Worthy and Unworthy Victims: Jamal Khashoggi and US Imperial Management

Daniel Falcone: Americans are calling the journalist Jamal Khashoggi a courageous politico who “spoke truth to power,” but as Noam Chomsky has stated power already knows the truth.” Is U.S. response to these types of events reliant upon lazy narratives? 

Anthony DiMaggio: It depends on who we are referencing when we talk about elite responses. The U.S. political elite are quite fragmented at the moment between 1) a creeping fascist-wing, as personified by Trump and reinforced by his followers/lackeys in the Republican Party and far-right corporate media; and 2) a liberal wing that favors corporate power and empire, but has never felt comfortable embracing a full-throated authoritarian, fascistic politics when it comes to domestic affairs.

On the one hand, the authoritarian/creeping fascist wing of the U.S. political-economic elite, as led by Trump, has little concern with a journalist for a major American newspaper (the Washington Post) who was murdered and dismembered by an allied Saudi terror state that practices medieval torture. It seems silly to try and deny this point in light of the available evidenceof Saudi Arabia’s responsibility for the murder, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to play stupid on the matter. Now the Saudi monarchy is backpedaling from their initial denials, claiming Khashoggi’s death was a “rogue operation” from elements internal to the Saudi security apparatus. But there’s little reason for any critically minded independent thinker to take them seriously considering that they’ve already been exposed as liars on this issue, and considering Khashoggi’s history of being critical of the Saudi regime, rather than simply being critical of individual, allegedly “rogue” operators within that repressive regime.

For Trump, the fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabia is a regime that supports U.S. power in the Middle East, and it is committed to protecting U.S. dominance of Middle Eastern oil reserves, which are the lifeblood of our capitalist economy. In this case, Trump’s commitment to the U.S. empire, overlaps well with his authoritarian contempt for the U.S. press, which has generally viewed him as an embarrassing deviation from the “responsible” bi-partisan political leadership that has long dominated the U.S. political system. Trump is an authoritarian at heart, and he has been sending out trial balloons for the last two years, during his electoral campaign and as president, that demonstrate his flagrant contempt for freedom of the press and for dissent against his presidency.

On the other hand, there is a very real concern with freedom of the press among the liberal segment of the U.S. political-economic power structure. They view it as a serious assault on the journalistic segment of the U.S. governing apparatus that a reporter for the Washington Post – even if he was not an American citizen – could be so horribly murdered, and with such impunity. This horror is potentially compatible, I would argue, with the propaganda model laid out three decades ago by Herman and Chomsky. The heavy attention to Jamal Khashoggi’s murder fits within the binary between “worthy” and “unworthy victims” that they described. The “worthy” victims designation was originally created to refer to victims of terror and coercion who live in officially designated enemy states, compared to “unworthy” ones who are the victims of state violence committed by U.S. allies.

But in the case of Khashoggi, the dynamic is somewhat more complicated. In one sense, it is true that he is a victim of violence committed by an allied state that is committed to U.S. imperial power in the Middle East. On the other hand, as a journalist for the Washington Post, he was also a defacto/adopted member of the U.S. political-economic-media elite, so he is being treated as such via the heavy attention to his murder in the U.S. press, and contrary to President Trump and Republicans’ own efforts to downplay it.

Daniel Falcone: Can you share your initial reaction to the death of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in terms of both the US special relationship with the Saudis and the corporate media’s response to the barbaric killing?

Anthony DiMaggio: I was not surprised that the Washington Post reacted the way it did, considering Khashoggi’s employment by the paper. I didn’t expect the U.S. corporate press to try to suppress this issue. Why would they? If I was a major editor of a national agenda setting paper like the New York Times or Washington Post, I would view this murder as an act of aggression against western establishment journalists.

These reporters are guided by a set of ethics and professional norms, even if nationalistic pressures pervert those norms in terms of their downplaying of coverage of victims of state violence in allied states. But this murder seems to have hit too close to home for U.S. media elites. And I’d imagine that it took on added significance considering the Trump administration’s deplorable response, via their attempt to cover for the Saudi monarchy. American journalists aren’t stupid, and they probably see Trump’s non-response as overlapping with his larger contempt for reporters and freedom of the press. A strongly negative reaction to Khashoggi’s murder, as I see it, is a simple act of self-preservation on the part of U.S. journalists, who must share very real concerns at this point about the heavy hand of state censorship following Trump’s own calls to charge the editors of the New York Times with treason for their publication of a critical and embarrassing anonymous op-ed from within Trump’s own administration.

