Prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered on October 2nd in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. According to Turkish intelligence, Khashoggi was tortured and then hacked into pieces by Saudi intelligence agents who flew into Turkey the day before. His death shocked and horrified much of the world, but not, apparently, U.S. President Donald Trump, who initially scrambled for excuses to exonerate the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) from being in any way responsible. Not until worldwide criticism and condemnation threatened Trump’s craven support of MBS did the President add his voice to those condemning the journalist’s murder. No real sleuthing is required to discern why Trump continues to avoid blaming the Crown Prince personally for Khashoggi’s abhorrent death. Trump has made it clear; the reason is money. According to Trump, the murder of a journalist, a U.S. resident visiting a NATO country, should not negatively impact U.S. foreign policy toward Saudi Arabia because Saudi Arabia gives the United States billions of dollars. Trump’s lack of moral outrage is shocking. The question, however, is whether this merely shows that Trump suffers from significant character flaws or whether it is evidence that U.S. foreign policy is indeed openly moving in a direction where traditional American values matter less when dealing with authoritarian regimes if those regimes pay up.
Historically, the United States has engaged in covert operations abroad in countries like Chile and Iran to advance U.S. interests, even when such operations unseated democratically elected regimes. Sometimes those operations were conducted to stem a perceived Communist threat and sometimes the United States acted at the behest of American corporations whose financial interests were being threatened. Despite these questionable operations, U.S. foreign policy was based on the premise that U.S. interests abroad were best protected by ensuring that the world knew that democratic values, including freedom of the press and human rights, were prioritized in the United States. As noted last year by General H.R. McMaster, Trump’s former national security advisor, in an oddly prescient address, ‘[e]nhancing American influence includes promoting the rule of law abroad and protecting the dignity of every human life.’ Traditionally, therefore, U.S. national security has been seen as dependent on the world viewing U.S. democracy as a foil to oppressive, dictatorial regimes.
In contrast, Trump’s foreign policy approach prioritizes financial concerns rather than human rights and the rule of law. This is demonstrated by the President’s public statements following Khashoggi’s death. Reacting to the news, Trump remarked that he did not ‘like it with respect to reporters. It’s a terrible, terrible precedent. We can’t let it happen. And we’re being very tough.’ Trump’s initial objections, however, were soon replaced with support for Saudi Arabia and an attempt to downplay the significance of Khashoggi’s murder. Perhaps seeking to deflect attention away from the horrific murder, Trump asserted that Khashoggi was not a citizen and that he was murdered in Turkey, not in the United States. At a White House briefing, Trump emphasized that Khashoggi was not a U.S. citizen while extolling the amount of money that Saudi Arabia spends on U.S. military equipment. In reaction to a discussion of sanctions, Trump argued that, ‘they’re spending $110 billion on military equipment,’ and that punitive measures would not help the United States ‘when it comes to jobs and not when it comes to our companies losing out on work.’ Trump made it clear that financial interests were of greater importance than affirming traditional American values.
Taking his defense of MBS a step further, Trump more recently suggested that mysterious ‘rogue killers’ were at fault. Blatantly providing cover to MBS, Trump declared to the press that ‘maybe these could have been rogue killers.’ Blaming ‘rogue killers’, despite all intelligence reports to the contrary is Trump’s most obvious attempt to clear MBS of complicity in Khashoggi’s murder. In defending MBS, Trump also attempted to link the public outcry with the recent Kavanaugh hearing by complaining that ‘you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh, and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.’ Moreover, the President seems to fault the Saudi cover-up rather than condemning Khashoggi’s murder by observing that ‘[t]he process was no good. the execution was no good. And the cover up, if you want to call it that, was certainly no good.’ It is unclear here whether Trump is more upset by the faulty cover-up or by the fact that Khashoggi’s murder was poorly carried out.
Finally, openly expressing his hope that MBS was not complicit, Trump declared ‘I would love if he wasn’t responsible.’ In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump is unequivocally clear that he wants to believe Saudi denials of any knowledge by MBS of the plot to murder Khashoggi, mainly because of Saudi Arabian investment in the United States. Trump states, Saudi Arabia has ‘been a tremendous investor in our military equipment and other things. They buy tremendous amounts of things from our country. It probably amounts to millions of jobs, you know, a million jobs. That’s a lot of jobs. So I certainly want to believe [MBS].’
The trajectory of Trump’s commentary and attempts to exonerate MBS from direct involvement while extolling the financial benefit of Saudi Arabia as an ally demonstrates the President’s unabashed prioritization of Saudi’s financial ties to the United States over traditional American values. Such a public emphasis on absolving MBS sends a disturbing message to other authoritarian countries that traditionally may have been reluctant to jeopardize their relations with the United States by violating human rights and other democratic norms.
While Trump struggled to deflect blame from MBS, top Congressional leaders were clear in their condemnation of Khashoggi’s murder. In particular, Senator Jack Reed, the Ranking Democratic Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Saudis were clearly engaged in a cover up, wryly observing that ‘You don’t bring 15 men and a bone saw to a fist fight with a 60 year old.’ Republican senators also expressed outrage over the killing. Senator Marco Rubio remarked that the murder is ‘something we have to address from a human rights standpoint,’ while Senator Lindsey Graham vowed to ‘sanction the hell’ out of Saudi Arabia. Despite this bipartisan call to sanction Saudi Arabia, the President has not taken any steps to hold the Saudi government accountable for Khashoggi’s murder. Moreover, Trump administration officials, including Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have not publicly criticized the Crown Prince, claiming that more time is needed to ascertain how to impose sanctions on those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder.
Given Trump’s support of America’s traditional adversaries and authoritarian regimes, including Russia, North Korea, China, and Turkey, U.S. foreign policy appears to be headed in a new direction. Apparently, publicly and emphatically upholding traditional American values and human rights is not as important to Trump as receiving billions of dollars. Trump’s coddling of MBS and his willingness to accept the official Saudi position that the Crown Prince was not involved in Khashoggi’s murder demonstrates that how the United States is viewed by the world is less important than how much the United States gets paid to keep silent.
Banner Image: Image Courtesy of April Brady via Wikimedia Images © 2018, some rights reserved