Shameless Hypocrisy: Lessons of the Great Khashoggi Kill Story

The Jamal Khashoggi kill drama was instructive regarding the shameless imperial hypocrisy of the United States’ media and politics culture. Before it disappears completely down Orwell’s memory hole (if it hasn’t already), let’s review some of the key lessons.

Unworthy Victims

Note the disparity between the huge attention corporate American media gave to Saudi Arabia’s killing of one man and the scant consideration that media granted the Saudi kingdom’s U.S.-funded and U.S.-equipped crucifixion of Yemen.  The dominant media was rightly horrified by the murder and vivisection of Khashoggi, ordered by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin-Salman (MbS).  But that same media couldn’t (and still can’t) muster more than an occasional hint of indignation over the systematic starvation, sickening, maiming, and murder of hundreds of thousands of Yeminis.

What’s this discrepancy about? On one side, it’s simple. The Yemeni multitudes are classic “unworthy victims” in U.S. media’s foreign affairs coverage and commentary.  They are casualties on the wrong end of the guns and bomb and missile sites owned and operated by the U.S. and its client states and allies.

As Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky first famously demonstrated in the 1980s, the so-called mainstreamU.S. media “manufactures consent” to U.S. imperialism by reserving “worthy victim” status to U.S.-Americans and to people and nations allied with U.S. foreign policy.  The horrific Saudi regime (possibly the world’s most reactionary government) is a critical and longstanding U.S. client.  Its Yemini prey are therefore inherently “unworthy victims” (Chomsky and Herman) in reigning U.S. media.

Things would be different if Yeminis were being attacked by states designated as U.S. enemies or rivals: Iran, Syria, Russia, and/or China.  In that case, U.S.-American media consumers would be hearing a great deal about the suffering masses of Yemen.

How Jamal Khashoggi Became a Worthy Victim

Yes, but what about Khashoggi?  How did a “dissident Saudi journalist” slaughtered by the U.S.-backed Saudi kingdom in Turkey become such a high-profile worthy victimin establishment U.S. media? Four reasons.

First, Khashoggi, no radical or anti-imperialist, was a Washington Post journalist with residential status in the U.S. at the time of his death. No true dissident, he was an at least honorary member of the U.S.-imperial press corps.  After many years functioning as a conservative ally of Saudi princes before being forced into exile in opposition to MbS’s imposition of one-man rule in Riyadh, Khashoggi was part of the American media consent manufactory. While he may have gotten on the wrong side of MbS, he was on board with the U.S. imperial establishment, for whom the Postis a virtual house organ.

For mainstream U.S. journalists and reporters, Khashoggi was a comrade – a fellow member of a profession that the creeping fascist Trump calls “the enemy of the people.” As California State University political scientist As’ad AbuKhalil recently explained on the Real News Network (RNN):

“Jamal Khashoggi was seen as…one of their own, as one of the natives who was agreeable. He never challenged their coverage of the Middle East. They liked that. They also liked that he never spoke about Palestine in the paper, never questioned assumptions about American foreign policy, and didn’t want to make it a big issue. In their conflict with the [Trump] administration, Khashoggi was convenient.”

“…the Saudi regime is saying that [the Khashoggi murder] is used…by media and Democrats who do not like Trump as a way to embarrass him…They are not farfetched on that line. …It is not that the media has suddenly discovered that, lo and behold, there is a government which kills journalists….in the last few months, the Israelis have killed journalists who are wearing, literally, signs that they were press, they work for the press, and we saw no outcry.”

Second, there was the elaborate and ghastly nature of Khashoggi’s literal butchering, conducted by a fifteen-person kill-team sent by the rabid MbS and including the Saudi kingdom’s leading forensic specialist. This grisly story appealed to the prurient sentiments of a media and viewing public conditioned by years of American law and order television to relish a hair-rising CSI murder plot like the vivisection of an exiled journalist in one of his homeland’s foreign embassies. The international palace intrigue of it all also helped drive interest and ratings.

Third, there was division within the U.S. foreign policy-making class over who should sit atop the Saudi regime. The Council on Foreign Relations-Atlantic Council- Brookings Institution-Wilson Center-CIA-New York TimesWashington Postestablishment was displeased with the reckless and immature MbS.  It had not turned against the entire Saudi regime, which it sees as an essential lynchpin of U.S. wealth and global power.  But the “deep state” establishment preferred a less impetuous and potentially destabilizing leader at the head of the client state. Its media was therefore happy to report and denounce the prince’s murder of Khashoggi.

By contrast, Trump formed an ugly bond with MbS, who shares Trump’s taste for one-man decree.  The orange monstrosity revoltingly but predictably gave credence to the Crown Prince’s unbelievable denial of responsibility (“Maybe he did it, maybe he didn’t,” Trump said, as if there was any serious doubt).

