A License To Kill

As the evidence of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s (MBS) involvement in the murder of Washington Post journalist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi continues to grow, the President of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of State expand their dissembling and cover up on behalf of the leadership of Saudi Arabia.

It is embarrassing in one sense and appalling in every way.

Whether or not Prince Mohammad thought that he would be able to murder someone on foreign soil with impunity and without consequence or not, with the complicity and direct efforts of the President of the United States he will get away with it.  The president trotted out his tag line that worked so well in the nomination and confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh by accusing the press and world leaders elsewhere of jumping to conclusions.  Or as he said in an interview with the Associated Press,  “Here we go again with, you know, 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.”

The preponderance of evidence, including from Turkey our NATO ally, indicates that the Saudis certainly did murder Mr. Khashoggi and given the way the Saudis govern, it is preposterous to stipulate that Saudi hit men that are known to work directly for the Crown Prince would have gone “rogue” and killed him without the Prince’s knowledge.

One element that indicates the president is involved in a cover up is the fact that the U.S. intelligence agencies were directed not to follow through with scheduled briefings for the Senate Intelligence Committee concerning events surrounding the murder.  As Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn), the Chairman of the committee told reporters yesterday, the administration has “clamped down” on providing information to the committee and cancelled a scheduled briefing on Tuesday.  Senator Corker went on to say that before his committee’s oversight of the Executive Branch was blocked, that the intelligence he had seen indicates that Mr. Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudis.  He added, “everything points to MBS.  This could not have happened without his approval.”

Once again, this administration is driven by money and money alone.  Apparently they are not knowledgeable enough or competent enough to figure out how to condemn the actions resulting in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi without breaking off relations with Saudi Arabia, an important, if unreliable, friend in the Middle East.  The Saudis (and their money) are important players in the region and can be a counter to Iran.  Diplomacy and foreign relations require skill and knowledge of the trade craft involved in the push and pull of world events.  Evidently this administration cannot pull it off.

For example, back in the day I spent a lot of time in the Middle East and in dealing with regional issues, including in Saudi Arabia.  The Bedouin tradition is one of extreme hospitality, based on their origins as nomads in the desert where survival might depend on help from others.  This ingrained hospitality has carried over to modern Saudi Arabia.  Part of that tradition is to never say “no.”  They don’t.  But it doesn’t take long to figure out that not saying “no” doesn’t mean “yes.”  An apocryphal but not too unrealistic negotiation would go something like this:  “Will you commit to buying $110 billion in U.S. arms?”  “It would be a great honor.” “So that means you will?”  “Inshallah!”  (God willing!)  And so it goes.  One walks away thinking that there was a deal until it comes time to put ink to paper.

The president is being hoodwinked if he thinks that the value of the Saudis to U.S. security interests is so immense that it outweighs human rights, and thus he needs to cover up the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.  They need us more than we need them.  Some examples. The U.S. is now a net exporter of oil, thanks to the expansion of the commercial viability of shale oil.  We do import oil, but our biggest supplier is Canada.  Oil is a fungible commodity, the Saudis need to sell their oil as their economy is nearly entirely dependent on it.  They aren’t going to stop.  The arms sales the president is so afraid of losing constitute a small percentage of the U.S. defense industry.  More to the current point, most of the Saudi’s military equipment is U.S., especially their aircraft and the munitions they carry.  They will need U.S. spare parts and maintenance contracts for years to come.  They will not cut those off as it would be against their own best interests especially as they continue to interfere in the war in Yemen.  Should war break out between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Saudis are toast without us.  And so on.  One gets the idea.  The Saudis need us economically and militarily more than we need them. We hold most of the cards and a skillful administration would know how to parlay them into the Saudi’s taking accountability for a crime against humanity. Diplomatically and through intelligence sharing they can provide the U.S. some real value.  However, the president argues in terms of the bottom line — money — and not in terms of their other value added.

Apparently, human rights has no place in U.S. foreign policy, a break in our traditions since World War II.  That is not to say that the U.S. hasn’t looked the other way in the past in order to attain our national interests.  We have, in some truly shameful circumstances.  Rarely, if ever, however, has the president actively worked in favor of a foreign power to cover up a heinous crime.

Perhaps there are other motivations such as personal financial gain for the president and his family?

