America’s Selective Outrage

The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has rightly caused anger in the West, but why are western journalists quiet about the brutal war Saudi Arabia wages in Yemen with America’s help?

Win McNamee/Getty Images

It was cringe-inducing to see Trump gloating like a little boy when Saudi Arabia’s de facto state head, Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS as he is more popularly known, visited the Oval Office in March of this year to finalize a deal which would help America rake in more $460 billion in arms purchase by the Middle Eastern country over the course of the next decade. Nearly a quarter of that sum would be available to the United States immediately.

“Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation, and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world,” Trump told reporters back in March in front of an evidently embarrassed MbS. Holding cards that mentioned the equipments bought with their corresponding costs, Trump couldn’t contain his excitement, even as the crown prince complained of feeling “humiliated” at Trump’s credulity later.

“$880 million … $645 million … $6 billion … SIX BILLION! — that’s for frigates,” Trump exclaimed, drawing a chuckle from MbS, who probably couldn’t believe that an American president was so forthcoming in front of his own reporters.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected anything else from Donald Trump. After all, his eyes do light up when talking about money. Money is one of the things, apart from himself, that Trump cares most about in this world. While I felt my stomach knotting watching Trump suck up to the Head of one of the most brutal dictatorships in the Middle East, it reminded me of a constant trait in American foreign policy over the years, that of supporting fascist regimes if it translates to profits and neoliberal expansion. Values that Americans hold so close to their hearts, of liberty, of freedom, suddenly takes a back seat when there’s a possibility of money being made. Since the Second World War, this American tendency, ominously foreboded by Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell speech of a country at war with an ever-burgeoning “military industrial complex,” has quietly chipped away at the confidence of righteous people around the world, who have seen successive U.S. governments engage in multiple wars — sometimes with noble intentions, but mostly with the gusto of a strong ringleader bullying the rest of the world into its power narratives. People dying is mostly collateral damage.

It is sad and tragic, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of the anger most Americans share towards such dictatorships which the U.S. has supported in the last seven decades, but unfortunately it is also a matter of common knowledge that U.S. monetary and military interests often trump what should otherwise be ethical choices in foreign territories for a country that talks so passionately about freedom. Vietnam, Chile, Afghanistan, Iraq, Honduras, and now Yemen, all contain scars of the American dream.

And therefore it seems likely, that while there is selective anger almost everywhere in the world, in America it is the most pronounced.

Just look at the fallout of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi defector and journalist who was reportedly strangled and dismembered by Saudi agents last month in Istanbul. The Wahhabi nation, infamous for its extremist-interpretation of Islamic Law, has killed dissidents for decades, all the while being a strong strategic ally of the U.S. in the Middle East. Humanitarian concern has necessarily — from an American perspective — become secondary in such situations, because, after all, it is what the Saudis do in their own backyard. American media has a habit of turning the blind eye when atrocities happen abroad, and as long as Americans are not directly hurt in the process.

In most cases, the American media even encourages such involvement and prepares the grounds for U.S. military interventions whole-heartedly. We only have to go as far back as the Iraq War to see the human costs of U.S. greed fueled by media hysteria. The American media has usually been a culpable enabler in dastardly foreign missions undertaken by short-sighted leaders, and to see them assume the moral ground now when Khashoggi has been murdered is no less unseemly.

This is not to say that the outrage against Khashoggi’s murder is not necessary — Saudi Arabia’s murderous ways and contempt for free speech must be exposed at every opportunity, but it is disappointing that the murder of a journalist, who relocated to the U.S. and began reporting for the Washington Post, is what it took for the American media to wake up from its deep slumber. Not even a war could do it.

Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has engaged in a savage war against Houthi rebels in Middle East’s poorest country, Yemen, in an attempt to assert dominion over regional rivals, Iran, whom the Saudis have long been at odds with — their conflict going to the very roots of Islam. The Sunni leadership of the Saud family, under the sanction of extremist Wahhabi clerics, seeks to eliminate Shiite rebels, supported by Iran, in an effort to protect the Sunni-dominated government in Yemen. According to Save the Children, nearly 50,000 Yemeni children died because of the war in the year 2017 alone. More than 14 million Yemenis face the prospect of starvation even as a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, and assisted by the U.S., continues to bomb schools and hospitals in Yemen. Although it is true that not all civilians in the country have been killed by the Saudi-U.S. coalition bombs, the United Nations believes that their airstrikes are responsible for two-thirds of civilian deaths in the war.

While America was enamored by the events of reality-TV-inspired presidential burlesque of 2016, ably indulged by the lead cast of a narcissist-realtor against a long-serving preserver of American foreign interests, on October 8 of that year, under still the leadership of progressive rockstar Barack Obama, a 500 pound laser-guided US-made bomb was dropped on a funeral procession by the US-sponsored Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, killing nearly 140 civilians and wounding more than 500 people in what the Human Rights Watch called “an apparent war crime.” Then, a week later, unbeknownst to most journalists at the time, the U.S. officially entered the conflict when it could very well have exerted more pressure on the Saudis and Iran to cease hostilities. America, like it often does, ended up exacerbating a problem for which it can provide no solutions.