Particularly relevant here is the conflict between Trump’s personal agenda and the U.S. “intelligence community’s” perception of what best serves U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.  As AbuKhali told RNN ten days ago:

“Donald Trump wants what is best for his administration. He has somebody, he has Mohammed bin Salman, as he best can have him. He is holding him by the neck. And if he survives, he — Mohammed bin Salman — will be greatly indebted to Trump, and to [Israel Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, because those two stood by him and kept him afloat. And because of that situation, Mohammad bin Salman will be obligated to make so many concessions — political, military, and financial — to the United States, and even to Israel. Some of it would be more direct now. Perhaps he would even visit the Israeli occupation state…On the other hand, the intelligence agencies…do not think that Mohamed bin Salman is capable of steering the regime in a direction that is more in the interest of the stability of the regime. As a result, they would rather make a change in order to save the regime. They worry that bin Salman is too reckless, and his thinking is too precarious, which endangered American interests in that region” (emphasis added).

Fourth, the prominence of the Khashoggi murder story was driven partly by the fact that another key US-allied state, Turkey, blew the whistle – replete with video and audio evidence – on the killing, committed in Istanbul.  The distinction between worthy and unworthy victims can get muddled when the media reports on incidents involving conflict between two different and powerful client states.

Things Missing from the Mainstream Critique

Establishment non-FOX U.S. reporters and commentators were rightly critical of Trump’s morally repugnant defense of MbS on the grounds that the Saudis aid the U.S. by buying U.S. arms, selling the U.S. cheap oil, and helping the U.S. and Israel “contain” supposedly terrorist and expansionist Iran.

As numerous reporters, columnists, and cable news talking heads pointed out, Trump’s claims that Saudi military purchases supported “500,000” or even “a million” U.S. jobs were absurdly exaggerated.

Equally false, establishment media reported, was Trump’s claim that the CIA had little more than a “feeling” that MbS ordered Khashoggi’s killing. The Agency was quite certain about the Crown Prince’s guilt.

The corporate media rightly questioned Trump’s claim that the Saudis would turn to China and/or Russia for military supplies if the U.S. pulled back from MbS.  The Saudi military is locked into U.S.-made weapons systems and will remain so for many years.

Some “mainstream” commentators have correctly noted that Trump was wrong to equate defense of MbS with the US alliance with the Saudi Arabia.  Getting rid of MbS would not mean scrapping Washington’s sponsorship of that horrendous, head-chopping kingdom.

Many imperial pundits and talking heads raised legitimate concerns about Trump’s open sacrifice of morality on the altar of global realpolitik, profit, jobs, and military sales. They accused the president of selling the nation’s “soul” for economic and strategic advantage.

Notice, however, what was missing in these critiques. They included no reflection on how minor a matter Khashoggi’s terrible death is when compared to the Saudis’ much bigger and U.S.-backed war-crimes in Yemen, where Riyadh’s aggression has created one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes in recent history.

They avoided the complete absurdity of Washington’s demonization of supposedly terrorist and expansionist Iran, which is a peaceful model of democracy and women’s rights by comparison with the arch-reactionary Saudi regime, the world’s leading generator and exporter of Wahhabist-Islamist terrorism.

And they made no acknowledgement of the elementary historical fact that the U.S.-American Empire has richly participated in an ugly marriage of imperial convenience with the Saudi regime over most of the last century and all the present one – from Franklin Roosevelt through Obama and Trump.

The tangerine totalitarian currently befouling the Oval Office hardly invented the bipartisan U.S. imperial establishment’s embrace of the murderous tyrants of Riyadh. Trump did not create Washington’s pattern of funding, equipping, and otherwise backing foreign authoritarian regimes in pursuit of perceived U.S. profit and power. That pattern has been as “American as apple pie” since at least the 1940s.

Trump’s Real Sin: Being Too Candid About U.S. Objectives

Properly mocking the “pompous denunciations” that Trump’s brazen defense of the U.S.-Saudi relationship has met in the editorial pages of the New York Times and in other establishment venues, Glenn Greenwald reminds us that Trump’s comments are “a perfect example – perhaps stated more bluntly and candidly than usual – of how the U.S. has conducted itself in the world since at least the end of World War II.”  The neoliberal establishment’s fake-progressive darling Barack Obama – the U.S. empire’s silver-tongued and outwardly global and multicultural new clothes in the wake of George W. Bush’s clumsy and all-too brazenly and openly imperialist invasion of Iraq – was no exception to the rule.  He elegantly embraced the Saudi nightmare state for pretty much the same reasons as those more brutishly articulated by the orange Neanderthal he helped instigate and usher into the White House. The outraged liberal commentators’ pretense “that Trump’s posture [is] a deviation, a grievous violation of, longstanding U.S. values” (Greenwald) was shamefully ahistorical in ways that Orwell would certainly appreciate.