Over the last 18 months the U.S. has given the dictators of the world a license to kill.  In addition to the unfolding events in Saudi Arabia, the president has shrugged over Russian president Vladimir Putin ordering a poison attack on British soil, congratulated Philippine president Duterte’s hit squads killing thousands of people on the streets in his war on drugs, congratulated China’s president Xi on changing the succession of government to become President for Life, as he did with Turkey’s president Erdogan who undermined democracy in his own country and installed himself as a de facto autocrat, and of course expressed his admiration for the world’s current most ruthless dictator North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.  As the President of the United States said about the Great Leader, “We went back and forth, then we fell in love. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they are great letters. We fell in love.”

How nice.

Meanwhile he trashes our allies in the U.K,, Germany, Japan, Canada and the entirety of NATO, to name a few of the nations we actually depend upon .

Let’s look from the outside in.  Were I sitting in North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia or a host of other nations led by autocrats and dictators, I would conclude that all one needs to do to silence and paralyze the United States is to impress the president on how wonderful he is and to put some money on the line.  After that, anything goes. “And when you’re a star they let you do it.  You can do anything.”  Maybe those despots just “gotta use some Tic Tacs” to get what they want.

Of course poor people in Africa or Latin America are a direct threat to the survival of the United States.  I guess that’s why today the president threatened to put the military on our border with Mexico to stop the “invasion” coming from Central America.

Something is upside down in our country.

 


How Much Is A Life Worth?

Roughly two weeks ago Jamal Khashoggi disappeared while visiting the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.  Mr. Khashoggi, born and raised in Saudi Arabia, was a frequent critic of the Saudi regime who was living in exile as a permanent green card holder in the United States and was a Washington Post journalist.  Mr. Khashoggi entered the consulate, as seen on security cameras outside the building, but was never observed coming out and has not been heard from since.  The Saudis claim that he left the Consulate in fine condition but can provide no proof and cannot say where he may be.  The Turkish government states that it has hard evidence — reportedly audio and possibly video recordings — that Mr. Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured, murdered and dismembered inside the Consulate.  The Turks report that a fifteen man “hit squad” flew in and out of Turkey from Saudi Arabia on two private aircraft before and after the alleged murder.

This incident is getting the full attention of both political parties in the United States Senate as well as freedom loving nations around the world.  Demands for answers from the Saudis and a full investigation into the disappearance of a respected journalist are growing.  For those nations that care about human rights, this is an egregious and blatant act of state sponsored terrorism against an innocent civilian conducted on the foreign soil of a NATO ally.  It cannot be tolerated.

While acknowledging that a state ordered murder of Mr. Khashoggi  (“if it’s true”) would be a problem (“We don’t like it. We don’t like it even a bit.”),  the President of the United States has been clear over the last several days that restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia should not be on the table.  Or as he said on Thursday, ” I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion — which is an all time record — and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money.” (Mr. Trump keeps touting the $110 billion arms deal, but analysts say that the Saudis have only committed to about $10 billion and it is debatable that the Saudis will ever buy the full $110 billion as their military cannot assimilate all of those weapons.)  So we know that Mr. Khashoggi’s life is not worth $110 billion or even $10 billion.  What is it worth?

This murderous development significantly impacts U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.  The Trump Administration, through the president’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, has put all of their Middle East policy eggs in the Saudi basket.  The reasons are many, varied and complicated, but if you can’t tell the players without a score card, a quick summary follows.

The modern state of Saudi Arabia was created in 1930 under King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud.  The relationship with the United States began following the discovery of oil in the kingdom in 1938 and dates to a meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul-Aziz aboard the USS Quincy while anchored in the Suez Canal.  A hand shake between the two took on the force of a treaty.  The kingdom would supply oil to the U.S. in exchange for security and protection guarantees from the U.S.  That same basic agreement is still in force today, but with greater complications.

The kingdom was ruled for most of its existence by one of the sons of King Abdul-Aziz.  As one half-brother died, another would succeed him as king.  For all of this time, the main focus of Saudi policy was, and is, the preservation of the rule of the royal family (which now numbers in the thousands with uncles, cousins, second cousins, etc. that can trace lineage back to King Abdul Aziz) and their wealth.  As the brothers died off, there was a power struggle within the family as to how succession would be passed down for the future.  Currently, the winner of that struggle is Mohammad bin Salman, at 33 the current Crown Prince, heir apparent and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia as his father, King Salman, the nominal ruler of the kingdom is reported to be in poor health.

