• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Moral Equivalence: From Moscow to the Middle East

October 2018

When discussing his personal, international relationships on television with Bill O’Reilly a few years ago, President Trump shocked us in a way that we were only just then beginning to realize he could. Broadcast live before the Super Bowl was scheduled to begin, he made explicit, however uncomfortably for those of us abridged of the times, the respect he held and—as time has proven—continues to hold for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I do respect him” said the president, as his eyes met those of the rarely incredulous though always acerbic O’Reilly. Perplexed, if only slightly and momentarily so, that veteran, virile Fox News host replied with the terseness and bluntness that was his trademark. “Putin is a killer”, O’Reilly responded, as if the comment didn’t require his saying. No matter, responded the president—so are we. Making morals equivalent before the big game and before our eyes, Trump expounded on his point to say that we, America, “got a lot of killers” ourselves. “What…?” he explained to O’Reilly, as if sallying ahead in a fit of friendly fire, “You think our country is so innocent”?

Surely, it’s not. Though this exchange between a now-ousted O’Reilly and a still-unimpeached President Trump is somewhat aged, a recent event has brought it back to mind. That event is, of course, the unlawful detention, the lurid murder, and the gratuitous dismemberment of the Saudi-American columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.

Killed within the confines of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the circumstances of Khashoggi’s death haven’t yet loosened their infamy nor weakened their intrigue. In fact, they’ve grown stronger with the slow passage of another ambiguous week. Seeking but not discovering a credible narrative of what actually occurred, the international “community” has been roiled in a vortex of suspicion whose end feels not near. So too has it been stuck in a mire of harrowing, Medieval, torturous deaths (some reports claim that Khashoggi’s fingers were lopped off, his generative piece removed, and his skin flayed). So far as world leaders are concerned, most want answers to explain precisely what happened in Turkey in the middle of an otherwise routine October day. Others, on the contrary, are willing to content themselves with hazy explanations and unconvincing, if not expedient, machinated “truths”.

President Trump and the Saudi king and prince are those of whom this second faction is composed. Following Khashoggi’s death (so far as we can assume that the journalist is indeed dead; that certainty hasn’t yet been confirmed) has been a week of prevarication on both sides—be they Arabian or American. Prevarication, I might add, with the end game being preservation—by which I mean preservation of the status quo.

You see, our relationship with the Saudi monarchy is complex, but, ultimately, immensely lucrative. In the absence of what is now, as before, sanctioned Iranian oil, it’s upon Saudi barrels we rely for continually cheap prices at the pump. In addition, the Saudi “sovereign wealth fund” is a rather undiscriminating investor in all things American and Silicon. From IT to VR to electric and autonomous vehicles to financial houses and hedge funds, the Saudis have emptied their purses in hopes of western and compounded returns. Focusing on things domestic, they’ve also paid lip service to modernity, allowing—with some restrictions but for the first time under the Wahhabist regime—various films to play in its theaters and women to drive on its streets.

Disfavoring the mere thought of a deficit in trade, we consumptive Americans export to these now equally avaricious Saudis a great many things. Aside from our films and our Hollywood dreams, U.S. companies in the past few years have begun sending to that arid peninsula billions of dollars-worth of goods. Chiefly, our chief export has been an endless cache of military supplies. We’ve sent to them missile systems and logistics, ordnances and tanks. All of these purchases on the Saudi’s part have amounted to literally billions of dollars coming America’s way. As it’s been, so shall it remain, this relationship has been a veritable windfall for that much-bemoaned military-political-industrial complex. What more could an industry, built upon the perpetuation of war and the profits of death, want during the course of this relatively peaceful time in which we live?

More than just a commercial partner of an extravagant sort with an expensive and expansive taste, Saudi Arabia has blossomed into a geo-political ally of which we have in that region very few. Unlike the bulk of Middle Eastern and Arabian countries, the Saudis have cast what looks to be a sympathetic eye toward our adamantine ally—that oft-besieged little Mediterranean state of Israel. It’s less a consequence of a shared ideology (after all, Islamic fundamentalists and Zionist Jews aren’t known for their compatible doctrines and views), and more one of a shared animosity.

Explaining their unusual relationship, the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” might best apply. That “enemy”, by whose presence other enemies transmogrify into friends is of course Iran. The Saudis see in Iran a possibly hegemonic Middle Eastern force; the Iranians, for their part, see in their own reflections a similar image—and while the Saudis may shudder at the thought, the Iranians like what they see. The former would like nothing more than to shatter that mirage, or at least cloud it for some time longer until their own power can consolidate in full. In this want to stifle Iranian prospects, America, Israel, and—however surprisingly—Saudi Arabia are all faithfully aligned.

In hoping to preserve the fabric of this triumvirate against the danger of a clear-sighted Tehran, and to preserve an extraordinary list of business deals, the president of the United States has been bending over sideways and contorting himself to believe in a fantastic Arabian tale. As repeatedly he’s done when attempting to rationalize Vladimir Putin’s actions (or, for that matter, those actions of any number of morally dubious autocrats from Turkey to China, the Philippines to North Korea) Trump is of the mind that he should give foreign despots the benefit of the doubt. The problem is, however, that in this case, that doubt is wearing increasingly thin.

Yet still, Trump hasn’t yet explicitly questioned, let alone denounced the Saudi regime. He’s taken as robust evidence against the Saudi government’s involvement in Khashoggi’s killing old King Salman’s “strong denial”, voiced to him over the phone. Trump has also floated his own conjecture as to what might’ve taken place at the consulate on that day. In a fabricated plot line that would absolve Saudi Arabia of its criminality and fault, Trump has suggested that “rogue killers” rather than government officials, were responsible for the botched and now publicized coup.

I fear that President Trump’s next step will be one toward his earlier “Putin position”, where he sinks America’s standing if only to keep Saudi Arabia’s respectability afloat. I hope that he doesn’t, but I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to witness him venture off into the land of moral equivalence, where he’s known to become lost. There, he’ll cloud the difference between a blatant Saudi-directed assassination, and a lesser sin perpetrated by the U.S. at some earlier time. All this he’s willing to sacrifice on the altar of big, profitable, crude, business. Lest he not forget, moral equivalence does not pay.

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