This is not an aberration in the role the country has played in multitude of foreign wars over the last several decades, but perhaps the most numbing and disturbing of all the alliances America has forged in that time is its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The two countries don’t even exist in the same moral universe. While America believes in free will, enterprise and democracy, Saudi Arabia is a tightly run family business receiving their divine sanction to rule from Wahhabi clerics, who preach a branch of militant and prohibitive version of Islam first espoused by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab back in 18th century. While America believes in fair trial, Saudi Arabia believes in an extremist interpretation of the Quran, where beheadings are allowed and activists receive public floggings for speaking against the royal family. While America prides itself on a free press, in Saudi Arabia there is only one version of truth, that propagated by the Saudi family. But despite these evident ideological divergences, for decades, America has somehow negated its purported values to support, and by all accounts, appease the Saudi Arabia royal family because of the Arab country’s massive oil reserves, and more recently for its ability to become America’s biggest buyer of arms.

Since 1938, when oil was first discovered in Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has constantly tried to gratify Saudi leadership at the cost of contradicting principles it espouses with so much vigor. Initially, America’s push to give Saudis a friendly hand arose from a need to keep communism at bay in the Middle East, as well as to form more strategic relationships in a region so wholly different from the West, but as the years have worn on, this relationship has turned into a complete acceptance of Saudi’s extremist ways, to the point that American journalists have largely let go of the Wahhabi nation’s funding of terrorist groups, because, well, America does that too.

Afghanistan is not an anomaly, where, in 1979, the then-U.S. president Jimmy Carter and King Khalid of Saudi Arabia began to arm and fund Mujahideen rebels in order to counter Russia’s invasion, a move which would eventually come back to bite America in the most grotesque manner when one of the Mujahideen rebels, a certain Osama bin Laden, would lead an attack which would kill thousands of Americans in the most deadly terrorist attack on Western soil. We all know how the American response to that atrocity panned out for the Middle East.

Washington has been tight with Riyadh for ages and this isn’t meant to change no matter who becomes the next American president. But suddenly, when Khashoggi’s murder hit it a little too close to home, American journalists began noticing the bloodthirsty ways of the Saudis. Where were they when Saudi Arabia and the US bombed civilians in Yemen? Why didn’t they write countless articles on the barbaric fate meted out to Yemeni children, who are dying in scores thanks to U.S.-made bombs even as American media continues to be obsessed — almost to a neurotic level — with Russian interference in the presidential elections? Why were journalists in the West not condemning American stalwarts of Silicon Valley who were happily kowtowing to Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to the U.S., when he promised billions of dollars of investment in technological companies? Why didn’t they create a hue and cry when MbS, who essentially grabbed power going against the consensus-driven nature of heirship in the royal family, met with Oprah for a pretentious PR session even as the Saudi military, aided by the United States Air Force, bombed the living daylights out of Yemen?

Why is the scope of the debate in American media even now, following the savage murder of Khashoggi, limited to him alone? Wouldn’t Khashoggi, the reformist that he was, have wanted his colleagues in America to unravel and confront Western support for Saudi Arabia? Wouldn’t he, who had seen fellow activists in Saudi Arabia like Raif Badawi flogged mercilessly and countless others executed for criticizing the royal family, want American journalists to dig deeper and force their country’s leadership into pressuring Saudi Arabia to leave its murderous ways?

In fact, in his last interview before being murdered, Khashoggi rued the fact that he saw no American leader except Bernie Sanders showing enough courage to stand up to the Saudis. He could very well have said the same thing about American journalists.

I am not in a position to be critical of my colleagues who have done fantastic work that I may not be able to do in a lifetime. But let’s not all pretend that Saudi Arabia has suddenly become so barbaric. What happened to Khashoggi was shocking, but not surprising. Anyone who has observed the Saudi royal family knows this is just the way they operate, the only miscalculation they made this time was to execute a journalist who had worked for one of the most famous publications in the U.S. and they did so in a foreign land.

It was telling that MbS, during a phone call to Trump’s messenger to the Middle East, Jared Kushner, admitted surprise at the way Western media — and Americans in particular — had reacted to Khashoggi’s killing. “Why the outrage,” he reportedly asked Kushner, and you cannot but feel that he was genuinely taken aback at the reaction to Khashoggi’s killing, because his family has always indulged in silencing critics, and American media has hardly batted an eyelid in all that time.

This is not to undermine the seriousness of what happened with Khashoggi, and Saudi Arabia must be forced to give answers. But the buck shouldn’t stop with his murder, and it is time that Western journalists — and particularly the American media — realize that their outrage cannot be selective. If Khashoggi is a worthy victim, the hundreds of children killed in Yemen every day must be worthy victims too.