires ripping off their country. While foreigners, like me, were inquiring about the legal framework for this operation, the mood among Saudis I spoke with was: “Just turn them all upside down.”
Friedman’s article doesn’t use the words torture or abuse. Neither did the Washington Post article “Saudi Arabia Releases Most Detainees in Corruption Probe after Settlements Totaling Nearly $107 Billion.” This article did mention that the prisoners had been held in a “luxury hotel.” Nic Robertson’s opinion piece also forgot to use the words torture or abuse. In fact, the Ritz Carlton episode was only mentioned once when Robertson said that the event could potentially hurt business in Saudi Arabia and “didn’t do [MBS] any favors when he hit the boardrooms.”
Under the logo for the Post it reads, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Certainly, democracy has suffered as the news media has neglected to adequately hold accountable Saudi Arabia. While coverage of Khashoggi’s murder was encouraging, two things should be noted. First, that it was a journalist of the Post who was killed. As history shows, unless it is one of their own, the news media cares little for the harassment, torture, or death of journalists. The second is that this level of attention is fleeting even for Khashoggi. On Sept. 7, 2020, a Saudi court overturned five death penalties for those convicted of Khashoggi’s murder. The Times ran one article on the topic. Not surprisingly, the Post published more than the Times, a less than impressive six articles, but they were all published the day of the ruling or the day after. Otherwise, the ruling was lost to the memory hole. If this is the care they give for one of their own, how many in history have been forgotten?