Innocent visitors to Washington, D.C., must be baffled to see what appear to be street signs demarcating “Khashoggi Way” every several blocks or so. No such street or avenue can be found on Google Maps, and anyone asking where it is or where it leads is likely to be greeted with the smile reserved for tourist buses stopping at Madame Tussaud’s. Beltway insiders know that there is no such place as “Khashoggi Way.” The signs are phony, remnants of an information operation targeting the White House—in this case, Donald Trump’s Middle East policies, which, at least, seek to point out the phoniness and ineptitude of his predecessor, who set the region on fire while claiming, in a holier-than-thou voice, to bring peace.
Reality ceased to be very important in inbred Washington elite circles long before the cosmic war of Trump and anti-Trump. Yet the October murder of Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi gave the jaded nerves of Washingtonians a jolt, because it wasn’t part of anyone’s playbook. The free-for-all that followed was a chance to see how well the players could improvise off-script.
The play, as it developed, was like a page from a comic book: The narrative held that since the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia himself, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), had directly ordered the grisly assassination of a dissident journalist who wrote for an American publication, the Washington Post, and was a green-card holder, the Trump administration must hold Riyadh accountable.
Thus, the Khashoggi affair became a platform for Turkish intelligence, Qatari agents, Democratic political operatives, and the media to tilt Trump policies against Saudi Arabia. Should the American president not heed their alarums, he himself would be guilty of murder—in addition of course to treason.
The specific goals were easy to spot: Ending U.S. support for the Saudis’ war against the Iranian proxy Houthi forces in Yemen; curtailing U.S. arms sales to Riyadh; and compelling Riyadh to push aside the crown prince, presumably in favor of someone who was less enamored of Trump, or otherwise less of an impediment to turning the U.S. foreign policy ship back towards the course set by Obama, which in truth was endorsed by both Democratic and Republican D.C. elites.
The last two goals of the anti-Saudi campaign were purely aspirational. The first, however, seemed likely, given bipartisan misgivings in both the House and Senate about the bloody war in Yemen—a humanitarian catastrophe, with tens of thousands of civilian casualties, and a raging famine.
“There is no way we’re gonna continue to do business with Saudi Arabia as if this never happened,” thundered Sen. Lindsey Graham. In the middle of December, the U.S. Senate duly voted 56-41 to end support for Riyadh’s war in Yemen. The chamber also voted unanimously to hold MBS personally responsible for the Khashoggi’s death.
Yet holes had already appeared in the story. Jamal Khashoggi was not, as the press had insistently reported, a U.S. person, meaning a permanent U.S. resident, a green-card holder, or an American citizen. Rather, he was a foreign national who owned an apartment in northern Virginia, and was in the country on an O-1 visa, granted to individuals with “extraordinary ability.”
The media patched that hole by inventing a new category for Khashoggi. Rather than a U.S. person, he was a U.S., or American, resident—a phony designation that could just as easily apply to an exchange student or an undocumented alien.
Then, in the wake of the operation’s success, a week after the Senate vote, the Washington Post dropped a story in the middle of the holiday lull that sought to launder the paper’s role in the operation. Buried halfway through an article describing Khashoggi’s difficult and lonely American exile was evidence that he was neither a dissident nor a journalist. He was something else, evidence of the new direction the press has taken in the Trump era, a sign of something troubling that no one really wants to explore in prime time.
Khashoggi had requested $2 million from the Saudi government for a think tank in Washington, which, according to the article, would “work on behalf of Riyadh ‘to regain its positive role and image.’” In other words, he was brokering his services to influence U.S. policy and public opinion on behalf of MBS, until he was pulled in the other direction—by Saudi Arabia’s Gulf Cooperation Council rival, Qatar.
The background of this bidding war was that, in June 2017, Saudi and its allies, particularly the United Arab Emirates, had launched their own campaign against Qatar. The reason, according to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, was Doha’s support for Sunni extremism, its flirtation with Iran, and efforts to interfere in the domestic affairs of other GCC states. A major battleground in this inter-Arab conflict is Washington.
It is no secret that much of Washington is now getting paid directly by one side or the other, or otherwise drawing on the deep pockets of oil-rich Arab states who are engaged in a vicious propaganda war against each other, with the aim of influencing U.S. Middle East policy. The New York Times, for instance, sourced a story about Trump donor Elliott Broidy to emails that Broidy alleges were stolen by Qatari hackers—the Times euphemistically described the source as “an anonymous group critical of Mr. Broidy’s advocacy of American foreign policies in the Middle East.”
From there, the terrain where the GCC proxy war in Washington intersects with the larger partisan conflict between Trump and anti-Trump is easy to read. Because Trump is close to the Saudis, and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has reportedly developed a working relationship, maybe a friendship, with MBS, Democratic operatives see Riyadh as a proxy target in their efforts against the White House. Saudi Arabia has long been seen by Democrats as a province of the Republican party, at least since the days of George H.W. Bush. And those pushing realignment with Iran, including former Obama officials, believe that whatever hurts Saudi Arabia helps Iran.
Jamal Khashoggi was used as a pawn in a multilevel game of chess. Yes, he was himself an intelligence operative. His jobs at Arab media organizations came courtesy of the powerful patrons, like former head of Saudi intelligence Turki al-Faisal, whose interests he represented for decades through the media. But the Post story suggests, inadvertently, that Khashoggi was not the mastermind of anything. He was outmaneuvered, not only by the forces lined up against him but also by those who ostensibly supported him.