Fortunately, the call for a treason charge to be introduced against the NY Times was ignored (or perhaps dismissed) by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But it’s a sad day for the rule of law and limited government in America when the one man standing between the Trump administration and full-on fascism is a reactionary racist, misogynist, xenophobe, and right-wing class warrior who just happens to also have some lingering respect for the First Amendment.

Of course, there’s also another way of looking at Khashoggi’s death and the heavy coverage it received in the U.S. media. And that is to lament journalists’ fixation on one de facto member of the U.S. journalistic elite, at the expense of a larger discussion of the countless victims of violence in Yemen, following the criminal Saudi intervention there, which has imposed a massive humanitarian crisis and threatens to induce mass starvation and death; if we are serious about condemning Saudi human rights violations, we simply cannot ignore (or downplay) its actions in Yemen.

The Saudi blockade has imposed a horrible toll on the people of Yemen, in what the United Nations has referred to as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” Saudi Arabia’s efforts to reinstate the government in exile, and defeat the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels has exacted a heavy human toll, with estimates of thousands of civilians killed (a large number of which are children), the rise of deadly disease via the most severe cholera outbreak in modern history, and with the danger of famine reaching surreal levels, considering the U.N. estimate of 7 million people in danger of starvation, and with 80 percent of the Yemeni population lacking consistent access to food. These are serious crimes that we are not hearing much about, with Yemen’s population being treated as the most recent case of “unworthy victims” of U.S.-allied state violence and aggression.

Daniel Falcone: Can you talk about the liberal tendency to view this event (Khashoggi’s death) in isolation in relation to the Trump presidency? What are the limitations of that trope?

Anthony DiMaggio: The viewing of the event in isolation fits within the elitist practice of the U.S. media of only caring about the “right” victims of state violence – those in officially designated enemy states – and in this case, those who are part of the U.S. intelligentsia class (or as close as you can get to being part of the intelligentsia in a U.S. media system that parrots the views of political-economic elites). There’s also a broader problem in terms of attempts by journalists to treat Trump’s response to Khashoggi’s murder, and to treat Trump’s presidency more generally, as if they are an aberration and an assault on the (allegedly) longstanding U.S. commitment to the rule of law, democracy, and just governing principles. This narrative is deplorable, absurd, and quite dangerous. There’s a tendency among U.S. liberals and liberal political elites to treat Trump as if he’s the exception to the rule when it comes to “responsible” governance on the part of Republican and Democratic elites. The reality of the matter is quite different. The U.S. has been migrating to the far right, incrementally shifting to embrace reactionary politics, for decades. This movement has been fueled by a far-right corporate media system, which dominates 90 percent of talk radio, and is well-represented on television via Fox News – the most watched cable news outlet. U.S. Republican elites have been happy to benefit from these right-wing shock jocks for decades, who all have stoked extremism, racism, misogyny, paranoia, and now encourage authoritarianism within the Republican Party’s base.

That base has become a veritable Frankenstein’s monster, which is no longer so easily controlled by the old-guard Republican political elites. And the Democratic Party has continued to play into treating this rabid reactionary movement with kid’s gloves, in light of its calls for a return to “civility.” You don’t have a civil discourse with wannabe fascists – who we now know based on various national polls make up approximately half of the Republican Party’s base. This group wants the U.S. media shut down for criticizing Trump, even in cases where stories are accurate, but critical of the president. And they are also fine with shutting down the 2020 elections to combat fictitious “voter fraud.”

These individuals represent a serious danger to the republic, as their fanaticism is being stoked by not only right-wing media, but by the commander in chief. The fact that you can’t have civil engagements with fascists should go without saying. But the Democratic Party is so tepid and spineless in its “opposition” to creeping fascism that it makes little sense to speak of it as a genuine alternative to Republican rule. If the Democrats win back control of the House or Senate in November, it will be more a result of their winning by default than because they provided any sort of coherent or principled opposition to the reactionary Republican agenda (they haven’t).

Daniel Falcone: Could you also discuss the implications and dangers of leftists and radicals minimizing the murder to overcompensate for Democrats and the establishment’s lack of appreciation for history, foreign policy and bipartisan support of the Saudis? 

Anthony DiMaggio: Well, it seems like you’re speaking to the practice, which is knee jerk for some on the left, of automatically assuming that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In this case, as the thinking apparently goes: if we hate the Democrats because they’ve sold out the working class via neoliberalism and neoliberal imperialism, then those (like Trump) who attack the Democrats using populist language must be worth supporting, or at least not worth stridently opposing. This point has been compounded by Trump’s own rhetoric, and his talk about calming relations with Russia, as well as his rhetorical attacks on corporate globalization.

