In a world with a great many tragedies and crimes, I couldn’t care less about the death of Saudi Arabia’s Jamal Khashoggi. While his death at the hands of Saudi intelligence agents in Turkey reportedly was brutal, as well as a violation of the ordinary rules of the game insofar as it happened in the Saudi consulate, what the hell does any of this have to do with me, the United States, or anyone other than Khashoggi himself?
The relentless and breathless reporting is chiefly in the service of embarrassing Trump and influencing his behavior. A typical editorial from the Denver Post declares that “Khashoggi’s murder will stain Trump (and America) forever.”
We have seen this movie before, where propaganda-style reporting out of some godforsaken corner of the earth is elevated above all the other godforsaken corners of the earth until the Marines are deployed. These media campaigns include Bosnia, Somalia, Liberia, Haiti, Libya, and Syria, notable for their arbitrary selection. Indeed, we see it with the countries involved, as Turkey and Saudi Arabia have both killed and tortured numerous dissidents, but only Khashoggi’s death has achieved this level of attention.
This reporting is designed to derail Trump’s return to the historical U.S.-Saudi alliance. The alliance began in the Cold War and has always been a marriage of convenience. Saudi Arabia has plenty of oil and has functioned as a counterweight to Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution. It has also adopted a tacit alliance with Israel against Iran. Saudi Arabia is otherwise a country with which we share almost nothing in common.
The alliance faced pressure from recent events. President Obama engaged in a rapprochement with Iran, sending them literally planeloads of cash as part of the nuclear deal. Trump has repudiated the deal altogether and, this is apparently unpopular in certain circles at the State Department and in the CIA. There is evidence that the current leader, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is either a ruthless despot trying to consolidate his power, or a reformer, addressing decades of accrued corruption. The terms of the debate reveal an important bias: could he not be both? Either way, he’s apparently “our guy,” and various parts of the vaunted “intelligence community” don’t like that. As if more evidence were necessary, this is another reminder that the “Deep State” does not believe that it is there to provide information to the elected President, but rather to control him.
Khashoggi’s story has also risen to prominence because he’s a journalist and is therefore one of the “Davos people,” a writer for the Washington Post. The Post has long had a cozy relationship with the CIA, and has been a particularly rich source of CIA-leaks regarding this assassination. Khashoggi, while being painted as a sterling and debonair reformer, was an outspoken critic of the crown prince, a member of the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, and rumored to be a sometime spy for various factions within the new Saudi regime, the Turks, the CIA, or some combination thereof.
Most insultingly, we have been told to care about his brutal murder because he was a “U.S. resident” and “green card holder,” as if that means anything. Having watered down citizenship through decades of immigration from unassimilable aliens, the media now wants us to treat “green card holders” as citizens. There is a certain logic, of course, as green card holders are not distinguishable from many of our newcomers, but this does not even pass the straight face test. It turns out this “green card” claim was itself an exaggeration; he was on a visa, in other words, a temporary visitor.
The media’s similar meltdown about the poisoning of various ex-KGB spy defectors in London similarly had almost no emotional resonance for me. This is a hazard of the business, the predictable end of a life of intrigue, broken promises, and dangerous liaisons. We are equally nonplussed when someone like Whitey Bulger is killed in prison. It’s technically illegal but entirely predictable.
I am generally skeptical of our alliance with the Saudis. It has dragooned us into supporting a brutal proxy war in Yemen, where Iran is supporting the rebels. We know a majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi, and some were supported by high-level figures in the Saudi regime. It is not obvious that Iran is much worse than Saudi Arabia; after all, Iran is fighting ISIS in Syria, and, while it is hostile to Israel, does not necessarily have to be implacably hostile to the United States. Persians include a large cohort of civilized and educated people, as anyone who has spent time with them can attest.
Finally, as in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, there is likely some benefit to the West if Muslim extremists from the Sunni and Shia sides of their faith are more concerned with fighting one another than directing their energies towards the United States and Europe. Now that the Cold War is over, there are fewer compelling reasons for the United States to pick sides. We are in a position to adopt a highly practiced and beneficent neutrality.
Trump’s restrained assessment of the Khashoggi killing is a thumb in the eye to idealists like Samantha Power, as well an expression of defiance to the game-playing by his own State Department and the CIA. Trump takes the position here (as in Korea and in dealing with China) that he is in charge, and that our foreign policy will not be steered off course by becoming overly concerned with other countries’ internal affairs, particularly when we’re in no position to do anything about it.
The lodestar should always be what advances the interests of the United States. If this requires averting our eyes to the unsavory acts of the ostensibly allied Saudi or explicitly hostile North Korean regimes, so be it. This used to be common sense, and it was the basis of our alliance with the Soviet Union in World War II, as well as a great number of anti-communist alliances during the Cold War.
The good thing with Trump’s position—and that of realists more generally—is that it is amenable to persuasion. Realists may conclude that our ongoing support for the Saudis is no longer in our interest—as I believe—and this does not require lamentations to the injustice done to Khashoggi, but rather a cool-headed assessment of what our country is receiving in exchange for this relationship.
The moralists who cry for Khashoggi, while ignoring so many other injustices, are so blinded by their hatred for Trump and excited by the prospect of tinkering with the Middle East, that they see no difference between American citizens and mere visa holders, Islamist dissidents and authentic human rights activists, and they see nothing wrong with a CIA so impressed with its own virtue that it publicly leaks intelligence in order to embarrass and control an elected president.
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