Khashoggi was handled on behalf of the Qataris by former U.S. foreign service officer Maggie Mitchell Salem, an executive at the Qatar Foundation International. In WhatsApp messages that, as Salem explained in a tweet, she shared with the Post, she urged him “to take a harder line against the Saudi government.” In brief, she used Khashoggi’s byline to run an anti-Saudi campaign through the Washington Post. The Qatar Foundation International did not respond by press time to an email asking whether Qatari officials directed Salem to assist Khashoggi or if any were aware she was assisting him.
As the story revealed, Salem proposed story ideas to Khashoggi. She drafted articles, and reviewed them before publication. Contrary to any normative journalistic practice, neither Salem’s name nor any mention of the Qatar Foundation International appeared anywhere in those articles.
As it turns out, the holder of a U.S. visa granted to those with extraordinary abilities didn’t even write English. Because his “English abilities,” according to the article, “were limited,” Qatar Foundation International paid for a translator, who as it happens also worked at the Qatari embassy. When asked by email whether the Post was aware Khashoggi’s English-language abilities were limited when it began its relationship with the author, and if the paper helped him obtain his visa, editor of the Post opinions page Fred Hiatt did not respond.
The translator delivered the last column attributed to Khashoggi the day after he was reported missing, according to a note Khashoggi’s editor at the Post, Karen Attiah, appended to it. According to Hiatt, the final column was filed a day before he entered the consulate. Hiatt did not respond to an email requesting clarification.
It appears that Salem approached the Post with her correspondence with Khashoggi because she and the paper had a stake in controlling the damage in case the text messages were hacked—hacking people’s phones and computers, often by foreign states, and handing the resulting products to favored journalists now being part of the common practice of journalism at both the New York Times and the Washington Post, not to mention ostensibly less scrupulous outlets. As Salem tweeted “the state of surveillance of him is clear. And with it, the risk others would deliberately distort our relationship.”
Yet the entire story about Khashoggi—that he was a U.S. person, a dissident, a journalist—was false. He was a Saudi national whose murder was used to launch a successful intelligence operation targeting his home country and U.S. policy. The news was fake, but the information campaign set off by his murder was real.
In retrospect, the only surprising thing about the Khashoggi information operation was that so many members of Trump’s own party took the bait. Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Bob Corker were among the most publicly outraged. “Unanimously, the United States Senate has said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Corker, the former Tennessee senator, after passing legislation withdrawing support for the Yemen war. “I think it speaks to the values that we hold dear.”
Were they all suckers? The Khashoggi operation was simply the latest iteration in a series of ongoing, now apparently unending, campaigns joining partisan political operatives, the press, and intelligence services to undermine Trump policies. Graham famously saw through the smear campaign alleging that Brett Kavanaugh was a sexual predator. So how come the Republicans were so obtuse when it came to Khashoggi?
Because they were the target this time—not Trump. What their fear and panic showed very plainly is that there is little keeping the Republican Party coherent. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s parliamentary skills aside, Republicans have nothing like the discipline of the Democrats, who dutifully, and often passionately, read from the same script daily, very often in the same register.
The Republican Party right now is simply Donald Trump, who was elected in part to smash party elites and their infrastructure—consultants, pundits, and press organs—to pieces. What the Khashoggi affair shows is that, two years after Trump dismantled the GOP and then took the White House from the Democrats, many Republicans left on Capitol Hill still don’t understand the new map.
It wasn’t just goodies that the Republican and independent voters who put Trump in the White House wanted. Trade and immigration are issues that touch on American lives directly. So does foreign policy. Where Washington analysts and think-tankers talk about how we project our values around the world, many Americans want to know what that means for them at home. For instance: Why is my wife or husband, brother or sister, son or daughter, being sent to fight and maybe die in the Middle East?
The Khashoggi affair underscored the existential, and most likely unbridgeable, divide within Republican ranks. Iran hawks like Graham and Rubio fear that Trump’s withdrawal from Syria is likely to strengthen Tehran. Nonetheless, their sympathy for the anti-MBS campaign augmented the case for withdrawing support from Riyadh in its war against the Houthis—an Iranian proxy.
Which is it? Those lamenting the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the deaths of thousands of Yemeni children appear to have few qualms about sticking American boys and girls in the middle of the Syrian desert as a tripwire, and with no coherent policy to confront Iranian aggression.
This glaring contradiction exists in plain sight because much of the Republican establishment is still sucking on the fumes of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, a Middle East strategy that privileged the ostensible aspirations of foreigners at the expense of American lives and resources.
That strategy failed in nearly every way possible. Moreover, it’s not at all clear what political or philosophical principles America is now supposed to be exporting to a region that Obama torched after Bush smashed it. If America is an exceptional nation, what’s the logic in squandering American power in the effort to remake foreigners in our own image?
While we were engaged in this Alice-in-Wonderland adventure, it seems likely that we imported the wrong things from the countries that we decided we could somehow Americanize.
Narratives like the Khashoggi operation are not part of any rational debate about American foreign policy. Nor are they attempts to explore any kind of human truth. Nor are they politics as usual. They are a new kind of weapon, like an improvised explosive device, stuffed with rat poison, loose screws, broken glass, whatever is at hand and seems likely to kill or maim. No one cares what they’re made of.
And it’s not Trump who’s being targeted anymore, either. It’s us.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).