Pompeo vs. the Post: The Politics of Jamal Khashoggi


Has it become popular among Beltway insiders to disparage the memory of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor who was murdered and dismembered by agents of the Kingdom in 2018?

That’s the somewhat surprising claim from Karen Attiah, the Post foreign-affairs columnist who shared a 2019 George Polk Award for her writings about Khashoggi’s ghastly killing, which the CIA has deemed to have been perpetrated on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“It seems like people in Washington maybe feel safe enough now that it’s almost five years after the murder, to say how they really feel about Jamal, or to try to take potshots at the media for our role in trying to push for justice,” Attiah told me this week, days after the latest scrum over the legacy of the man whose shocking death threatened to upend the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

Attiah is no disinterested essayist. She was Khashoggi’s editor at the Post as well as his friend, and since his death has been blistering in her criticisms of the Saudi autocrat known as MBS — as well as of people closer to home who underemphasize the murder when thinking about how Washington should deal with Riyadh.

You wouldn’t know about the turn against Khashoggi from a glance at Attiah’s journalistic home on the Post’s opinion team. The organization has loudly celebrated Khashoggi’s legacy and the righteousness of speaking truth to power, an effort that has included everything from traditional editorials to full-page house ads — which honor the late columnist but also serve as a billboard for the sanctity of a great newspaper’s mission. (Post spokeswoman Shani George says the ads are crafted by a separate team and should be seen as representing the publisher and the organization.)

That public veneration occasionally draws eye rolls from fellow journalists who think there’s something a bit off about a news organization so energetically embracing the role of bereaved family member in what remains an ongoing story whose tentacles touch everything from the Saudi-Qatar rivalry to last fall’s Saudi-led effort to hike oil prices.

But if the embrace prompts occasional purist tut-tutting among media insiders, it triggers downright ugly displays on the part of folks whose political identities are wrapped up in antagonizing the media.

Hence the hook for Attiah’s assertion: Khashoggi is back in the news thanks to a new memoir by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In the book, which devotes a lot more ink to flaying American journalists than to criticizing the Saudi monarchy, Pompeo says that overwrought reporters falsely described Khashoggi as a “Saudi Arabian Bob Woodward,” when in fact he was a political activist who occasionally penned op-eds, a category that includes everyone from Karl Marx to Alexander Hamilton to Mike Pompeo himself.

Though Pompeo describes the killing as “an unacceptable and horrible crime,” he goes on to say that it was essentially par for the course in a neighborhood where politics is a violent business, and where Khashoggi had his own unsavory allies. Praising the crown prince as a reformer, Pompeo writes that the media’s one-of-us embrace of Khashoggi blew the crime out of proportion in the name of tanking the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Pompeo also brags that President Donald Trump was jealous that “I was the one who gave the middle finger to the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other bed-wetters who didn’t have a grip on reality” when he made his first post-murder visit to MBS. It’s all in keeping with the chest-thumping, invective-spewing tone of Never Give an Inch, which is very much a campaign book by a possible presidential candidate — and not at all like a measured, for-the-historians memoir by a former statesman.

It would have been easy enough to ignore the book as such. Instead, in a turn of events that must have pleased Pompeo’s publisher, the passage prompted a quick and very public backlash, driven largely by the Post. An editorial denounced the former secretary as “revolting.” Publisher Fred Ryan released a statement saying that “it is shameful that Pompeo would spread vile falsehoods to dishonor a courageous man’s life and service” as part of what he called “a ploy to sell books.”

In the end, Pompeo’s Never Give an Inch“,”link”:{“target”:”NEW”,”attributes”:[],”url”:”https://www.amazon.com/Never-Give-Inch-Fighting-America/dp/0063247445″,”_id”:”00000186-1973-d2c9-afb6-bbf773690004″,”_type”:”33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df”},”_id”:”00000186-1973-d2c9-afb6-bbf773690005″,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}’>Never Give an Inch sold a solid 34,630 units over the course of the week, according to data from Bookscan. If you’re a potential Republican presidential candidate trying to sell books to a conservative audience, there’s nothing that moves product quite like a tussle with a mainstream news organization.

