With a metaphorical wave of the hand, U.S. President Donald Trump has absolved Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of complicity in the brutal murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2.
By shielding the crown prince from accountability and treating him so deferentially, Trump has bought into Saudi Arabia’s totally implausible and constantly changing narrative on the Khashoggi affair and signalled that morality plays second fiddle to realpolitik in his cold-hearted America First policy.
Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was rightly stunned by Trump’s morally blinkered defence of the crown prince. “I never thought I’d see the day a White house would moonlight as a public relations firm for the crown prince of Saudi Arabia,” he said indignantly.
Leaders of nations have a duty to nurture and protect its national interests. This goes without saying. But there are times when simple decency must be factored into a country’s position on a key issue.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency concluded on November 16 that the prince had authorized the killing. Its conclusion was based on intercepts of his telephone calls and calls by a member of the Saudi assassination squad to one of his senior aides.
Yet on November 20, Trump blithely ignored the CIA’s finding and gratuitously let the crown prince off the hook. In a comment utterly bereft of compassion or empathy, he said, “King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”
“We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi,” Trump added. “In any case, our relationship is with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
That is indeed the point, the only point, as far as Trump is concerned.
Thanks to congressional pressure, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis allegedly involved in Khashoggi’s slaying and ended air-refuelling flights for the Saudi Air Force over Yemen. These actions were little more than slaps on the wrist, hardly the punishment the Saudis so richly deserve.
But as Trump noted, he has no intention of jeopardizing lucrative U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which may be worth as much as $110 billion. Nor will he risk the possibility of upsetting the Saudis, who might cancel plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in the U.S. economy.
Trump, too, was thinking of the United States’ strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries. As he put it, “The (Saudis) have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”
These are legitimate concerns, of course. But surely Trump could have been mindful of considerations beyond arms deals or investment opportunities when he sided with Saudi Arabia so blatantly. To be entirely fair to Trump, he is neither the first nor the last U.S. president to turn a blind eye to vile Saudi practices, which have ranged from perpetuating slavery to funding the spread of Islamic radicalism.
In accordance with this tradition, Trump was essentially “doing his best to help the Saudi regime get away with the murder of a U.S. resident and one of the Arab world’s most prominent writers,” Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s editor at The Washington Post, wrote in a blistering piece.
If the Trump administration continues down this path, she warned, “it will further destroy what is left of America’s moral credibility on global human rights and freedom of expression. It puts truth-seekers and journalists who dare to challenge the Saudi regime and other intolerant governments in grave danger, no matter where they live.”
It’s an argument that cannot be brushed aside.
Trump, having adopted a callous and altogether negative attitude toward the media, could not care less about the death of a Saudi journalist who had fallen afoul of the House of Saud. In Trump’s transactional world, only the all-mighty dollar has any real value. Everything else is of minor importance and fades into irrelevancy.
Fortunately, the U.S. Congress has reacted appropriately to Trump’s muted response to Khashoggi’s murder. It has launched an investigation into the crown prince’s involvement in a dastardly crime that Saudi Arabia and its accomplices are shamefully trying to cover up.