Biden’s Commitment to Press Freedom Faces a Test

How the president handles the killings of Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh is a test of his ability to balance values and realpolitik.

A diptych of placards depicting Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh
Ozan Kose / AFP / Getty; Guy Smallman / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Kim Ghattas is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the author of Black Wave.

When President Joe Biden travels to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Palestinian territories in July, he should keep two names in his mind at every step: Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh. Both spoke truth to power, and both were killed in the course of their work as journalists. And though they were killed in drastically different circumstances, both represented the promise of a different Middle East.

The Biden administration says that it centers its foreign policy on the battle between democracy and autocracy, and on the need for a rules-based international order. The reality, however, is that the United States has not-so-democratic allies and outright-autocratic friends. The key for the U.S. is to make sure that it uses its leverage not to preach, lecture, or condescend, but to engage in a wider conversation, convincing these countries of the necessity and the benefit for all of abiding by basic universal values. Biden’s trip, then, is about more than the price of a barrel of oil, regional cooperation, the threat from Iran, or even the release of individual dissidents.

How Biden handles the killings of Khashoggi and Abu Akleh is a test, not just of his promise to support rule of law and accountability, but of his ability to better balance values and realpolitik. Whether Biden succeeds matters not simply for America, the Middle East, and the relationship between the two, but for America’s relationship with the world.

The worst possible approach would be for the U.S. to paper over both killings, sending a message to its allies in the region that they can get away with anything as long as they serve America’s short-term interests. Biden is seeking more oil from Saudi Arabia as Washington seeks to strangle Russian energy exports, and to maintain an anti-Iran front between Arab countries and Israel. Both issues are important, as is the release of political prisoners, but this transactional approach has not delivered sustainable results in the past and, on its own, will fail again.

Not all killings are equal in their impact. Every life is precious, but most deaths—even those with national significance, anywhere in the world—are soon forgotten except by loved ones. Some unleash a torrent of protests or trigger conflicts. Only a few change the course of history. Sometimes, in the horror of the moment, we think we have reached a turning point, such as with the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in the U.S. or the assassination of Pakistani leader Benazir Bhutto in 2007, only to realize, years later, that little or nothing has changed, that the “after” is just the same as the “before.”

The history of the Middle East is full of violent political deaths, but only a handful prove to be watersheds. The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 changed not only the course of Lebanon’s politics, but that of the region’s geopolitics, removing a bulwark against the rise of Iran’s influence from Beirut to Sanaa.

Khashoggi’s murder falls in this category. His horrifying death in 2018, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, upended Saudi-American relations and sent a chill down the spine of journalists and activists across the Arab world. During his presidential campaign, Biden had described Saudi Arabia as a pariah, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation, and rising gas prices have forced a rethinking. Hence the stop in Jeddah, where he can say he is attending a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt, but during which Biden will likely meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom U.S. intelligence blames for Khashoggi’s death.

Other deaths ripple, quietly hanging over a people, a country, a region. Abu Akleh’s is one such killing. Several Palestinian journalists have been shot dead before and since. Other Palestinian Americans have been killed in the occupied Palestinian territories. But Abu Akleh’s death was different. A Palestinian American journalist, she was a trailblazer and the face that millions of Arabs welcomed into their home as she told the story of her people with calm, poise, and empathy over a 25-year career. Her funeral procession was one of the largest any Palestinian figure has ever received. Her absence is felt acutely. It may not seem like it now, but something has shifted, almost imperceptibly.

Underpinning these deaths is the issue of impunity, the question of what happens when they go unpunished, and the balancing act in Washington between values and interests. Key to this is the question of who carried out the killings, with the answer likely determining how the balance tilts.

Hariri, for example, was killed by America’s foes. He stood in the way of Iran and Syria’s plans to overpower Lebanon, and his assassination was carried out by operatives belonging to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite militia. Damascus came under intense international pressure, a United Nations investigation was launched, and a special tribunal was held in The Hague. In the end, convictions and justice have been elusive, but not for lack of trying—the U.S. simply doesn’t have leverage on Iran and Hezbollah to impose accountability.

But Khashoggi and Abu Akleh were killed by America’s allies—pending a full investigation in the case of Israel—and the U.S. has both the power to demand accountability and the responsibility to hold its allies to higher standards. The question is how. The priority with each, and in the Middle East generally, has always been to maintain stability. America’s relationships in the region have been mostly founded on the quid pro quo of offering more weapons in exchange for token gestures, such as the release of political prisoners in the case of Saudi Arabia or Egypt, or the easing of some measures on Palestinians in the case of Israel.

This should change. Saudi Arabia has no doubt been watching how the U.S. has responded to Abu Akleh’s killing. Overwhelming evidence indicates that an Israeli soldier likely shot her as she was reporting on an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank. There has been no independent investigation yet. Senators Mitt Romney and Jon Ossoff, Republican and Democrat respectively, have demanded a full and transparent inquiry; another 24 Democratic senators have said that the U.S. should be directly involved in overseeing the investigation, while more than 50 members of Congress have gone further, saying that the FBI should launch a probe. Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has called for an independent investigation, though without specifying what that would entail.

If Washington does not ensure a credible investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing—whether led by the U.S. or done jointly with other countries, like Egypt or Jordan—Riyadh can rightly argue that it should no longer be lectured about Khashoggi’s killing; that it carried out its own investigation; that eight people were sentenced to prison, which is more than what Israel has done so far.

If MBS is rehabilitated without truly repenting, without facing justice or in some way atoning by building a future for the region that Khashoggi would be proud of; if Israel does not accept an outside investigation and hand down harsh sentences on those found to have killed Abu Akleh; if it does not honor Abu Akleh’s memory by providing Palestinians with the rights they deserve; if America does not demand accountability more broadly, where does impunity end?