I could see how some on the left might have been taken in by this language during the election, considering that Trump presented himself as a sort of maverick or loose cannon who couldn’t be controlled by either party’s elites, and in light of his promises to transform the U.S. economy and foreign policy. But nearly two years into his presidency, he’s done literally nothing to bring back all those manufacturing jobs he promised would return to the United States. And much of his rhetoric about de-escalating tensions with foreign powers (North Korea and Russia in particular) has been just that, rhetoric.

Little of actual substance has emerged from all his promises, in terms of an actual agreement with North Korea to reduce the prospect of nuclear war. The U.S. has intensified its conflicts with China, Russia, and Iran under Trump, as seen in the president’s tearing up of the Iran agreement, his tariffs on China and other allies, and the institution of sanctions against Russia for its reported role in attempting to impact the 2016 election. Nearly half-way into Trump’s first term in office, it seems fair to say that his “anti-imperialist” rhetoric was a fraud, and that his presidency has not represented a serious deviation from standard U.S. operating procedure in the foreign policy realm.

Daniel Falcone: What do you think the average voter’s response has been to Khashoggi’s murder? How does it compare to those on the American left?

Anthony DiMaggio: Most Americans (56%) agree that Trump hasn’t been “tough enough” on Saudi Arabia following the Khashoggi murder, but the numbers are heavily skewed by partisanship, with most of Trump’s Republican supporters agreeing that his response was “about right.” The large majority of Democrats – 78 percent – say Trump has been too soft on Saudi Arabia and its monarchy in relation to this event. This is the state of public opinion on foreign policy in the hyper-polarized modern America. Individuals filter their views of U.S. actions through the prism of “their guy,” with their assessments of human rights and democracy-related issues vacillating based on who is in control of the White House. The tendency to normalize Trump has been on display among American conservatives and Republicans for the last two years, so there was little reason to think that was going to change for Trump in the foreign policy realm.

I’m encouraged that most Americans are critical of Trump’s response to Khashoggi’s death. But I’m also guarded in my assessment of public opinion. It seems that many Americans – most in fact – are content to ignore major human rights violations that the U.S. has a direct hand in – such as the starvation of Yemen by Saudi Arabia (the latter which receives its military hardware directly from the U.S.), so long as American boots are no longer “on the ground” in the Middle East. This sort of parochial thinking makes it more difficult for the American people to pressure their government to rollback its commitment to power politics, militarism, and empire.

Furthermore, Democratic Americans don’t have the greatest track record under Obama of fighting U.S. militarism. The Democratic base bought hook, line, and sinker into President Obama’s propagandistic rhetoric about “hope” and “change” in the 2008 election onward and as related to the Iraq war, while the Democrat (once in the White House) proceeded to fight war after war in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. I think that Trump may be the most dangerous American propagandist of the 21stcentury in terms of his embrace of fascist principles and the mass support base behind his authoritarian politics. But I also believe Obama was probably the most talented (American) propagandist of the 21stcentury. He had the tremendous ability, through his smooth talk and lip service to principles such as peace, human rights, and democracy, to manipulate not only liberal public opinion in the U.S., but international public opinion. For the latter, we saw across most regions of the world (save the Middle East), that public opinion polls showed far more favorable opinions of Obama than of the previous President, George W. Bush; all of this, despite his continued militarism and commitment to maintaining and expanding the U.S. empire.

Obama was a far more competent imperial manager than Bush, in the sense that he didn’t step back from American militarism. He spent more money on war and the military budget in his first four years in office than Bush did in the first four years after 9/11, while convincing much of the American public and world that he was “anti-war.” That’s just incredible when you think about it. Of course he was no “anti-war” figure, and to make such a claim is simply Orwellian propaganda. The done strike program and limited military engagements under Obama replaced largescale military occupation, in contrast to the more brazen, in-you-face militarism of the preceding administration. Getting boots off the ground in Iraq was apparently enough to pacify much of the American liberal-left in terms of stifling any potential criticisms of the Democratic in the White House. In the end, I bring up Obama here not to dwell on the past, but to point out that even what may seem to some like a “principled” opposition to Trump has its limits in a nation where individuals know little about U.S. foreign policy, care even less about what is happening in the world, and in which their limited engagement with other countries is filtered through partisan propaganda and agendas.

Anthony DiMaggio is a political scientist at Lehigh University and the author of The Politics of Persuasion (SUNY Press, 2017)

Daniel Falcone is an activist, educator and journalist in New York City. Follow his work at: @DanielFalcone7