The grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi – for which the Saudis have now accepted responsibility (sort of) with some cockamamie blame-the-victim scenario – proves Benjamin Disraeli’s Macchiavellian dictum that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.
It’s in the interest of the United States to ally with Saudi Arabia (oil, arms deal, anti-Iran). It’s in the business interests of the House of Trump to be in bed with the House of Saud, so what’s a murder and dismemberment of a journalist among (for-now) friends?
Khashoggi may have written for The Washington Post and lived in the United States, but he wasn’t an American and his death didn’t happen here, the thinking goes. No one cares about all those Yemenis starving to death at American-backed Saudi hands, so why should the death of one journalist matter?
Except that it does, in part because you can’t quantify life. As Joseph Stalin said – and I can’t believe it’s come to quoting him, but then, remember, no permanent friends or enemies: “One person’s death is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” What’s happening in Yemen is a humanitarian catastrophe, which, like the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya, is hard to wrap your mind around. It’s terrible but for many it’s faceless and it does not lessen the loss of Khashoggi, who has put a face on the victims of Saudi medieval barbarism in a way that the thousands of dead and suffering Yemenis perhaps cannot. (Indeed, if there’s anything good to come of Khashoggi’s death is that the disastrous war in Yemen has come under greater scrutiny. The individual has been rendered universal; the universal, individual.)
Khashoggi was someone’s son, friend and fiancé. (Think of her, Hatice Cengiz, waiting outside the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul for 11 hours for a beloved who never returned. Does she wonder what she might’ve said or remembered had she known that would be the last time she would ever see him?)
He was someone’s colleague. He wrote for an American newspaper, lived in America, contributed to American society. But his importance is more than this. By putting a face to a death no human being should have to die, Khashoggi put a face once again to our mortality and the brutality of this rudderless world with its abject lack of Alexandrian leadership – leadership from the front.
Oh, there are plenty of would-be Alexanders – strongmen with outsize egos who lord it over others, particularly the vulnerable. But there appear to be none with a sense of responsibility that acts as a check on power. The Saudi murder of an American-based journalist in Istanbul is MBS (Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in gangsta mode) being strong on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and American President Donald J. Trump. Erdoğan, no angel, at least gets that MBS was trying to play him; Trump, not so much. Or maybe he just doesn’t care. He’s not a narcissist who wants to do a good job, because it’s a reflection on him. He’s a narcissist playing a zero-sum game. Not only must he win, but you must lose. (Hence his reaction to his legal victory over Stormy Daniels was not to take the high road – Trumpet’s inner GPS never points to the high road – but to slam her as a “horseface.”)
Yet, this is one narrative that the narrator-in-chief has not been able to control. The old Bret Kavanaugh innocent-until-proven-guilty ploy hasn’t worked with the base here, because it finds Trump arguing for globalism rather than against it. Remember, Saudi Arabia is going to buy $110 billion in arms from the U.S. instead of from Russia and China. But wait: I thought we didn’t care about global trade and wielding influence? Ah, only when it affects our wallets.
But as far as global influence is concerned, instead of making America great again, allowing MBS to get away in effect with murder is making America look weak again. On this both the left and right agree.
As Niall Stanage, writing in The Memo on The Hill’s website, observes: “Back on Oct. 10, commentator Rod Dreher wrote in The American Conservative that ‘MBS is making a fool of Trump now’ and expressed the hope that ‘Congress bloodies Saudi Arabia’s nose.’”
Trump’s on the ropes here and he knows it. Note his annoyed, “This one has caught the imagination of the world, unfortunately. It’s not a positive….”
As if a man’s death at the hands of thugs were nothing more than a marketing inconvenience.
Tags: Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post, Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United States, Donald J. Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Brett Kavanaugh, Niall Stanage, The Memo, The Hill, The American Conservative, Rod Dreher, Stormy Daniels