The President and the Press: Roles and Ambiguity
New York Times, Saturday February 27, 2021. Leading headline: De Facto Saudi Leader Approved Assassination of Khashoggi, U.S. Says. Sub headline: Biden Takes No Action Against Prince.
Imagine this. White House Brady Press Briefing Room.
Mr. President, today’s report that Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salmon was responsible for the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, although not new, was a painful reminder of the risks all of us in this room take. You clearly appreciate that there can be no democracy absent a vital and vibrant free press. But for his death, our colleague could be here today doing his part, as you and we are, to advance our democracy. Yet you decided to take no action against a man who brutally murdered one of us. What would you say to us about this disturbing and disheartening news?
Long pause. In the silence, the weight of the question seems matched only by the weight of responsibility borne by the President. After what seemed like an eternity, President Biden began in a soft voice.
Indeed, what would I say to you? I’ve made some bad, disturbing, disheartening decisions in my life. This was one. But to have decided otherwise was worse. Saudi Arabia has been and continues to be a reliable and essential ally in this country’s struggles to counter terrorism and, in particular, Iranian aggression. These are critical to our foreign policy and to the peace and security of our nation and of the peace-loving world. Based on everything we know or think we know, taking action against the Crown Prince, however justifiable on moral grounds, would put the strategic partnership with his country at risk. Indeed it would likely rupture it.
I was not blessed with the choice between right and wrong. Jamal Khashoggi’s murder was wrong. The Crown Prince’s actions were immoral and wrong. Foregoing the delicate alliance for peace and stability in the tinderbox that is the Mideast in our conflicted world also would be wrong. I was faced with competing wrongs, competing inconvenient truths.
I recognize, acknowledge and regret the pain my decision causes you, my partners in this ongoing experiment in democratic governance. I also appreciate and need your willingness to press me on this. This is as it should be. In a democracy, you ladies and gentlemen of the press both report the news and hold those of us in positions of authority accountable. Politics – the craft of using the powers of office in the name of the people – is more art than science. Much as we would wish it otherwise, it’s not always right v. wrong. Sometimes there are competing rights, competing wrongs, competing truths, competing values. In these cases, you rely on the best information you can get, knowing it may be incomplete and maybe inaccurate. You rely on voices reminding you to honor moral, ethical, political and personal ideals, and others that remind not to sacrifice the good on the altar of the perfect. Decisions like the one I had to make are made on the slippery slope, short of the mountaintop but hopefully with solid footing in a good, if not perfect, spot.
History will judge my decision just as surely history will judge the actions of the Crown Prince. Today I pay tribute to Jamal Khashoggi and honor him for his contributions to a free press and its role in our democracy. And I would also say to you, I’m deeply grateful for yours.
The horror of Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon cry out for moral outrage and a demand for accountability. That’s why this tale of different and competing imperatives, the need for a decision based on incomplete information, and different roles for the press and the President speak to the challenges of leadership in the public square and the ambiguity and uncertainty attendant to the exercise of authority. What would you do if you were the President?