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The end of the Saudi Whisperer

Tom Friedman bet big on Mohammed bin Salman and lost. What can we learn from that?

Human rights activists hold pictures of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, on Tuesday. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

Readers of The Washington Post are by now aware of the uncertain fate of contributor Jamal Khashoggi. The Post’s editorial board summarizes the current state of play: “The Saudi journalist and Post Global Opinions columnist walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul at about 1:30 p.m. last Tuesday, Oct. 2, and has not been seen or heard from since. Turkish government sources are saying he was murdered inside the consulate; Saudi officials are calling that allegation ‘baseless and ridiculous.’”

The human tragedy of Khashoggi’s disappearance can be interpreted in various ways. the latest example of Saudi Arabian miscues under Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Trump administration’s lumbering, belated response, the further fraying of the global order, and so forth. The Post has many excellent analyses of these implications.

As the author of “The Ideas Industry,” however, I want to talk about what this means for Tom Friedman.

Opinion | Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, criticized his home country. Then he was reportedly killed. (Video: Adriana Usero, Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post)

The longtime New York Times columnist and Big Book author has moonlighted as the Saudi Whisperer for at least 16 years now. My first memory of Friedman’s column serving as a public forum for Saudi royal musings was in a February 2002 column in which he relayed Crown Prince Abdullah’s proposed peace plan. That did not really go anywhere.

Last year, after MBS consolidated power, Friedman flew out to Riyadh and filed the most Panglossian column imaginable about his effort to remake Saudi Arabia. Friedman wrote, “The most significant reform process underway anywhere in the Middle East today is in Saudi Arabia. Yes, you read that right. Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi style.” Others were less sanguine about these developments, but Friedman saw hope in MBS’s anti-corruption drive.

Six months later, Friedman wrote a follow-up column that was still extremely upbeat, but one in which he seemed to acknowledge the possible downsides. Buried within much of the praise, he acknowledged, “M.B.S. grew up with a lot of resentment and disdain for his lazy cousins, who got obscenely rich, along with the big merchants close to them. His anti-corruption campaign was meant to stem the tide of graft, but it also had elements of revenge, and a power and money grab. And he still has 56 wealthy Saudis under house arrest.”

Friedman’s column on Monday amounted to a mea culpa for his earlier columns, pointing out all his caveats buried in his previous columns: “It was obvious, though, I added, that in recent months M.B.S. had undertaken a series of ill-considered steps that were hurting him, Saudi Arabia and us.”

Saying that “Friedman was wrong” is the easiest play in the world for a critical foreign policy pundit; I have certainly gone there on occasion. Satire yields limited returns in 2018, however, so what might be more productive is asking how and why Friedman went wrong. What are the lessons that can be drawn from this unfortunate narrative arc?

The Post's Karen DeYoung explained why the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi could change the U.S. and Saudi Arabia relationship. (Video: Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

Let me suggest that there are three takeaways for foreign affairs columnists. The first is that wishing something will be true does not make it so. Friedman offered his reasons for backing MBS in his Monday column: “the idea that the kingdom might have a leader today who was beginning to shift Saudi Sunni Islam onto a more open and inclusive path, one that would isolate radical Islamists and strengthen moderates everywhere, was a vital American interest. It had to start in Saudi Arabia, the home of Mecca and Medina." That is a fair argument, and perhaps it means that one should be willing to coax a Saudi leader even if the odds are not great because of the possible payoff. Of course, it also means that you might be wishcasting too hard when looking at the situation. The idea of MBS as a genuine elite reformer in Saudi Arabia might be one of those ideas -- like “Iranian moderate” or “stable Afghanistan” -- we all want to be true so badly we overestimate the meager odds of its existence.

The second thing is to be wary of any authoritarian anti-corruption drive as actually trying to end corruption. As I noted last November, “The anti-corruption drive is a classic move from the personalist handbook, one that Xi, Putin and Erdogan have all used as an excuse to consolidate power.” For every modernizing Peter the Great, there are 10 tinpot dictators who will exploit a genuine public desire to root out corruption to take out enemies. It is extremely rare for anti-corruption campaigns to ever do what is intended. This was the part of the MBS pitch that enthralled Friedman the most last year. He should have been warier.

The third and most important lesson is that just because political leaders treat you with respect does not mean that they are sincere in their statements. I understand the bias that these meetings produce. I have not been exposed to as many policy principals as Friedman, but I have met enough of them to know that, autocrat or democrat, political leaders know how to charm people they need to charm. It is flattering, as a mere scribbler, to think that a world leader is devoting time and attention to what you think. The desire to cultivate a new connection can lead one to transcribe more than analyze.

I was not being glib when I said in “The Ideas Industry” that speaking truth to power was hard. It is extremely hard, and perhaps beyond the capacities of some pundits. Maybe all we can ask of some folks is to listen carefully to power without losing track of what matters, and providing a forensic analysis of it to readers.

Khashoggi was able to do that. We need more of that skill on the op-ed pages, and we need it right now.