The international order is giving way to a free-for-all

Jamal Khashoggi
Courtesy TRT World/Handout via Reuters
A still image taken from CCTV video and obtained by TRT World claims to show Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, highlighted in a red circle by the source, walking into the Saudi Arabia's Consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2.

For those who have dared to cross an aggressive authoritarian government, seeking refuge in a foreign country no longer guarantees security.

You’re not safe anywhere.

Saudi Arabia’s Jamal Khashoggi, a sometimes-dissident and U.S. resident who died in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month, is just one example. This spring, Russian agents poisoned a former intelligence officer in Britain. China recently summoned the president of Interpol home from France for interrogation, the latest in a long list of score-settling operations (including kidnappings), usually under the guise of fighting corruption. A Turkish official said earlier this year that the country had seized 80 of its own citizens working abroad for a cleric accused by the government of plotting a coup. Early last year, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un had his half-brother killed with a nerve agent in Malaysia.

This isn’t a totally new phenomenon, of course. In 1940, an attacker buried an ice pick in the skull of Stalin’s great rival, Leon Trotsky, in Mexico City. In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov died of ricin poisoning in London, probably from a poison-tipped umbrella. The poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London was a major scandal a decade ago.

The United States targeted and killed an American citizen, Anwar Alwaki, seven years ago as part of its anti-terror campaign, a strike whose legality was hotly debated. Grabbing foreign citizens is a somewhat different issue, with its own varied history. Think of Israel’s operation to seize Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, for instance, or the U.S. rendition program after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Still, this feels different, as if score-settling with one’s own citizens abroad is creeping into the mainstream. Most often, it’s because the leader has a thin skin and has concluded that no one’s going to stop him. If there is an international reaction, it’s likely to be fleeting and half-hearted. Dismiss this as  someone else’s problem if you like. But it’s another way the international order is giving way, to be replaced by a free-for-all.

Kim didn’t pay much of a price for using VX nerve agent on his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, at the Kuala Lumpur airport. A year and a half later, his position seems stronger than ever.  

Khashoggi wasn’t the only dissident the Saudis had their eyes on. This past week the Washington Post, for whom Khashoggi wrote, related the story of Omar Abdulaziz, one of Khashoggi’s collaborators, who has asylum in Canada. Over a series of meetings, Saudis who claimed to be emissaries Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tried to lure Abdulaziz back home. They even brought one of his brothers along.

They tried to entice Abdulaziz to the Saudi consulate for a new passport, something that he’s now particularly glad he didn’t do. When Abdulaziz refused to go back, Saudi officials arrested two of his brothers and eight friends.

The Post also cites the case of Loujain Hathoul, a female Saudi activist who was abducted off the streets of Abu Dhabi, and of a dissident prince who lives in Germany and says he was the target of a similar plot this fall.

It quotes Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch, as saying Saudi Arabia “is sending a very deliberate and clear signal, saying you’re never going to be free.”

Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan are sending much the same message.

Other than score settling, it’s hard to see what Putin got out of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in England early this year. Skripal was not a threat; by most accounts he wasn’t even an important pawn in the East-West spy game. But Putin, the former KGB agent, holds particular contempt for those who betrayed the country. And a mysterious, gruesome death would serve as a warning to anyone tempted to follow suit. Western countries retaliated by throwing out dozens of Russian diplomats, but relations with the West already were bad.

You can understand – even appreciate – Xi’s drive to root out corruption in China. It wouldn’t be a big surprise if the Interpol official, Meng Hongwei, had some things to answer for. He is also a vice minister of public security in the Chinese government. But Xi, China’s president-for-as-long-as-he-wants-to-be, has used his anti-corruption drive to consolidate power. Here, courtesy of Foreign Policy magazine, is a look at China’s long campaign against government officials, business figures and dissidents – even if they are citizens of foreign countries.

Erdogan’s focus on followers of Fetullah Gulen, a former ally against military rule, seems deeply personal. Erdogan accuses Gulen of orchestrating a corruption scandal and then a coup attempt two years ago. Even so, the breadth of Turkey’s campaign against Gulen’s followers is remarkable. A deputy prime minister said in April that 80 Turkish citizens had been rounded up from 18 countries, reportedly including Bulgaria, Malaysia, Kosovo, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sudan.

Perhaps nothing will stop Xi, and only sharp intelligence work can keep the assassins away from another hapless Russian. But you can bet that others are paying attention. If Bin Salman and Erdogan get away with it, some of them will want to try, too.

Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/23/2018 - 09:56 am.

    Gosh, who can we think of in the world of national politics who is extremely thin-skinned, inclined to retaliate against critics, and thinks attacks against reporters and other media representatives are OK? All that’s stopping this person from carrying out the same kinds of actions are the norms of our culture, which the selfsame person has been busy undermining for several years, if not a lifetime. He has even boasted of being able to shoot someone in public without losing his supporters.

    Just sayin’.

  2. Submitted by Mary Tambornino Tambornino on 10/23/2018 - 01:36 pm.

    Too True!!!!!!

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/23/2018 - 01:40 pm.

    Most of the men doing this are dictators, and in one-male-rule countries,you can get killed no matter where you are if you go against that One Man Who Rules.

    I am convinced that one of the most telling autocratic, or dictatorial, tendencies of Donald Trump is his willing support of the toxic Saudi prince who orchestrated this latest murder abroad. Trump understands the personalistic sensitivity to insult or non-support, the desire to punish any opposition, much more than he understands the rule of law that supposedly keeps the U S of A from committing lots of similar murders. And Trump confuses himself with the state, as is they were the same (the chilling use of “My generals,” for example).

    Trump would love to be able to get away with such murders. He simply loves a guy who body-slams, after all. Especially if the punished one is a journalist.

    • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 10/23/2018 - 02:35 pm.

      We had Obama for 8 years. I like him a lot. However how different was it under him. Would you be able to send me a link of Hillary condemning Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Israel ?

  4. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/24/2018 - 07:15 am.

    Tom Friedman had and continues to have naive ideas about the spread of democracy in the Middle East?

    Knock me over with a feather.

  5. Submitted by Tory Koburn on 10/24/2018 - 07:04 pm.

    One implicit subtext to this is: how long until this kind of behavior becomes acceptable to us – if it hasn’t already?

    If a plurality of people in America think it is okay to arrest or kill fellow American political opponents or dissidents – or if not, merely respond with a shrug – how far away are we, really, from the autocratic dictatorships like those described in the article?

    We have a whole political party castigating the other as an angry, evil mob hellbent on murder and destroying the country. Today, someone sent bombs to several prominent members of one party. Next time it happens, will we shrug? This isn’t just about Trumpism – the renditions under Bush and drone strikes under Obama were part-and-parcel of our collective slide away from the principles that made this country great. We didn’t want to admit it then, and many won’t admit it now.

    Are we so fervent in the strength and exceptional moral character of our culture that we are willing to ignore all the evidence that those qualities are fast slipping away? By the time we realize it it, will it be too late?

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/25/2018 - 05:34 pm.

    Is it a surprise that this occurs in the regime of “the leader of the free world” and the President of “the shining city on the hill” who has explicitly given the green light to everyone to follow their own narrow national interests, including (especially!!) people like MBS.

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