Nobody in the West really understands the Arab mind. Killing a political adversary is understandable, though heartily to be disapproved of. But cutting up the corpse with a surgical saw, and doing it without first waiting for the poor guy to die, is beyond the Western, Judeo-Christian pale.
If that’s what happened to Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, no Middle East hand old or otherwise will be surprised.
“So,” says Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, “Mohammad bin Salman [the crown prince of Saudi Arabia], “is on a wild tear, but no one notices until a journalist resident in the United States is, apparently, savagely disposed of? We should know by now what the Saudi regime is, and if we did, the Khashoggi incident would be dismaying, but not shocking.”
In the more innocent West, such a grisly outrage would demand vengeance, legal but the harsher and quicker the better. Donald Trump is hearing footfalls behind him even though he was not in the room, or even on the same continent, when the Saudi security police picked up their knives and saws and went to work on the Khashoggi carcass. He had promised to “get to the bottom” of what happened and 48 hours later he sounds as if he’s going soft on the Saudis. Power politics has taken over. Mr. Trump is vulnerable to criticism because he has over the years cultivated business ties in the Middle East, particularly with the Saudis. Such ties are not always ready for prime time.
Nevertheless, heads of state, like ambulance drivers and emergency room doctors, must sometimes resort to triage. The Israelis, who have the most to lose in the Middle East and consequently have cultivated the ties to make national survival possible, have had the least to say since Mr. Khashoggi dropped from sight.
“So far, and rightly so,” says Yoel Guzansky of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not talking about it. This is smart. Israel has no interest in discussing the case.”
Israel’s example demonstrates why President Trump should keep his counsel to himself. He could save himself considerable grief if he did. There’s no new thing under the sun, but savagery like this is unique and demands the effort to deal with it.
The world only now is beginning to get a different story about the who and why of the Khashoggi incident. The details keep changing and though we may never learn the full details of what went down in Turkey, the picture may be beginning to clear. The crucial and fundamental goal of both the United States and Israel is to contain and weaken Iran, to persuade the mullahs in Tehran to behave themselves. Mr. Trump is trying to weaken Iran and put together an alliance of Israel and a Saudi-led bloc to deal with Iran and to not let what Daniel Pipes calls “the touching naivete of so many Americans to get in the way of a correct goal.”
“Crisis” is a word much over-used in the Middle East, but it’s often the correct word, and what happens in the Middle East could be relegated to “the hopeless but not serious” but for the oil and the region’s susceptibility to a conflagration that would stop no one knows where.
Western mainstream media presents Mr. Khashoggi, who came a cropper when he took on the corrupt crown prince because he was not really the modernizer he pretended to be. A rival analysis now emerging, which may or may not be correct, is that Mr. Khashoggi was actually an Islamist extremist, once a friend of Osama bin Laden, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who despises Israel who opposed the crown prince not because he was not democratic enough, but because he was not Islamic enough.
But if that were true why kill in such an unnecessarily complicated way. Why, asks the perceptive British analyst Melanie Phillips, would the Saudis send 15 men to do a job that competent hired killers of the Chechen mafia could have done with a minimum of fuss.
The killers set out to kidnap Mr. Khashoggi and “bring him back alive,” Miss Phillips speculates, and a pathologist was supplied to keep him sedated on the trip to Riyadh. This is where disaster occurred. “The sedative gun malfunctioned and he suffocated from a massive overdose. He was 60 years old, he was overweight and his body couldn’t cope with it.”
Her informant said he would have advised the crown prince to leave Mr. Khashoggi alone. “But the prince is trigger-happy,” her sources told her. “Hopefully, this will have taught him a very big lesson.”
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of the Times.
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