Saudi Arabia: The "Status Quo Ante" State
Inevitably, commerce triumphs over conscience. The coin, it seems, weighs in excess of our moral strength; the purse more than the root principles that ground us so. Apparently, and because of just how darn apparent it is, lamentably, it’s easier to consult one’s wallet than to confront one’s ethics. Even when the latter stares unblinkingly in our face, and the world at our next move, and our children up from our own two feet, the ethical eye won’t shut. Forever it rests on us, seeking but seldom finding our better half. Yet, for all its penetration into our hearts, we’ve learned silently to avert its gaze.
It’s really no surprise, then, that the president is willing to overlook the Saudi-led initiative to purge from its country all voices of dissent. The examples of such barbarity are many and they span countless administrations prior to his. That said, the one that’s best known and most resonant to us today is that which deals with the recent killing of the Washington Post’s late columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.
Not yet a distant memory, nor merely some exotic, Arabian-sounding name, Khashoggi still beats with a resounding force and vitality in our soul. One moment a reporter, the next a martyr, he was killed while visiting Turkey’s Saudi embassy for a marriage license. In a most Medieval and gratuitous way, the middle-aged Khashoggi was shorn of life—a phrase I use with both euphemistic and literal intent. Like a twelfth-century infidel or some Protestant heretic of the fifteenth, he was drawn and quartered right there in the Saudi consulate room. Quickly denuded, carefully dismembered, and attentively packed in a cargo bag, he and his “pieces” were escorted out of the room. Somewhere, at the discretion of an assassin, he was finally disposed.
Saudi complicity was seemingly obvious from the start, but our chief lawmakers—ever a chary and circumspect bunch— refrained from leaping to judgment. They wouldn’t want to be so brash, condemning in another that which they couldn’t prove themselves. And so, they awaited the facts, but these facts were little more than pre-ordained. Now, they’re (almost) available for the world to see.
The CIA has completed its primary investigation into the event. As suspected, its results do not augur well for the self-proclaimed innocence of the Saudi Crown Prince. Mohammed bin Salman, the now innocuous, now notorious “MBS” as he’s come to be known, appears to have had a direct say in the execution of Khashoggi. As of yesterday, it’s been reported that the CIA has in its possession a telephone recording between MBS and his brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. Combining the fraternal and the political, Prince Abdulaziz is also the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. During the alleged call, MBS placed an order to have Jamal Khashoggi silenced as soon as possible. The old monarchical mantra of “your wish is my command” still has its sway. MBS’s will was carried out and the CIA, apparently, has its long-sought smoking gun.
This is but further evidence directly linking MBS to the crime. Exhausting all avenues by which the agency acquires its facts, the CIA has effectively determined that MBS, de facto king of the oil-endowed state, is at personal fault. It’s done so with the exceeding confidence that only American intelligence can provide. We have, at the risk of sounding off with a bit too much conceit, the best sources in the world and the best methods by which to obtain them. All gathered information leads us in one direction: MBS had an intimate hand in Khashoggi’s death, no matter how bungled an affair the cover-up might’ve been.
Yet in what’s become a disquietingly time-honored trend (more honored, one might add, in its breach rather than its dogged observance) the president has ventured off and questioned the intelligence community. One might also add that this is a community over which he, as Executive-in-Chief, presides. He tends to do this any time the CIA's or the FBI’s or the NSA's or the military's findings bristle against his own pre-conceived notions or unmalleable predilections and thoughts. He’d rather not have them contend with reality, no matter the source from which that reality comes nor the strength and ineluctability of its charge.
He’ll always find an awkward, cringe-inducing way to avoid it—the truth, that is. More distressingly than that, though, he’ll eagerly give to our enemies the undeserved benefit of the doubt. From Putin, to Erdogan, to Xi Jinping, to Kim Jong-Un, he’s done so in nearly every case (Iran and its mullahs being the important exception to this rule; his credulity, in regard to that country’s supposedly repressed nuclear enrichment program, seems uncharacteristically to have stopped there). He released a statement after the CIA’s conclusion became publicly known. In it, and it subsequent Tweets, he explicitly contradicted the intelligence agency's findings.
Exhaling over America a miasma of doubt, the president had this to say (and it’s worth quoting at length):
“King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad 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! That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi”.
Again, this comes from a man who putatively is the best-informed in the world. He has at his beck and call the kind of boundless intelligence that couldn’t even be imagined. American informants span the globe and the technology by which their knowledge reaches us is unsurpassed. Yet even still, in the midst of this embarrassment of intelligence, he opts for ignorance almost every time.
When asked if he’d listened to the actual recording of the murder which took place in the Turkish consulate, the president sheepishly admitted that he had not. He said there was “no reason” for him to defile his sensitive ears with a “suffering tape…a violent tape” from which he couldn’t possibly gain any new knowledge he didn’t already know. Having confessed to avoiding listening to it himself, one would think he’d be all the more reliant on hearing what the CIA had to say. However, so long as that conclusion fails to be congenial with his taste, he’ll cover his ears and shout to the wind.
Deafened by the sound, so too is he blinded to the truth. The American conscience, her ethical uprightness, her moral worth are joining to stare him in the face. Alas, they impress their weighty gaze on him not. Instead, he sees through them or wrenches his neck to look around them. There he finds the place where only commerce gleams. Though MBS’s complicity in this crime is all but indisputable, the president, acting rather as Homo economicus than sapiens, has failed to see what's before his eyes. The vaunted arms deal with the Saudis is all that matters. The moralist has no place in this mercantile world.
Commerce trumps conscience; however galling, this much is painfully clear. We return to Saudi Arabia in its status quo ante form; overlooking transgressions, muting unspeakable crimes, and wiping from memory its dastardly sins. So long as we stand to make a buck, commerce will always win.