Vance Serchuk is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Senate leaders who emerged from a closed-door briefing by CIA Director Gina Haspel on Tuesday were unequivocal: Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was directly involved in the murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 2 at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The debate between Congress and the Trump administration will now intensify over various potential forms of retaliation against Riyadh, such as targeted sanctions and limiting military assistance.
But one straightforward response to this appalling crime should be undertaken immediately: increasing U.S. support for the world’s remaining Jamal Khashoggis — namely, the courageous but increasingly embattled Arab journalists, academics, rights activists and public intellectuals who risk their lives in pursuit of a better Middle East.
There are hundreds such individuals in the Middle East today who seek to expose corruption and advocate fundamental liberties such as exercising freedom of expression. They persist despite intensified threats directed against not only them but also their loved ones. Some have been driven into exile, as Khashoggi was, but even abroad, many continue to be targeted.
The United States can do a great deal more to help and protect these people.
Most fundamentally, American officials at the highest level should make clear to their counterparts in Arab governments that the fate of journalists, dissidents and government critics is not a matter of indifference to Washington or to the American public. Independent of U.S. security or economic interests, Arab leaders must understand that abuse of their citizens will have a direct impact on relations with the United States.
Top U.S. leaders — including the president, vice president and secretary of state — can reinforce this message by personally engaging representatives of Arab civil society, welcoming them and their family members to the White House and the State Department, and meeting with them when traveling in the Middle East.
This is also something that members of Congress and their staffs should be doing, independent of the administration. Senators and representatives seized by the Khashoggi murder would do well to open their offices to Arab dissidents and activists, and to champion the cases of those being unjustly detained or harassed.
For those uncertain where to start, there is no shortage of nonpartisan think tanks and other advocacy organizations — including the Project on Middle East Democracy, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch — that can connect congressional offices with respected individuals doing heroic work in dangerous circumstances.
Congress can also increase funding for organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy that help embattled civil society across the Middle East, and for U.S.-sponsored Arabic-language media such as Alhurra that give these organizations a platform.
And Washington must do more to address the growing problem of advanced cybertools and other spyware technologies that are being sold to Middle Eastern governments, enabling more sophisticated surveillance and repression.
Greater U.S. support for Arab journalists, activists and intellectuals is especially critical at this moment. The grotesque circumstances of Khashoggi’s killing have captured global attention, but the murder fits into a broader trend of worsening repression across the Middle East. After the near-death experience of the 2011 Arab uprisings, the region’s autocrats have grown even less tolerant of criticism and craftier in monitoring and controlling their populations.
Since late October, for example, the Egyptian government has arrested at least 40 human rights workers, lawyers and political activists, Human Rights Watch reported. Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, prominent women’s rights campaigners remain imprisoned, in one instance after having been renditioned from abroad.
Unfortunately, the United States has largely failed to respond to these developments in a coherent or effective way.
To be clear: Defending the human rights of journalists and activists does not mean launching a democratic crusade to overthrow the region’s governments. In fact, a case for these efforts can be made on hardheaded self-interest alone. When senior U.S. officials convey that they are attentive to the rights of dissidents, despotic governments are more likely to proceed with greater caution against them. Conversely, when Washington signals its ambivalence, dictators are more likely to conclude that they can indulge their darkest impulses with impunity.
The latter path, as Khashoggi’s tragic fate illustrates, ends up disastrous for all parties — resulting in a horrific act of evil that offends our values, and also a crisis in an important relationship that undermines America’s interests.
Khashoggi’s killers likely intended not only to snuff out one of the Arab world’s most prominent public intellectuals but also to terrify others like him into silence. There can be no more fitting response by the United States than to protect and amplify precisely such voices of principled dissent — while giving pause to those tempted to harm them.