But in Attiah’s more provocative telling, Pompeo was less a rebel against legacy-media shibboleths than an emblem of something widespread and sordid in the capital’s power corridors, a pseudo-sophisticated stance that dismisses Middle Eastern murder as inevitable and suggests Khashoggi had it coming. “Why does there now seem to be a backlash against Jamal in Washington’s elite circles?” she asked in her newsletter last week. (The piece had plenty of criticism of Pompeo, but I suspect nothing will hurt his feelings more than being cast as a tribune of the Washington elite.)

Can it be true? When we spoke this week, the only other example of alleged Beltway-insider anti-Khashoggi sentiment she cited was a 2022 Atlantic cover story on MBS that Attiah had lambasted for what she saw as its scant attention to the murder and insufficient pushback against the crown prince’s lame denials. At the time, the story’s author, Graeme Wood, shot back that his piece was plenty damning, and said complaints that he’d given MBS a “platform” ran counter to the values of journalism, which by definition involves quoting problematic people saying problematic things.

One other place that has produced some unflattering reporting: The news pages of the Post, which reported that an executive at the Qatar Foundation had filed”,”link”:{“target”:”NEW”,”attributes”:[],”url”:”https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/jamal-khashoggis-final-months-an-exile-in-the-long-shadow-of-saudi-arabia/2018/12/21/d6fc68c2-0476-11e9-b6a9-0aa5c2fcc9e4_story.html”,”_id”:”00000186-1973-d2c9-afb6-bbf773690008″,”_type”:”33ac701a-72c1-316a-a3a5-13918cf384df”},”_id”:”00000186-1973-d2c9-afb6-bbf773690009″,”_type”:”02ec1f82-5e56-3b8c-af6e-6fc7c8772266″}’>shaped some of the columns Khashoggi filed to the paper. But that report was four years ago, soon after the murder.

In fact, while the far-right media is full of vitriol about him, there’s not a lot of straight-up anti-Khashoggi sentiment in “elite” outlets. In my experience, that’s also true of the chatter among the sorts of people who read those outlets or write for them.

That’s not for lack of effort by some of his foes: I, and a number of other Washington reporters, have over the years gotten off-the-record pitches from publicity operatives urging us to look into how Khashoggi was no angel. The most obvious motivation for this is trying to launder a Saudi reputation that was rightly sullied by an appalling crime. But it’s also a reminder that, as an advocate for democracy in the Arab world during his life — and as someone treated as a martyr for that cause today — Khashoggi leaves behind a legacy that a lot of folks have a real interest in either muddying or elevating all these years later.

Which is why the Pompeo-Khashoggi flap, though it probably didn’t change a lot of minds on the question of whether Khashoggi was a freethinking truth-teller or (as Pompeo repeats in the book) a sneaky Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer, is worth paying attention to. Four years after the murder in Istanbul, the ongoing politics of Khashoggi’s memory do say something interesting about Washington.

Start with Pompeo. Playing to the far-right primary electorate, the former secretary engages in the sort of too-clever-by-half logic that plays better on cable TV than in the pages of a book.

On the one hand, much of what he writes is patently true: Khashoggi had strong opinions; he founded an advocacy group pushing for democracy in the Middle East. Notwithstanding the Post’s embrace of him as a colleague, he wasn’t a career Postie who reached the opinion page after working his way up from being a cub reporter covering the Fairfax County Police Department. He was one of scores of people whose writing shows up in top U.S. media outlets by virtue, one way or another, of already being a player.

