Week of November 23, 2018

American Politics and the Khashoggi Murder

The Khashoggi murder is taking center stage once again as some of the hard evidence of the journalist’s death inside the Saudi consulate comes to light.

The problem for those who want to highlight the murder (especially his occasional employer the Washington Post), is that the great majority of Americans really don’t care – in fact, their reaction is more likely to be, “Oh, that again.”  In other words, it gets attention in the halls of power in Washington but is a very minor story elsewhere – especially as many Americans are more worried about the currently eroding stock market.

The result is that the Khashoggi story is becoming a political ping pong ball.  While American voters don’t care, President Trump is standing alongside Saudi Arabia for both personal, political and economic reasons.  Meanwhile, Trump’s opponents in both the Democratic and Republican parties are trying to take political advantage of it.

However, despite the sound and fury, Saudi Arabia remains a major American client and functionary.

Trump has been playing the pragmatic businessman in this whole affair.  In a world of tyrants, who imprison and kill journalists on a regular basis, one murder of a journalist by an economically powerful dictatorial client or ally is of little importance.

Trump released a statement on Tuesday afternoon saying, “Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

He added, “That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi… the United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”

Here Saudi Arabia is also helping by playing its most powerful public relations tool – helping to lower oil prices – always an important issue with the American public.  Americans are more likely to own a car and since distances are so vast in America, oil prices have a dramatic impact on their ability to travel, especially during the current holiday season.

This week Trump warned a group of reporters that oil prices would go “through the roof” should there be a rupture between the US and the Kingdom.  Later, the president once again left little room for subtlety by thanking the kingdom for helping to facilitate this month’s record-setting slide in oil prices.

Hailing the drop-in oil prices from multi-year highs as a “big tax cut” for Americans, the president said that while Americans should be thrilled with the drop, he would like to see prices move even lower. “Oil prices getting lower. Great! Like a big Tax Cut for America and the World. Enjoy! $54, was just $82. Thank you to Saudi Arabia, but let’s go lower!”

Trump’s congratulations come after Saudi Arabia reportedly raised production for a second straight month in November.   Admittedly, if the Saudis had their choice, they’d prefer oil prices above $80 a barrel. But they know a 20 cent drop in the price per gallon of gasoline will keep Saudi Arabia popular in the United States and make Americans forget Khashoggi.

In the world of politics, that is what the former German chancellor Otto Von Bismarck called “realpolitik.”

Those who are opposing Trump on this issue are forgetting that Americans are pragmatic, especially when it comes to gas prices.

In many cases, the political opposition isn’t based on moral issues but pure politics.  One example was the recent denunciation of Trump’s comments by Republican Senator Corker of Tennessee.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker said Tuesday that he was “really astounded” by the White House statement on Saudi Arabia and journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, likening it to “a press release for Saudi Arabia and not the United States.”

“It was unnecessarily provocative,” Corker said in an interview with ABC News Channel 9 in Chattanooga. “I don’t understand how that furthers the cause.”

Corker and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, respectively the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to President Trump demanding to decide as to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s murder. In the interview, Corker said lawmakers are still trying to “determine the appropriate way to respond.”

A determination that the Saudis are guilty would lead to more economic sanctions on the kingdom.

Although many made an issue of the fact that a fellow Republican was opposing Trump, the reality is quite different.

Corker is leaving the Senate at the end of the year because as a “liberal Republican”, he would have likely lost to the more conservative pro-Trump Republican Marsha Blackburn (who is now to fill Corker’s seat in January 2019) in the Republican primary.  Corker had also made it clear that he wouldn’t campaign against Democratic candidate Bredesen, who ran against Blackburn.

And, if that wasn’t political enough, Senator Corker admitted on Tuesday night that he has not ruled out primarying President Donald Trump for the Republican presidential primary in 2020.

When asked by reporters on Tuesday if he plans to run for president in 2020, Corker said, “I have not ruled it out.”

Obviously, there is a question if Corker is opposing Trump for moral reasons or is positioning himself for a presidential challenge against Trump.

The next issue is the American intelligence community’s knowledge of the event, its history with Trump, and if Trump can be expected to rely upon their assessment.

Despite leaks that the intelligence communities discover later after Khashouggi murder that he was in danger, there is concern that the US intelligence community knew of the planned attack on Khashoggi and didn’t warn him.  There is an internal government order in place requiring U.S. intelligence agencies to warn an intended victim if the agency acquires information that a threat of kidnapping, murder, or serious bodily injury is imminent.

