Washington’s ‘Freedom Promoting’ Think Tanks That Ignore Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder
In 2016, two years before his assassination and two days after Donald Trump was elected president, the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was a guest speaker at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The think tank employs more than 30 fellows focused exclusively on Middle East affairs and has many more adjunct researchers and prominent trustees who regularly contribute to marquee media. They put out scores of policy insights, reports, and op-eds, and convene events with newsmakers on a weekly basis. But on the anniversary of Khashoggi’s bloodletting, only a single WINEP fellow weighed in.
A half-year before Khashoggi’s death, WINEP trustee and longtime Middle East peace-processor Dennis Ross wrote that Washington should “get behind” Mohammed bin Salman, whom he called a “revolutionary crown prince.” Ross, for his part, received $10,000 for writing an anti-Iran op-ed in 2018, from Trump booster Elliott Broidy; only in Washington could such a corrupt revelation not be a career-breaker (though Ross has since returned the money and dissociated himself from Broidy). Having served as Obama’s senior director for Gulf affairs, Ross has written widely about how to address Middle East conflicts. So where was Ross’s op-ed on Wednesday about seeking justice for Khashoggi?
This week, as journalists, researchers, and activists came together to mark the anniversary of Khashoggi’s brutal murder at the hands of the Saudi prince’s goons, a conspicuous silence fell over many of Washington’s so-called think tanks—most glaringly, on right-wing institutions that claim to focus on the promotion of democratic values. By willfully ignoring Khashoggi, they displayed a cynicism so profound that they shouldn’t be trusted to provide analysis on anything else.
The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies calls itself a “research institute” and claims the mantle of “free nations,” but I couldn’t find any coverage of the heinous assault on human rights and free speech that unfolded in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The American Enterprise Institute, a “think tank dedicated to defending human dignity, expanding human potential, and building a freer and safer world,” might as well drop that mission statement if they aren’t interested in the dignity—much less, the life—of a Washington Post contributor.
The Heritage Foundation, which has fed the ranks of the Trump administration, boasts a team of foreign-policy analysts who advise the highest rungs of power. But by ignoring the dismemberment of a journalist, they certainly are not living up to their stated goals of “Building an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.”
The hawkish Hudson Institute, which regularly covers Middle East affairs and cheerleads for war with Iran, had no comment on their website or social media. Their commitment to “American leadership and global engagement for a secure, free, and prosperous future,” rings as hollow as hollow can be.
And what of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, with its 13 Middle East experts, several of whom focus on “human rights”? Zero coverage of Khashoggi, a lacuna that belies their charge of providing “strategic insights and policy solutions to help decisionmakers chart a course toward a better world.”
These examples stand in startling contrast to how some other, not avowedly “freedom promoting” right-wing institutions have remembered the martyred journalist.
In July, the Brookings Institution hosted U.N. Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard to discuss her landmark report on the Saudi state’s crime. The Washington Post published a special section honoring their late contributor, including analysts from the Brookings Institution, Dartmouth College, the European Council on Foreign Relations, MIT, and more. The Project on Middle East Democracy, along with a dozen human rights organizations and 11 senators and congresspeople, gathered under the banner of Justice for Jamal at the Capitol last week. Fellows from the Wilson Center, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, New America, and the U.S. Institute for Peace also weighed in on Khashoggi—a pillar of the Saudi media whom many Washington researchers knew personally.
Not all the Khashoggi indifference has been confined to right-wing institutions, however. Consider the case of the Council on Foreign Relations, the clearinghouse of foreign-policy luminaries and international political clout. Last week, on the heels of the United Nations General Assembly, they hosted an event with Saudi Minister of State Adel Al-Jubeir, who as foreign minister last year served as lead propagandist for the Khashoggi cover-up. Where was CFR’s event this week assessing what the Saudi state’s crime means for the future of geopolitics, press freedom, and diplomacy? The only thing I could find on their social media regarding the butchered journalist was a September 17 tweet citing a quote from Elizabeth Warren: “The Saudi government’s role in the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi and its repression of its own citizens insults all who respect human rights and calls into question its reliability as a partner.”
The rot at these institutions echoes an anecdote from Warren’s book A Fighting Chance, conveying advice she had received from Larry Summers. Warren writes:
I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People—powerful people—listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.
I had been warned.
It’s now time to warn those think tanks that dismiss or assist in MBS’s cover-up: We notice what you’re saying, and what you overlook.