Jamal Khashoggi and the Decline of ‘America’s Moral Voice’

A memorial at the U.S. Capitol for the slain Saudi journalist produced vague calls for action, but no catharsis.

Representative Adam Schiff speaks at a memorial for the slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday. (Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

The touching memorial at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday for the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was marred only by the undercurrent of inaction it implied. With each speech, more than a dozen members of Congress heaped deservedly kind words upon Khashoggi, praised the enduring tenets of press freedom, condemned efforts to stymie voices like Khashoggi’s, and demanded that Congress act. In what way? For the most part, they did not say.

Tom Malinowski, the freshman congressman from New Jersey, was the exception.

Malinowski met Khashoggi just a few months before his murder in October at a small gathering in Northern Virginia, he said. Khashoggi told the congressional candidate and former assistant secretary of state that he worried about the decline of “America’s moral voice” in the world, particularly in the Arab world.

“We talked about what that might mean for the courageous democracy activists from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Bahrain who could once count on America at least to try to restrain their regimes from persecuting them,” Malinowski said. “In my own mind I was worried about the safety of some of the brave people I had met in those countries when I was an American diplomat. I was not worried about Jamal. He was here. He was supposed to be safe.”

Malinowski, who was the State Department’s top human-rights official during the Obama administration’s second term, was previously the Washington director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch—a crusader from the outside who exerted pressure on the U.S. government over domestic torture practices and U.S. diplomatic ties to foreign governments with questionable human-rights records. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, Malinowski outlined a legislative agenda that, among other things, included “scrutinizing the U.S.-Saudi relationship amid Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen and following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.”

Only one week into his congressional tenure, Malinowski looked like a veteran at the podium. He called on the Trump administration to use the Magnitsky Act to sanction the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for ordering the killing of Khashoggi, saying, “We have given the administration all of the tools that it needs to do what is right, to say to Saudi Arabia that while you may choose your own leaders, you might wish to consider the consequences of giving the keys to your kingdom for the next 50 years to someone who will be forever tainted by this crime.”

Malinowski pulled no punches in calling out the Saudi leader.

“If the administration will not do what is right, Congress can—and I think Congress will,” he said. “We can and we should wipe the smug smile of impunity off of Mohammed bin Salman’s face and restore proper balance to our relationship with Saudi Arabia.”

The room hummed in agreement, but also with some surprise. Of the 14 members of Congress who spoke—including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senators Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar, and Chris Van Hollen, and Representatives Adam Schiff, Will Hurd, Steve Chabot, and Eliot Engel—Malinowski was the only one to mention the Magnitsky Act.

But, more significantly, he was the only one to mention the Saudi crown prince by name.

The Trump administration’s response to Khashoggi’s murder has been nothing short of ambivalent. In a bizarre statement in November, the president took Mohammed bin Salman’s word over the conclusion of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Trump said in the statement. The White House position has consistently aligned with the judgment of Mohammed bin Salman, despite the fact that the CIA determined that the crown prince personally ordered the assassination of Khashoggi.

At the American University in Cairo on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the former CIA chief, ignored the Khashoggi incident entirely in a wide-ranging speech on America’s Middle East policy. Instead, he praised Saudi Arabia for its role in containing Iran and stabilizing the region.

“Saudi Arabia, too, has worked with us to counter Iranian expansion and regional influence,” said Pompeo, who has planned a stop in Saudi Arabia in the coming days. “We, the United States, commend each of these efforts, and we seek for all nations to continue the work to constrain the full array of the regime’s malign activity.”

At the memorial, Pelosi questioned the administration’s logic. “If we decide that commercial interest should override the statements that we make and the actions that we take, then we must admit that we have lost all moral authority to talk about any of the atrocities anywhere anytime,” she said.

Lloyd Doggett, the Democratic congressman from Austin, Texas, offered a more acerbic rendition of that same sentiment.

“When those murders [of journalists] or torture or imprisonment are ignored, whether they’re directed by a supposed ally or an obvious adversary, whether by a crown prince or the Kremlin or the Burmese military or an ayatollah or an Egyptian dictator or some tyrant who purports to be a left-winger or any other third-rate thug,” Doggett told the room, “… the world becomes a little less safe for journalists. And indeed it becomes a little less safe for the rest of us.”

Despite a bitter January chill and unrelenting winds, the memorial drew a crowd. A hundred chairs were not enough, not with 15 cameras hugging the back and sides of the room. About two dozen stood for the proceedings, organized and emceed by the journalist and author Lawrence Wright—a friend of Khashoggi’s who interviewed him for his book on al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower (Wright’s heartfelt tribute in The New Yorker, where he works as a staff writer, was published Wednesday night and previewed the memorial). The documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney and the former FBI special agent Ali Soufan were also behind the event, which was formally hosted by Warner, Schiff, and Chabot.

In addition to the members of Congress, speakers included press-freedom advocates and the Washington Post publisher, Fred Ryan. They called for those responsible to be held accountable for killing Khashoggi. It’s a new year, and if the Saudis thought Washington would move on by now, it seems they are mistaken.

But the state of affairs seems bleak: Congress says it wants action, but does not take action; the White House absolves the Saudi crown prince of any and all guilt; and Secretary of State Pompeo has also chosen to ignore the CIA consensus rather than publicly contradict the president.

While follow-up action is not typically the byproduct of a memorial service, this memorial service was different. It transpired to say, We’re still here. We’re still demanding answers.

“[Khashoggi’s] daughters probably said it best,” said Klobuchar, “and I quote, ‘This is no eulogy, for that would confer a state of closure. Rather this is a promise that his light will never fade, that his legacy will be preserved within us.’ That’s our job right now in Congress, not only for what’s going on around the world but what’s going on in our own country.” If nothing else, the memorial was a reminder that we are far from closure.

Before concluding, Schiff, who co-chairs the Congressional Freedom of the Press Caucus with Chabot, told the audience that he co-founded the caucus “with a congressman from Indiana, a backbencher named Mike Pence.”

The caucus, which sponsored the memorial, was founded in 2006. The world is a starkly different place 13 years later. Schiff’s admonishment was understood, the disappointment implicit. An audible sigh, maybe even a slight chuckle at the irony, emitted within the room. Schiff did not need to say more. Heads shook in disapproval.

When the memorial ended, there was no catharsis. Audience members, many of whom knew Khashoggi personally, stood up and chatted. Friends greeted old friends, introduced new friends, shook hands. But there was no feeling of accomplishment in the air, only the sense that there is much more work to be done.