The reported murder of Jamal Khashoggi has been handled by President Trump as something that went awry in one of his hotels. Housekeeping has been summoned, PR alerted and the room itself spiffed up. It has been treated as just one of those things that happen from time to time. At any rate, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was dispatched to handle it all. He did a lot of smiling.
What’s missing — what’s painfully missing — is any sense of deep indignation. A barbarity has been committed. The victim was a Washington Post columnist, yes, but above all he was a human being. He was engaged to be married. He had children from a previous relationship. He was entitled to normal human rights. Beyond that, he was entitled to the protection that all residents of America think they have as a matter of course. This is not a business transaction. But Trump treats it as if it is. From him comes no denunciation. From him comes no expression of genuine outrage. Foremost in his mind seems to be Saudi oil, Saudi purchases of U.S. weaponry and Saudi hostility toward Iran.
Saudi Arabia is an ally, has been since Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 met with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, both the father of his nation and approximately 45 sons. Relations between the United States and the kingdom have been close. The same can be said for many American universities and the Saudi government. So this is not a simple matter. But it is a dilemma that the Trump administration has made worse. Typical of its brazen Gordian Knot approach to foreign policy, it overturned tradition by making the president’s first official trip abroad to Riyadh — not to our neighbors, Mexico and Canada, not to Britain, with whom we once had a special relationship. Trump’s embrace of the Saudi crown prince, the brash Mohammed bin Salman, was both naive and foolish. It gave MBS, as he is known, the totally reasonable idea that he was adored by Washington and could make war in Yemen, dabble in kidnapping of a regional leader (the prime minister of Lebanon), overreact to Qatari provocation and, just maybe, murder a critic when he visited the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
The manner of the alleged crime is breathtaking. It evidences a shocking arrogance, a near-total disregard for appearances. From what the Turks have said, a hit squad of 15 men flew into Istanbul and departed the same day. Some of the men were members of MBS’s security detail. One was a frequent traveling companion. Another was a forensic specialist, apparently adept at dismemberment — an odd specialty for a one-day visit. They presented their passports. Computers tracked them. This was not spycraft.
Still, the president is restrained in his denunciation. He has referred to “rogue” killers — rogues who somehow managed to fly privately in two separate airplanes, enter the consulate and then, after a few hours, leave. The only rogue here, actually, is the president of the United States. He sounds like an imbecile.
Saudi Arabia is a harsh place of public beheadings and extreme misogyny. MBS was trying to move it out of its medieval mentality and customs, for which he was excessively praised, but it seems he has a way to go. Saudi Arabia and the United States share some interests. They do not share values. And we need their oil less and less, while they need to sell it more and more.
Trump’s failures as president are legion. But his paramount promise to make America great again is where he has failed above all. He is incapable of articulating our deepest moral values about human rights and, somehow, has managed to make America complicit or apologetic about an outrageous crime. This is not greatness. This is weakness.