One of the sad facts of maintaining a role as a world policeman is that you have to keep some pretty scurvy company. That’s fine if you’re all-in with your imperial ambitions, like ancient Rome. Then local cruelties, corruption, and barbarities are only a concern if they get in the way of tribute and securing a Hun-free border. But if you’ve built your nominal national identity as an un-empire that champions liberty, democracy, and the open society, those associations can become awkward. One week you’re celebrating the freedom to speak freely and scrutinize rules and rulers without fear of retaliation, and then you find yourself, once again, voicing unconvincing shock that a long-time ally is retaliating against one of its citizens for speaking and scrutinizing.
So it is when you get chummy with Saudi Arabia, an authoritarian monarchy with a long history of doing all sorts of things the United States supposedly opposes.
Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam” and already the unhappy recipient of 50 of them (pictured), is only the latest inconvenience in the decades-long U.S.-Saudi relationship. Badawi would have faced execution had he been found guilty of apostasy—unbelievably, brutal judicial flogging is a somewhat merciful outcome in his case. Assuming he survives. Hamza Kashgari also faced execution for tweeting disfavored religious thoughts, though he “only” spent two years in prison, without trial.