But the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted communications that indicated a Saudi plan to capture Khashoggi may have been in the works:

“Before Khashoggi’s disappearance, U.S. intelligence intercepted communications of Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture him, according to a person familiar with the information. The Saudis wanted to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and lay hands on him there, this person said. It was not clear whether the Saudis intended to arrest and interrogate Khashoggi or to kill him, or if the United States warned Khashoggi that he was a target, this person said.”

Since there were no reports that Trump had been advised and had decided not to warn Khashoggi, the fault lies with the intelligence community and much of the post-murder publicity is aimed to take the pressure off the American intelligence failure to act.

This only accentuates Trump’s dislike for the American national security community.  The prime directive of any intelligence agency is to warn the national leadership of any event that could impact the nation.  Therefore, from Trump’s point of view, he has been left hanging by his intelligence community by failing to warn Khashoggi or to give him the critical intelligence beforehand.

There is also the question of the intelligence community’s hostility towards the Trump candidacy.  It appears that the US intelligence community received permission to intercept some Trump campaign communications in 2016 with the use of warrants based on flawed intelligence information.  That gives Trump another reason to distrust their opinions and analysis.

In addition, former intelligence directors John Brennan and Gen. Michael Hayden are among Trump’s harshest critics. Other former CIA leaders like Michael Morell and John McLaughlin are more circumspect. But as a group, they are far more outspoken about the current president than, say, former director George H.W. Bush was about President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s. When Trump threatened to pull Brennan’s security clearance, more than 70 former intelligence officers signed an open letter calling Trump’s action a threat to free speech.

Former CIA head Brennan said a “constitutional crisis” is fast approaching because of the clash between a commander in chief and a politicized intelligence community.

“I think the blatant disregard for the threat of foreign influence in our election and the demonization of the Intelligence Community was a turning point for a lot of us,” former branch chief Cindy Otis told a Raw Story journalist in an email. “…Critics can call me ‘The Deep State,’ but I joined the CIA under George W. Bush and the vast majority of people at CIA lean conservative on foreign policy/natsec [national security] issues.”

Six former CIA officers spoke to Raw Story of the ideals of disinterested intelligence collection and analysis as the basis for their opposition to Trump.

But the intelligence community has had it failures – many based on political considerations – something Trump is aware of.  In the 1980s, former director Bush and a host of senior agency operatives joined the Iran-Contra conspiracy. They sought to subvert the Democratic majority in Congress that had banned covert intervention in Central America. The agency’s rank and file did not object. Indeed, many applauded when President Bush pardoned four CIA officials who had been indicted in the scandal.

The failure to see the collapse of the Soviet Union was predicated on the political consideration that the US government wanted to deal with only one country (The USSR) instead of several independent states.

After the 9/11 attacks, the consensus in Langley that torture was a permissible, effective and necessary counterterrorism technique no doubt struck many intelligence officers as apolitical common sense.

In addition, in a press conference Secretary of Defense Mattis, said neither the CIA nor the Saudi government have “fully established” who was behind the killing.  In fact, CNN has said the CIA assessment is based on “available intelligence,” not specific “smoking gun type of evidence.”

Given all of this, it is easy to see why Trump questions the intelligence community’s assessment on the Khashoggi murder.  He has no reason to believe that their analysis, which has proved to be political in the recent past, is any different.

But, that’s not all.

SecDef Mattis also noted that it still wouldn’t change the fact that it is in the US’s interest to work with the Saudis.

Mattis also said that presidents don’t always get to work with “unblemished” strategic partners.  Furthermore, it’s the president’s duty to balance competing interests.

In addition to the economic reasons for supporting Saudi Arabia, there is the need to support one of America’s most important allies in the region.  Saudi Arabia, under MbS has improved relations with Israel.

To Trump administration Saudi Arabia is also a bulwark against what is perceived Iranian expansionism in the region and loyal customer of American weapons. So, to Trump and his hard-line advisers, Military or economic actions against Iran can’t be effective without Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC.

In the end, what matters is pragmatism.  Saudi Arabia helps set oil prices, which is critical for the US economy and the car driving American population.  It is also an important ally in stopping Iranian expansionism and bringing Israel and the Arab States closer together.

Although America often casts itself as the “moral compass” of the world, the reality is far from that.   Dictators are okay if they are pro-American dictators.