Last Friday the U.S. declassified and released an intelligence assessment confirming that Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince and heir to the Saudi throne, “approved an operation to capture or kill Khashoggi.”
Going public with this finding and effectively condemning bin Salman for this gruesome murder was, in itself, a momentous re-orientation of U.S. foreign policy, a welcome signal of a new American posture on the world stage, given Trump could never bring himself to condemn the murder of the journalist much less hold bin Salman to account.
But to say that the Biden administration exceeded Trump’s performance on this issue is really to damn Biden with faint praise.
Critics, of course, have expressed grave disappointment in Biden’s response. While the state department did immediately, upon release of the report, announce sanctions and visa bans for 76 Saudis, bin Salman himself was not in any way singled out for punishment or accountability.
Amrit Singh, an Open Society Justice Initiative attorney who sure for release of the report, exemplifies this disappointment with the Biden administration: “It is unconscionable for the US government to let the murderer-in-chief – the crown prince – walk free from punishment.”
Not holding bin Salman accountable, Singh stresses, “makes a mockery of Anthony Blinken’s statement that the U.S. is placing democracy and human rights at the center of foreign policy.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul echoed this criticism in an interview with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, but held out hope that the Biden administration would still take appropriate action to punish bin Salman in some form.
Indeed, while Biden at his recent inaugural foreign policy speech declared, “America is back,” suggesting he intends for the nation to assume a mantle of world leadership and force for democratic good, it won’t be enough for America just to be back. As an actor on the world stage and in terms of its foreign policy, America must be back better.
That Biden guides America as a nation that truly honors, defends, and upholds democratic values around the globe is crucial not just for cultivating and sustaining democracy and human rights abroad; it’s also paramount for re-invigorating a deteriorating democracy domestically.
In part, what was so damaging about Trump’s refusal to condemn bin Salman’s murder of Khashoggi and its chilling effect on a free press was that it enabled and mirrored that same repressive dynamic Trump was encouraging in the United States, undermining a key pillar of democracy.
Trump routinely abused the media to the point that journalists did in fact become the targets of violence, often by agents of the state. During the many protests last summer, journalists often were victims of violence not just from protestors but from the police, who would question the rights of journalists to do their jobs—jobs so central to the maintenance of democracy.
In a June 11 column for CNN, Ruth Ben-Ghiat noted the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker had “logged more than 380 incidents since May 26: at least 56 arrests, 78 physical attacks (50 of these by police officers), 49 instances of tear gassing and 89 journalists wounded by rubber bullets and projectiles.” While some of these attacks were by protesters, she stressed “the police account for the bulk of the aggression.”
Ben-Ghiat attributes this surge in violence against journalists directly to Trump’s anti-media rhetoric, figuring the press as “the enemy of the people” and as “fake news,” tactics right out of the authoritarian playbook, designed to undermine faith in the free press and hence in democracy itself.
America’s foreign policy, a key expression of its norms, must be back better in the way in terms of the way the nation enables and truly supports democracy and engages itself in democratic behavior precisely because the values we exhibit abroad influence the values we actually practice and tolerate at home in America.
The treatment of journalists, of the free press under Trump’s rule—indeed the treatment of democracy itself—makes clear why Biden’s holding bin Salman accountable is so important.
Let’s face facts.
When it comes to foreign policy and its behavior around the globe, America has a long history of undermining and indeed overthrowing democracies around the world, from Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, to the Congo, Vietnam, and the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, to Chile in the 1970s. and that’s not the whole list.
And these interventions have destabilized global politics and weakened democracy, often in ways that come back to harm the nation and weaken our own democracy, just as funding and arming Osama bin Laden came back to bite America.
If and how Biden and his administration hold bin Salman accountable will say a lot about the role Biden sees for America on the world stage in terms of cultivating a respect for democracy and human rights.
Typically, if we are truthful, we have to recognize that America really hasn’t been in a position to pose a global moral authority on such issues.
America has fallen short of democracy in its own right; we have our own apartheid, our own issues as a severely segregated society; our own record of civil and human rights abuses. What else were those protests about last summer?
For Biden to be effective abroad, he must set a example in his own nation. For him to set an example for Americans, he must walk the democratic walk abroad.
The world is watching.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.