The Demented [1]One’s real sin for the U.S. establishment was not that he held fast to the morally indefensible American alliance with Riyadh but that he did so in such a naked, frank, and shameless “America First” way, without the usual mandatory statements of America’s supposed benevolent concern for decency and democracy around the world.

Same As it Ever Was

It may seem strange that I have put so much of this essay in the past tense given how recent (and even ongoing) the Khashoggi kill story is.  I have done this for two reasons.  First, the U.S. media’s news cycle is all about the amnesiac obliteration of history. The Khashoggi kill story has already begun its descent down the recall vacuum, the victim of other news items with higher ratings.  (Now you see it, now it’s gone: next distraction please). Second, as Abukhalil noted three weeks ago, “Washington and Riyadh have had worse crises and will survive the Khashoggi murder…maintaining good relations with the Saudi royal family has been a high bipartisan priority since President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King  Abdul Aziz ibn Saud made their Faustian bargain in 1945: The U.S. would shield the Saudi kingdom’s tyranny from criticism in exchange for a share of oil revenues and Riyadh’s political loyalty (and American arms sales).”

The latest U.S.-Saudi dust-up will pass too. With MbS disciplined somewhat by the unexpected drama that Turkey’s release of evidence that he murdered Khashoggi, the Crown Prince “might now abandon his proclivity for adventurism and become a more traditional Saudi despot deferring to DC on key decisions” (Abukhalil). End of story. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.


1. The Stable Genius recently spoke on climate change and the epic California wildfires of November 2018:

“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers…As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it…You look at our air and our water and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia , including many other places, the air is incredibly dirty, and when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small…And it blows over and it sails over. I mean we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific. It flows and we say, ‘Where does this come from?’… And it takes many people, to start off with…. you go back and if you look at articles, they talk about global freezing. They talk about at some point, the planet is going to freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion…The fire in California, where I was, if you looked at the floor, the floor of the fire, they have trees that were fallen…They did no forest management, no forest maintenance, and you can light — you can take a match like this and light a tree trunk when that thing is laying there for more than 14 or 15 months. And it’s a massive problem in California…You go to other places where they have denser trees, it’s more dense, where the trees are more flammable, they don’t have forest fires like this because they maintain. And it was very interesting I was watching the firemen, and they were raking brush…It’s on fire. They’re raking it, working so hard. If that was raked in the beginning, there would be nothing to catch on fire.”

Trump speaking to the CIA on his first day in office:

“Now, I know a lot about West Point. I’m a person that very strongly believes in academics. In fact, every time I say I had an uncle who was a great professor at MIT for 35 years who did a fantastic job in so many different ways, academically — was an academic genius — and then they say, is Donald Trump an intellectual? Trust me, I’m like a smart persona…And the generals are wonderful, and the fighting is wonderful. But if you give them the right direction, boy, does the fighting become easier. And, boy, do we lose so fewer lives, and win so quickly. And that’s what we have to do. We have to start winning again.”

“You know, when I was young and when I was — of course, I feel young. I feel like I’m 30, 35, 39. Somebody said, are you young? I said, I think I’m young. You know, I was stopping — when we were in the final month of that campaign, four stops, five stops, seven stops. Speeches, speeches, in front of 25,000, 30,000 people, 15,000, 19,000 from stop to stop. I feel young.”

“When I was young — and I think we’re all sort of young. When I was young, we were always winning things in this country. We’d win with trade. We’d win with wars. At a certain age, I remember hearing from one of my instructors, ‘The United States has never lost a war.’ And then, after that, it’s like we haven’t won anything. We don’t win anymore. The old expression, ‘to the victor belong the spoils’ — you remember. I always used to say, keep the oil. I wasn’t a fan of Iraq. I didn’t want to go into Iraq. But I will tell you, when we were in, we got out wrong. And I always said, in addition to that, keep the oil. Now, I said it for economic reasons. But if you think about it, Mike, if we kept the oil you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place. So we should have kept the oil. But okay…Maybe you’ll have another chance. But the fact is, we should have kept the oil. ”

“I believe that this group is going to be one of the most important groups in this country toward making us safe, toward making us winners again, toward ending all of the problems. We have so many problems that are interrelated that we don’t even think of, but interrelated to the kind of havoc and fear that this sick group of people has caused. So I can only say that I am with you 1,000 percent.”

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).