Crown Prince Mohammad, commonly referred to as MBS, is also good friends with Mr. Kushner.  Both are young and apparently bonded in the days following the election in 2016.  Many thought originally  that Prince Mohammad would be a reformer within the kingdom and bring it into the 21st century through economic and social reform.  Recently, analysis of his efforts indicates that he is a good public relations man in pushing the appearance of reform, but in fact his efforts are focused on establishing himself as the autocratic head of state and in consolidating power for himself, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.  For example in 2017 he had over 40 members of  the royal family and senior government officials arrested and imprisoned along with roughly 200 other businessmen, bankers, broadcasters and others.  Ostensibly this was to rid the government of corruption but it is widely viewed as a test of his power and an attempt to eliminate any competition for his leadership.  Most were eventually released after paying “fines” (read bribes) to the Crown Prince worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  It is widely believed that Mr. Kushner may have shared highly classified intelligence with the Prince prior to the purge naming those in the country that opposed his taking the reins .

Mr. Kushner sees MBS as the key to countering Iran in the region and as the key to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The prince positioned himself to be a “player” but so far the Saudis have not delivered on their promises (as anyone knowing how things work in that area would know) even as the U.S. has delivered on their end, most controversially by supporting the Saudis with arms and intelligence during their ongoing military involvement in Yemen.

Additionally, and not surprisingly, both the Trump and Kushner family business organizations have long-standing and wide-spread business involvement in Saudi Arabia.  When Mr. Trump was in serious financial trouble in the 1990s, for example, he sold condos, a hotel, parts of his business and his yacht to Saudis to raise money.  It is rumored that the Saudis saved the Kushner family business by taking on the loan for a prominent New York land mark.  There are other business connections that have been detailed in many venues, but without the release of a certain president’s tax returns and other normally provided financial information, the true extent of the deals cannot be determined.  Oh by the way, the biggest spender at the Trump Hotel in Washington DC since the election is the Saudi government.

Mr. Khashoggi wrote often and furiously about the corruption in the Saudi royal family, their business ties and the efforts by Prince Mohammad to take control of the country.  Or as he said last year to The New Yorker, “It’s an interesting form of dictatorship that is being created in Saudi Arabia.  MBS is now becoming the supreme leader.”

Mr. Khashoggi would never have been murdered without the knowledge of Prince Mohammad.

And all of this is the tip of the iceberg.  Our relationship is a complicated one, on all levels.  There are advantages and disadvantages to working with the Saudis.  The alleged murder of Mr. Khashoggi puts a lot of the national and personal goals of this administration in peril should the president choose to act on punishing the Saudis.  The Senate is invoking the Global Magnitsky Act based on a December 2016 law that invokes sanctions against anyone or any government implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world.  The president is resisting.  (Ironically the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Mr. Trump, Jr. and the Russians concerned the Magnitsky Act which at the time involved sanctions against Russians committing human rights abuses. In December of that year it expanded to a global scale.)

Mr. Trump knows he must act tough, but my bet is that he hopes that it all blows over.  Today he reportedly spoke to King Salman, the titular head of Saudi Arabia, who assured him that the Saudis had nothing to do with Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.  He flatly denied it.  Or as Mr. Trump told reporters today, “It wasn’t like there was a question in his mind.  The denial was very strong.”  (As one recalls, anyone or any government that strongly denies a murder by chemical attack — hello Russia — or preying on young girls — hello Roy Moore — or anything else is believed by Mr. Trump because they are “very strong” in their denials.)

To add injury to insult, Mr. Trump added to his statement by saying that “It sounded to me like it could have been rogue killers.  Who knows?”  Indeed.  Can you say “cover up”?

I can see it developing already.  No official U.S. government action will ensue as Mr. Trump says we can’t be sure who did it.  The Saudis deny it.  Very strongly.  It could have been rogue killers.  We cannot give up billions in arms sales.  Too bad.  I feel bad for his family.  Hey, look over there!

And we move on.

There was a time when the U.S. cared about and set an example for human rights, freedom of the press and other values we held dearly as a nation.  Now, not so much.  Apparently all of our relations are now transactional and only get fully considered based on the financial bottom line.  It only matters how much money is involved, not what is right.

Apparently a human life isn’t worth anything to the United States anymore.