Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Trump said Friday that he finds “credible” the bald-faced and ridiculous lies the Saudi government came up with to explain the death of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. He thereby signaled his intention of sweeping the affair under the table for the sake of Saudi arms sales. His position is no surprise, given his own criminal discourse toward journalists and his entire disregard for the rule of law.
The lawless and fascist discourse of US president Donald Trump is not without consequences in world affairs. Part of what a superpower does is tell its client states ‘no’ when they propose some atrocity. The superpower does not do this out of the milk of human kindness. But where a powerful state has allies and clients it wants to be able to deploy them effectively to accomplish policy goals, which often requires that they be credible to other allies.
Europe already had the severest misgivings about Trump’s attempt to establish an economic blockade of Iran, deploying an Israeli-Saudi axis in the region to do so. The European Union is more invested in an international rule of law than the US, and so takes a dim view of Israel’s illegal relocation of hundreds of thousands of Israelis onto Palestinian land in the Occupied West Bank, and realizes that Israel is a liability rather than an asset in Middle East diplomacy.
Now, European heads of state and ministers are staying away from a planned major Saudi conference on the global economy, which they had earlier signaled they would attend.
Internationally, Trump’s hopes for a Western front against Iran have just crumbled entirely.
Although Saudi Arabia is number two in arms purchases from France, Emmanuel Macron has been trying to distance himself from Riyadh, declaring that the kingdom isn’t a major client of France and that the news of Khashoggi’s death is “serious and concerning.” He has halted certain diplomatic visits to Saudi Arabia and is seeking a common European front on the issue.
As for the function of a superpower being to tell people ‘no,’ Trump has been doing the opposite.
Trump boasted that he could shoot someone down walking in the street on 5th Avenue and his fan base would not care. Strong men around the world heard him joking about murdering political opponents.
Trump urges crowds to menace journalists, calls them the ‘worst people,’ and just praised Montana congressman Greg Gianforte for body-slamming a young journalist, Ben Jacobs, and breaking his classes, for which Gianforte was fined by a court.
Trump wants to introduce political libel laws into the US, such that a politician could sue anyone who crticizes him for defamation. The Saudis don’t do anything so formal as instituting court proceedings, but political libel is very much a crime in Saudi Arabia and it is used to silence critical voices and journalists.
When asked about Putin’s own notorious assassinations of his critics, Trump gave the Russian strong man a pass, saying that the US also whacks people. Well no doubt it does, but not Washington Post journalists, or at least not openly and regularly.
When Trump made a state visit to Saudi Arabia in May of 2017, he said to his audience there, “We are not here to lecture you. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship.” You couldn’t find a clearer mandate for strongman rule in the Arab world or a clearer promise that the US would wink at it.