In Context, Trump’s Comments on Khashoggi’s Murder Are Different Only In Style, Not In Substance, from U.S. Policy

It is altogether good that the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has become a rallying point for press freedom and freedom itself. As U.S. Congressman Christopher Shays has said, the issue is a referendum on “whether or not America stands for anything anymore.” In the United States, a thriving press predates and props up our democracy. Supporting a journalist speaking truth against a tyrannical king would seem like an instinctual position for an American President to take. Not so for Mr. Trump, whose concern for business has hindered him from properly condemning Khashoggi’s murder. The President has called the killing a “bad concept, poorly executed,” as if the suppression of free speech by murder were merely a botched subplot of one of his reality shows.

But in adopting Realpolitik in relations with the House of Saud, the President is not unusual. He’s just more clumsy about it than his predecessors in the Oval Office.

Though the Houthis, a Yemeni ethnic group, were providing us with intelligence against al-Qaeda (founded by a Bin Laden, a Saudi, lest we forget), President Obama chose to back the Saudi-supported Yemeni government in their war against the Houthis. This is in keeping with the last 70-years of U.S. support for the monarchs of Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Trump has indeed chosen an awkward moment not to speak out swiftly and decisively in defense of democracy, and his sloppiness is eroding America’s soft power. But while his predecessors would have been quicker to condemn, you can be sure they would have still preserved the alliance we have with the Saudi Kingdom and the many benefits it brings us. Mr. Shays’s referendum rightly applies to more than Trump’s record alone, a fact which the rising partisanship around the midterms will obscure.

What business is Mr. Trump defending? His own real estate interests for sure, but also those of other real estate developers, who are rushing in to help the Saudi economy diversify as oil prices fall and as the oil reserves under the Kingdom’s deserts dwindle. The Saudis are still a major player in the global energy market, but they are no longer the world’s largest energy producer, and nobody knows how long they can continue to produce the amount of oil they are currently pumping out.

The other business Mr. Trump is defending is the arms business, which he has explicitly mentioned. The Saudis are one of America’s biggest and most reliable customers for American-made guns, tanks, airplanes, and bombs. Even if we did not rely on them for our energy—and fracking has made them less essential—we’d still have an interest in preserving the regime of Mohammed bin-Salman. Mr. Trump’s famous and clumsy photo opportunity clutching a glowing orb along with senior Saudi officials is lamentable for its optics. But it is a good visual symbol of U. S. foreign policy. Mr. Trump has simply been more vocal and openly transactional about our relations to the Saudis than previous presidents—a general tone his supporters cheer him for.

And then there is Saudi Arabia’s domestic energy business. Bin-Salman’s regime is planning the construction of sixteen nuclear reactors, and will award multi-billion dollar contracts for the first two of them soon. As of this past summer, U. S. firms were still in the running.

Add to all of this the fact that the Saudi Arabian monarchy is facing a serious crisis of legitimacy. Much of Mohammed bin-Salman’s activity, like that of Vladimir Putin, can best be explained by the need to maintain his grip on power. In a dynamic as old as the institution of kings, the monarchy has a tough time reigning in the spending and the ambitions of the 50,000 or so princelings whose loose coalition makes up the aristocratic ruling class. They are just as interested in looting the public coffers and hiding it from the king as they are in administering the state on his behalf. This is why, last year, bin-Salman put select members of the aristocracy under house arrest in fancy hotel in Riyadh. The chief kleptocrat must not have his primacy challeneged by petty kleptocrats.

Other domestic headaches for bin-Salman include a booming population of young people, the most social-media savvy in the middle east, who are staring down an economy where sinecures funded by oil-revenue are likely not going to be available to subsidize their middle class lifestyles.

There is also the vocal Shiite religious minority which threatens the ideological purity of the House of Saud’s Wahhabi fundamentalism. No wonder public executions in The Kingdom were at a two-decade high as of 2016.

To bin-Salman, the execution of a single journalist probably seems like an odd thing for the international community to make a fuss over.

But Khashoggi’s brutal murder comes at a particularly bad moment for many reasons. Liberals in the United States are looking for any symbolic issue with which to oppose Trump in the midterm elections, and the Khashoggi case offers them great moral clarity.

The murder also occurred just days before a major economic council hosted by the Kingdom, with invitations foreign business leaders, whom bin-Salman was hoping to lure into investing in Saudi business and infrastructure. It was a stand-up-and-be-counted moment for executives, almost all of whom cancelled their attendance but still sent subordinates to negotiate deals. Silicon Valley, flush with cash from SoftBank, the Japanese bank whose venture capital arm has major Saudi backing, shows no sign of returning any cash. For the business community, the Khashoggi case is just another awkward detail in long-term, profitable business relationship.

Khashoggi’s murder also comes at moment when journalism is under threat. Mr. Trump, as a sitting U. S. President, has called the U.S. press “the enemy of the people.” In Bulgaria earlier this month, investigative reporter Viktoria Marinova was raped and murdered while jogging in a park, an act which looks to be linked to her uncovering of financial misdeeds by the ruling party there. In Malta last year, investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb. In Slovakia, investigative reporter Jan Kuciak was killed, along with his family, while he was investigating a story about mob corruption linked to business. Those in power who profit in the shadows will always seek to silence those whose calling is to cast light on their affairs. It is a struggle which every generation will have to fight, sometimes in the streets, but always in print. As John Gardner says, “the battle to preserve the freedom to disagree will bever end.”

In opposing free expression, Trump and bin-Salman are kindred spirits. They are both scions of vast inherited wealth who see every day as a struggle for legitimacy against a population animated by ideals that hamper business and privilege—ideals like democracy, freedom of speech, and the inherent dignity of the individual. A free press for both men is a gadfly to be swatted without guilt. There is simply too much money and power at stake to feel otherwise.

It brings to mind Milton’s vision of power corrupted from Paradise Lost:

“High on a throne of royal state, which far 
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind, 
Or where the gorgeous east with richest hand 
Showers on her kings barbaric pearl and gold,
Satan exalted sat—”

As for which gilded potentate I’m referring to, the one in Washington or Riyadh, I wish there were enough of a difference to make it clear.

sources:

  • “Europe: Journalists strangles, shot, blown up.” The Week, October 19, 2018
  • “There are big changes underway in Saudi Arabia,” The Week, March 12, 2017
  • Hochberg, Fred P. “The Senate is making a big mistake as it drags its feet over EXIM Bank confirmations,” CNBC.com, July 18, 2018
  • “Sheikhdown,” The Economist, November 25, 2017
  • Gardner, John, Self Renewal: The Individual and The Innovative Society, (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 73
  • Riedel, Bruce, “Who are the Houthis, and why are we at war with them?” Brookings.edu, December 18, 2017
  • Bager, Jasmine, “How Saudi Millennials are using social media to revive an ancient literary tradition,” NiemanStoryboard.org, August 18, 2016
  • “CBRE, JLL looking to move into Saudi Arabia,” therealdeal.com, February 3, 2016
  • Homer-Dixon, Thomas, The Upside of Down, (Toronto: Alfed A. Knopf), pp. 269-271