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Here’s why we should care about the Khashoggi case

People held signs during a protest at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington about the disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press/Associated Press

Finding out the truth about the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul and responding to it properly might seem to have little to do with the average American. Here’s why one diplomatic expert says the situation matters a lot.

Khashoggi was a legal permanent resident of the United States, Nicholas Burns said. “He’s a green card holder. He’s like lots of our relatives who first came to America who were in transition to become a citizen,” Burns said.

“We have an obligation to every American citizen, and we certainly have an obligation to green card holders to protect and defend them,” said Burns, a former career diplomat who worked in Democratic and Republican administrations.


Khashoggi, a prominent columnist for the Washington Post, was in self-imposed exile from his native Saudi Arabia. His fiancée has said he was seeking US citizenship. He disappeared on Oct. 2 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where he was going to pick up paperwork he needed to get remarried. Turkish officials say he was murdered by a hit squad. Saudi officials say the allegations are “baseless.”

Burns, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said one of the most important responsibilities of every American administration is to defend democracy, freedom, and justice around the world.

“We’ve always believed we stand for these values . . . and for an honorable person like Khashoggi to be interrogated and murdered by a government that’s friendly to the US, we have an obligation to speak out and disavow and condemn it,” he said.

“We have to uphold these values. If we don’t uphold them, who’s going to uphold them in the world?” said Burns, who called for punitive sanctions if Khashoggi was murdered.

Burns said the United States also needed to stand up to increasingly active authoritarian governments such as Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia.


“The democracies of the world need to check the actions of these authoritarian powers, so it’s a test for us,” he said.

He said the United States was failing the test of its moral leadership, though he noted with approval that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had demanded that the Trump administration conduct its own probe of Khashoggi’s disappearance and threatened sanctions if the Saudis were involved.

At the same time, Burns said, the Khashoggi mystery is a complicated issue for the United States because the country also has another set of interests with Saudi Arabia, on issues such as energy and blocking and containing Iran.

“To be fair with the president and the administration, Trump has to balance these issues. No one is calling for the president to completely end the relationship, but here’s the time we have to stand up to them,” he said.

If Saudi Arabian agents murdered Khashoggi at the consulate, it would also be a violation of the sovereignty of Turkey, which has the right to control its own affairs and protect people, Turkish or not, within its territory, said Case Western Reserve University Law School Professor Avidan Cover.