In the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing, MBS was shunned by most of the world, except Russia and China, and shielded by President Donald Trump, who bragged that he had saved the crown prince’s “ass.” As a presidential candidate, Biden raised the hopes of Saudi dissidents, critics of MBS, and the human-rights community when he declared that he would make the de facto Saudi leader a “pariah.”

This stance was never going to last. Biden may have based his remarks on the desire to disengage from the Middle East or at least rightsize the attention that America devotes to it, but he has come face-to-face with an exasperating truth: If you are an American president, you may not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you.

Which is why anyone who expected that MBS, most likely the next Saudi king and young enough to hold the throne for the next 50 years, would face U.S. sanctions was oblivious not only to realpolitik and American interests, but to the reality of the Middle East. Imagine the happy dance that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, would have enjoyed, and the glee among Iran’s brutal proxy militias, who operate across the region, if MBS had been punished by America.

Progressives may lambast Biden for his apparent U-turn, but they forget that American presidents meet regularly with foes and allies alike, serial rights abusers among them, such as Egypt and China. These same progressives are themselves guilty of double standards when they push for a nuclear deal with Iran and the lifting of sanctions on Tehran while overlooking the Iranian regime’s oppression, or when they criticize Trump for ordering the strike that killed Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, without acknowledging that much of the region, including many Iranians, thought Good riddance to a murderer. It is possible to hold both thoughts at the same time.

For Saudi activists, the sense of a breach of faith is as real as the sense of impending danger. “We as Saudi activists harmed by MbS feel betrayed by Biden,” Abdullah al Odah, the son of a jailed cleric, wrote on Twitter. Many fear that, emboldened by a Biden visit, MBS will crack down further.

Even among those who have suffered at the hands of the Saudi crown, however, there is an acknowledgment that Riyadh cannot be frozen out forever. Khalid al-Jabri’s father, Saad, a former top Saudi intelligence officer, has accused MBS of trying to kill him. But the younger al-Jabri is also clear-eyed: In a recent Washington Post op-ed, he wrote that though he is “a victim of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ruthless regime,” he still believes that “President Biden could and should salvage the relationship—but not at all costs.” He writes that Biden should demand even more oil, much less oppression, more adherence to American values, and some humility, because the souring of the relationship with the U.S. was Saudi Arabia’s doing. In essence, make the trip really count, and have many asks, because the U.S has the upper hand.

Biden should argue that several months into Russia’s war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin looks like a losing bet and America’s allies in the Middle East shouldn’t hedge anymore. The U.S. can deliver for its allies when it wants to. Biden should push Saudi Arabia to side with Washington and against Moscow. When he meets Saudi and Egyptian leaders during his trip, Biden should also still press for the release of activists, such as the Egyptian-British blogger Alaa Abdel el-Fattah, who has been in jail for most of the past eight years on trumped-up charges, or seek to lift the travel ban on the Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

At the same time, the president should give credit where credit is due. Saudi Arabia today is unrecognizable from that of even just four years ago. The bar was low: Until recently, the kingdom was the only country in the world where women weren’t allowed to drive. But for anyone who has visited Saudi Arabia over the past decades, the recent rapid cultural and social opening up is astounding. Some of it is flashy and megalomaniacal like Neom, the modernist city being built in the desert. But not all of it is a mirage. The change has been transformational and exciting for the young generation in a country where two-thirds of the population is below the age of 29 and where, until a few years ago, the only fun to be had was cruising in a car. (All of this progress might still come crumbling down as unemployment rises, but the price of oil is filling state coffers enough to dole out favors for some time.)

In Israel, the festering wound of the daily humiliation and violence of Palestinian life under occupation is untenable. It occurs without international outcry but it is relentless, involving the regular arrest of underage children, expropriations, and expulsions, to name but a few abuses. The Israeli human-rights organization B’Tselem has termed the occupation an apartheid.

The U.S. may not have bandwidth for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that keep failing, but meaningful progress toward “equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity and dignity for the Palestinian people”—measures the administration touted last year—can no longer wait. The Abraham Accords tried to bypass the issue of Palestinian rights but growing Israeli-Arab ties will not quell the rage building within the Palestinian territories. Nor can the U.S. call on other Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, to join the Accords without visible progress for Palestinians. Speaking recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, said that Riyadh always “envisioned that there will be full normalization with Israel”—something he said “will bring immense benefits.” But he made clear that “we won’t be able to reap those benefits unless we address the issue of Palestine.”

Finally, the U.S. cannot credibly call for accountability for Russian atrocities while allowing Israel to get away with de facto annexation and the killing of journalists. Impunity is corrosive across the board, around the world. Impunity is what drove Putin to push further and further, testing the limits of what he could get away with, in Georgia more than a decade ago, then in Crimea, in Syria, and now finally across Ukraine. Impunity is contagious. The U.S., too, has broken the rules many times and gotten away with it, allowing allies and foes to shrug when pressured about their own abuses, pointing the finger back at America.

In 1991, President George H. W. Bush declared a new world order after the liberation of Kuwait. “What is at stake is more than one small country; it is a big idea,” he said during his State of the Union address. “A new world order, where diverse nations are drawn together in common cause to achieve the universal aspirations of mankind—peace and security, freedom, and the rule of law.”

That new world order has caved under the pressure of its contradictions. But Biden has an opportunity to usher in a new era, and ironically, the starting point might well be the Middle East again. The rules-based order that Biden speaks of now should be one where the U.S. holds itself and its partners to higher standards.

Moving away from the traditional transactional relationship with the Middle East, and steering clear of the lofty but ultimately empty promises of his predecessors, Biden should pay tribute to both Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh in the same sentence during all of his stops, and promise practical ways to uphold rule of law, governance, and justice—for everyone.