U.S. officials try really hard not to condemn Saudi Arabia's mass executions.

Read U.S. Officials' Desperate, Tortured Attempts at Not Condemning Saudi Arabia’s Mass Executions 

Read U.S. Officials' Desperate, Tortured Attempts at Not Condemning Saudi Arabia’s Mass Executions 

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Jan. 5 2016 5:25 PM

Why Can't the U.S. Just Condemn Saudi Arabia's Executions?

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Saudi Arabia's King Salman meets with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Erga Palace in the capital Riyadh on January 27, 2015.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

One of the more darkly amusing aspects of the escalating tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been watching the Obama administration try to avoid directly condemning the Saudi execution of 47 people. Here’s the circular answer provided by White House spokesman Josh Earnest yesterday after he was asked whether the administration would condemn its ally:

Well, we have raised significant concerns about the human rights environment in Saudi Arabia.  And carrying out mass executions I think is a prime example of a government that is not doing enough to address the legitimate concerns that have been expressed by the international community about the human rights situation inside their own country. 
The State Department put out a report detailing the long list of concerns that the U.S. has with Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, and certainly mass executions would rate highly in that list of concerns and we certainly would condemn any country that's carrying out mass executions.
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We would condemn any country that carried out mass executions. Does that mean that we do condemn a country that just did? Still, Earnest practically gave the evil empire speech compared State Department spokesman John Kirby, who, later on Monday, was repeatedly pressed by the AP’s Matt Lee on why the department condemned the storming of the Saudi embassy in Tehran but not the executions:

QUESTION: Well, I’m just curious as to why you’re – the next sentence after what you said when you addressed the attacks on the embassies, you say that you condemn the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic facilities. Why not condemn the executions?
MR KIRBY: Well, again, I would just tell you what I said before. We have expressed our concerns about the legal process in Saudi Arabia. We’ve raised those concerns with the Saudi Government. We will continue to do that. What we want to see is for Saudi Arabia to respect and protect human rights and to ensure a fair and transparent judicial process.
QUESTION: But you won’t condemn the executions. Is that right?
MR KIRBY: I think I’ve --
QUESTION: Your White House colleague was asked pretty much the same thing, and he replied, “We certainly would condemn any country that carries out mass executions.” Does that mean that you’re condemning the Saudis for doing this?
MR KIRBY: I’ve answered the question, I think.
QUESTION: Well, actually, you haven’t answered it. I mean, you’ve answered it to your satisfaction --
MR KIRBY: Right.
QUESTION: -- but I don’t think you’ve answered it to the satisfaction of anybody else, because you’re – you won’t use the same words --
MR KIRBY: We have --
QUESTION: -- that you will – that you do with Iran and the attacks on the Saudi embassy as you will – as you do with the executions.
MR KIRBY: Well, I mean, they’re two --
QUESTION: I’m just curious as to why.
MR KIRBY: They’re two different issues. I mean --
QUESTION: Well, yeah --
MR KIRBY: -- the Saudi embassy came under attack. We have, in the past, been very clear about attacks on diplomatic facilities. You can imagine why the State Department takes a special interest in that, and this was a violent --
QUESTION: Particularly in Iran.
MR KIRBY: This was a – it doesn’t matter what country. An attack on a diplomatic facility is a concern to us whether it’s ours or somebody else’s.

Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, obviously and unfortunately, and no one seriously expects the U.S. to take major diplomatic action over this, but these circumlocutions are still pretty glaring given how profoundly unhelpful these executions were, particularly when it comes to the ongoing Syria peace talks, a major U.S. diplomatic initiative. The statements stand in stark contrast to the more forthright condemnations coming out of European governments as well as the off-the-record grumblings of U.S. officials.

Saudi Arabia is far from the only government whose dismal human rights record is tolerated by the U.S. government. But rarely is the contrast so glaring between what officials will say in private—whether discussing the instability caused by the devastating Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, or Saudi donors’ support for Sunni extremism—and how they talk and act in public.

This might be perfect campaign fodder for the GOP candidates running for president, except that these brave warriors in the fight against radical Islam and its apologists are all competing with each other to demonstrate their steadfast support for a kingdom governed by Sharia law.       

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs.