The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Trump administration’s response to it expose — among other things — the decay of one of America’s most crucial foreign policy assets: its ability to act hypocritically and get away with it.
Hypocrisy has a bad connotation, but it offers a useful middle course in the world of geopolitics; it once lubricated the engine of U.S. power. A world where the United States abandoned all ideals and values would be cowardly and vicious. On the other hand, a world where words and deeds always and transparently matched each other — one where the United States refused to work with foreign leaders whose countries did bad things — would be unworkable and probably dangerous.
Hypocrisy has traditionally allowed American presidents to skillfully manipulate the ambiguity between pious rhetoric and sordid power relations, pretending they are unaware of the bad behavior of key allies.
Those presidents thereby nod to American ideals but also get things done in an imperfect world. But President Trump’s lack of interest in any ideals beyond crude nationalism, combined with technological developments that make secrets accessible to the multitudes, spell the end of hypocrisy’s effectiveness.
Artful hypocrisy requires the long-term cultivation of a reputation as a principled player on the world stage. Toward that end, Ronald Reagan contrasted the way in which Americans held human rights dear, while the Soviet Union, Cuba and Nicaragua built gulags and brutally repressed their people. These ideals helped the United States to build coalitions abroad by signaling its values, while maintaining support for its international policies at home.
The United States frequently failed to live up to the grand ideals it proclaimed. It selfishly bent or broke the rules it had helped create, and it made common cause with unsavory authoritarian regimes and human rights abusers. When three American nuns and a missionary were sexually assaulted and murdered by the Salvadoran military, Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, seemed to blame them for their deaths, saying the nuns were “not just nuns. They were political activists.”
Although the United States knew the Salvadoran government had killed them — it had a secret tape of a conversation with the sergeant who had organized the murder — it suggested in public they had been shot accidentally when they tried to run a roadblock. Such acts of hypocrisy helped cement U.S. dominance, even when no one believed them. U.S. partners were often willing to overlook U.S. faults, preferring a marriage with repeated infidelities — lied about and covered up — to mutual accusations and divorce.
Of course, America also had to live up to its aspirations at least sometimes, both because to do otherwise would genuinely have shocked the conscience of leaders and the public and so other nations would continue to take it seriously.
The current president of the United States, however, lacks the attention span, as well as the basic moral capacity, to understand right and wrong in a way that might allow him to navigate the tricky rhetorical shoals between idealism and hard-nosed realpolitik.
Instead of hypocrisy, Trump prefers bluntness and brutality. At times, this is almost salutary. When Trump was asked whether Russian President Vladimir Putin was a killer, he asked sarcastically whether “our country was so innocent,” adding, “Our country does plenty of killing, also.” This verges on candor about past American actions.
The problem arises when Trump suggests a well-executed murder would be cause for admiration instead of shame. When he complains Saudi Arabia’s coverup of the Khashoggi killing was a “very bad original concept,” where “somebody really messed up,” it is obvious he couldn’t care less about what Saudi Arabia has done. He is upset mainly because the Saudi government botched the concealment of a ghastly killing.
This absence of even the pretense of idealism has been evident in all of Trump’s comments on the Khashoggi episode. At first, he played down the killing by observing it did not happen in America and Khashoggi was not a U.S. citizen (he was a permanent resident of the United States). Then he worried aloud that U.S. arms deals would be jeopardized if America took action. He spoke of “rogue killers” (anticipating one likely Saudi cover story).
As the evidence mounts and outrage builds, Trump has distanced himself from some of those comments. Even if he finally and grudgingly assents to serious measures against Saudi Arabia, the damage will have been done. Trump’s contortions over Khashoggi’s murder have been so flagrant U.S. allies cannot even pretend they believe America cares.
Even before Trump’s arrival in the White House, two things had changed that made skillfully deployed hypocrisy by the United States more difficult to pull off. It has simply become harder to disguise hypocritical acts. Technology such as facial recognition software and improved surveillance enable scrutiny of lies by a variety of interested parties, some of whom are eager to expose U.S. hypocrisy for their own purposes. And communications technology that allows the instant dissemination of information to millions of computer and smartphone users makes publicizing and exposing those falsehoods easier than ever.
States have always been able to discover the secrets of other states, but have usually kept the secrets to themselves. That notion seems quaint in the era of Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks. Now, not only can disillusioned troops and former National Security Agency employees leak secrets, but an entire journalistic ecosystem is primed to publish leaked information, whether it was released for principled reasons or for strategic advantage. This narrows the room for inconsistency between what states do in public and what they say in private.
Saudi Arabia had to keep changing its cover story, as the Turkish government leaked new batches of disconfirming information through the Turkish press. This made it costlier for most U.S. politicians to hypocritically overlook Khashoggi’s murder than to turn a blind eye to the deaths of thousands of civilians in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen — as they had been doing.
The decay of America’s capacity to act hypocritically hurts American influence. The United States will find it hard to persuade its allies to help implement costly sanctions against “rogue states” such as Iran as long as it protects rogues such as Saudi Arabia that openly violate civilized norms — and as long as leakers reveal our hypocrisy in nearly real time.
Past U.S. hypocrisy provided cover for many abuses. However, the abandonment of hypocrisy in favor of crude self-interest threatens to be worse.