On the other hand, Pompeo never engages with the most obvious response to this information: So what? Should media revulsion at the murder and mutilation of a critic be limited to cases where the critic had a lengthy journalistic pedigree? Or to cases where the critic is a devotee of Edmund Burke, whose allies include only admirers of the United States? By that logic, we should never have columns by anyone the least bit complicated — or by someone able to evolve as a person. Let’s accept, for a minute, Pompeo’s dubious implicit argument that the killing of Khashoggi was a case of brutality against political opposition rather than brutality against journalistic inquiry. Who cares? It’s a distinction without a difference.

To use a gruesome hypothetical: What if a foreign governmenttried to do violence to Mike Pompeo? Would it be any more horrible if the violence were strictly in response to his book, or actually in response to his “activism” on the world stage? Of course it wouldn’t.

Every administration in the history of the United States has dealt with unsavory foreign governments and grappled with where to draw the line. There’s nothing inherently disqualifying about Pompeo saying that a grisly murder is not a sufficient reason to treat someone like a pariah given the various things we need from his country. But whatever your views on engaging with the current Saudi leadership, there’s something awfully gross — and all too contemporary — about a former secretary of state exulting in how something that’s clearly a violation of American values has enraged a domestic constituency he dislikes.

But the reaction of Khashoggi’s admirers is also telling.

At DAWN, the nonprofit Khashoggi founded to push for democracy in the Arab world, leadership quickly denounced Pompeo for justifying a murder because Khashoggi “did other things” beyond journalism. “I think he was signaling to Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman more, or as much as, he was signaling to the right wing,” Sarah Leah Whitson, the organization’s executive director, told me. “It’s like he’s saying, hey, remember me? I was the one who came to see you in Riyadh, after you killed Jamal. I was the first one there, you know, and we covered your ass.”

Yet the organization’s deployment of Khashoggi’s image also invites critics to take swipes at those other things Khashoggi did. The organization’s list of problematic regimes includes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but not Qatar, which is also a non-democracy. Even if the roster is shaped by budget limitations or by sound calculations about which government most deserves scrutiny, that’s a choice that puts them on one side of a regional rivalry. Which, in turn, will prompt the other side to tear down the organization’s icon — a motivation that may be untoward and unkind, but remains different from excusing a murder.

And as for Khashoggi’s journalistic home in Washington, I was struck by the way Attiah recoiled at Pompeo’s use of the word “activist,” as if accepting that description somehow lessened the veracity, independence or bravery of Khashoggi’s criticisms of the Saudi regime.

“To label someone like that means there’s a somewhat subtle justification for their elimination,” she told me. “Whether it’s from a public sphere, a discourse, as if to say, ‘We shouldn’t listen to them,’ or whether it’s to literally physically assassinate them.” She said she’s been called an activist, too, for her criticism of the Saudi regime, a description that’s deployed in an effort to shut someone up.

When it comes to Khashoggi, I’m not sure I buy the idea that the term is slander — and I suspect most ethicists wouldn’t see a difference between assassinating a journalist and assassinating an activist (or assassinating someone who does a bit of both). I also can’t actually think of a better term for someone who literally started a nonprofit called Democracy for the Arab World Now. It seems the world of journalism, too, is perhaps unwittingly invested in the idea that to move out of the realm of pure words is to somehow deserve danger in a way that full-time journalists don’t.

It’s human nature, not to mention good institutional leadership, to clap back at someone who criticizes a murdered colleague and friend. Especially someone who does so in Pompeo’s vulgar way. But for better or worse Khashoggi’s legacy is going to remain a factor in the region, which means the politics of his memory will be a perpetually tricky thing — and the Washington conventional wisdom about whether he was a hero or a villain or a subject of media preening or a victim of far-right smearing is going to remain relevant.

One person who will continue to be a player in shaping that wisdom: Attiah, who has a book on her late friend expected next year. She said she’s talked to Khashoggi’s admirers as well as detractors. But don’t expect dispassion.

“I think there’s always an element of emotion, whether it’s anger, grief, sadness,” she says. “I don’t see those things as separate from our work. I don’t have the luxury, honestly, of seeing that as separate from the work that we do.”

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