The almost surely fatal disappearance of Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has a familiar ring to it. The Saudis have borrowed a page from the old Soviet Union playbook on the best way to get rid of a troublesome critic.
The Soviets showed how to silence a critic and defy America with unmatched boldness 70 years ago in Czechoslovakia. That is when the Czechs moved to lessen the Soviet Union’s control over their country and the Soviets struck back. Through a bloodless coup, they forced mass resignations from a Czech government they did not regard as sufficiently pro-Soviet.
The problem for the Soviets was that they could not intimidate Jan Masaryk, the Czech foreign minister and the best-known figure in the Czech government. The son of Tomas Masaryk, one of the founders of modern Czechoslovakia in 1918, Jan Masaryk had been ambassador to Great Britain from 1925 to 1938 and had an international reputation. In 1948 he opted to remain in the Czech government.
In a speech he delivered at the organizing conference for the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, Jan Masaryk spelled out his country’s post-World War II aspirations, declaring, “The small and smaller countries need security, crave security, pray for security, so they can keep step with the great ones and serve humanity as equals among equals.” It was that kind of talk the Soviets wanted to silence, and like today’s Saudis, they were willing to use violence to get their way.
The Soviet Union’s Masaryk problem came to an end on March 10, 1948, when he was found dead in the courtyard below his apartment. The Soviets claimed that Masaryk had committed suicide by jumping out of his window. But the bruises on Masaryk’s body and the disorder in his apartment suggested foul play. When the police doctor who had certified that Masaryk was a suicide himself became a suicide less than a year later, suspicions were further aroused.
In an eerie prequel to the Khashoggi killing, the real killers of Masaryk were thought to be Soviet secret police—“Beria gorillas” as they were called after Soviet secret-police chief Lavrenti Beria.
Henry Kissinger would later say of NATO: the “immediate impetus for it was the communist coup in Czechoslovakia.” But for the Soviets the death of Masaryk brought few, if any, regrets. They were willing to live with the accusation that they had murdered him. After Masaryk’s death, Eastern European nations were more reluctant than ever to consider moving closer to the West.
Later in 1948, when the Soviets blocked land access to West Berlin, America initiated the Berlin Airlift, but neither President Truman nor Secretary of State George Marshall thought much could be done about the defenestration of Jan Masaryk. The Truman administration did not, however, turn a blind eye to the death of Masaryk. At a press conference, Secretary of State Marshall was outspoken. “It is a reign of terror in Czechoslovakia and not an ordinary due process of government by the people,” Marshall declared.
Nobody expects the American reaction to Khashoggi’s death to be so candid, but what exactly the Trump administration will do is unclear, despite the vulnerability of the Saudis to American pressure. The Saudis have created a humanitarian crisis in Yemen with their bombing of that country. They are hoping other nations will stop criticizing their war, and they are anxious to draw the rich and the powerful to an investors’ conference they are holding in Riyadh later this month.
For the moment, the conference is in shambles. Corporate heads from Jamie Dimon of J. P. Morgan to Steve Case of AOL have withdrawn from the conference, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has announced that he will not go (although he has not canceled his plans to attend a concurrent conference in Riyadh on terrorism). But all is not lost for the Saudis if the Trump administration gives them cover by going along with the idea—now rumored to be the Saudis’ alternative explanation for what happened in their consulate—that Khashoggi died during a fight with Saudi agents.
That by all reports such a face-saving explanation from the Saudis has a chance of succeeding with the president is especially frightening. The explanation makes the cold-war Soviets seem almost old-fashioned in their brutality. They never expected America to help them with their lies.