“Why do you work for a murderer?”
Increasingly, it seems that is a question many Americans should be preparing themselves to answer.
Each year, Saudi Arabia employs, through consultants or otherwise, a host of retired American generals, diplomats, intelligence experts and others. Until now, they could assure themselves this was a win-win: lucrative for them, to be sure, but also enhancing mutual understanding with an important U.S. ally.
Now, as more and more evidence implicates Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the reported murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Saudi diplomatic property in Istanbul, the equation has changed.
So how might, say, a retired Air Force colonel explain his work when his daughter asks, “Daddy, why do you work for a murderer?”
“Well, it helps to pay your future college tuition,” he might answer. “And besides, I finally get to fly business class. Riyadh is no picnic, but they always spring for a couple of nights in a five-star hotel in London or Abu Dhabi on the way over and the way back. . . . And if I don’t do it, someone else will.”
This, essentially, is President Trump’s answer, at least so far. Yes, the Saudis may have committed a monstrous crime. But, the president said, “They’re spending $110 billion purchasing military equipment and other things. If we don’t sell it to them, they’ll say, ‘Well, thank you very much. We’ll buy it from Russia.’ ”
To an ethically challenged businessman, that may be nothing but common sense. To a patriot, the argument is self-evidently misbegotten. If the United States is willing to sacrifice its moral standing for $110 billion (most of which will never materialize, but never mind that), why should any nation ever look to it for leadership?
Watching his daughter try to process his justification, the retired colonel understands what Trump does not: No salary, no military contract, could compensate for the loss of the world’s respect. So he tries again.
“You see,” he says, “we need Saudi Arabia’s help to stand up to the really bad actor in the region — Iran.”
“Oh,” she says, hoping this answer will be more satisfying. “What makes Iran so bad?”
“Well, they don’t let their people express themselves freely, or practice the religion of their choice, or even dress the way they want,” the colonel replies.
“And Saudi Arabia does?”
“Well . . . ,” he answers. “No. Not exactly. But Iran also does terrible things in its neighborhood — fighting in Syria, interfering in Lebanon.”
By now, she is almost afraid to ask. “And Saudi Arabia . . . ?”
The colonel, thinking about Saudi war crimes in Yemen — the busloads of children blown up, the 400,000 children suffering from malnutrition, the worst cholera epidemic in modern history — falls silent.
Falls silent, and maybe reflects. On the enormity of what happened in Istanbul. On the extraordinary brazenness of this crime, even in an era when norms are eroding as the United States abdicates its role as leader of the free world.
The colonel thinks about Khashoggi, a peaceable, passionate man who, it happens, turns 60 this weekend. A man who loves his country, but exiled himself from it so he could write freely and, as he hoped, influence it to modernize in a constructive way.
“To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison,” he wrote last year. “I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.”
The colonel shakes his head as he wonders how such a man could come to be viewed by the crown prince as an enemy. How he could be lured to a Saudi diplomatic compound and then, if Turkish reports are correct, murdered and dismembered.
And he thinks: Can I possibly work for such a regime, and still look at myself in the mirror each morning?
Which is the question that we, as a nation, must ask ourselves now. Even if we still needed Saudi Arabia’s oil, which we do not; even if Saudi Arabia was a strong and principled ally in the region, which it is not; even if it helped push the Palestinians toward peace, or kept its promises in Yemen, or bought the weapons that Trump thinks it is going to buy. . . . No matter what Saudi Arabia offered, could its supposed friendship be worth shrugging off the ensnaring and killing of a critic whose only offense was to tell the truth?
Is that the country we want to be?