That is the response this week of U.S. President Donald Trump when asked by reporters about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. That reply followed a laconic and baffling — albeit slightly longer — statement released by the White House hours earlier that detailed the president’s thinking about the killing. While realists back Trump’s reasoning, his answer is troubling: Not just because the logic is flawed, but because there appears to be no moral compass that orients his response. Sadly, such value-free foreign policy is spreading.
Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul nearly two months ago. The government in Riyadh changed its story repeatedly before admitting that he had been killed in the building and his body dismembered and disposed. The steady drip of evidence, including tape recordings of the killing obtained by Turkish officials, forced the Saudis to acknowledge their role in the murder. Several Saudi Arabian individuals have been arrested in connection with the murder and, despite official denials, doubts persist about the complicity of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman.
The White House statement about the killing and Trump’s subsequent remarks made three points. The first is that uncertainty surrounds what happened and why. Despite evidence provided by the Turkish government and an independent analysis by the CIA — which reportedly has high confidence that the crown prince was behind the killing — Trump insists that “we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder” and he accepts the Saudi government’s claim that the crown prince was not involved.
Trump’s readiness to exculpate the crown prince reflects his second key point: the importance of good relations with Saudi Arabia for the U.S. economy. The White House statement noted that Riyadh had agreed to invest $450 billion in the United States and buy $110 billion in arms, both of which “would create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development and much additional wealth in the United States.” Those claims are greatly inflated in value and impact. Trump added that his good relations with the Saudis has helped stabilize oil markets, ignoring the fact that the Saudis themselves have a powerful interest in such stability.
Finally, there is the geopolitical dimension, which is most important to him, at least as articulated in the statement. Trump begins by noting that “the world is a very dangerous place!” and the U.S.-Saudi partnership is crucial to protecting U.S. interests. He points to Iran, Riyadh’s rival for regional primacy, which is backing a proxy war in Yemen, supports the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, and launches terror attacks against the U.S. and its allies and partners. In this world, the murder of a single individual is dwarfed in significance by the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, “a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. 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.”
Realists applaud this ranking of priorities. For them, the reality of national security and regional stability (which they equate as the same thing) demands no deviation. Yet this thinking overlooks the fact that the premeditated murder of an individual by government agents under the roof of a government building is no less a form of terrorism. It ignores that such actions — and others, like the unrestrained bombing of civilians in the fighting in Yemen — blur any distinction between “good guys” and “bad guys.” It fails to acknowledge that the alignment of the U.S. with the perpetrators of such deeds stains the U.S. image, undermines its soft power and diminishes its power and legitimacy. It does great damage to the U.S. national interest. While Trump’s thinking is not unique, the crudeness of his geopolitical calculation is.
Other countries must closely study this lesson on the role of values in diplomacy: Japan should pay close attention. A pillar of Tokyo’s foreign policy is the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” and Japanese officials repeatedly note that the concept aims to promote “universal values” such as freedom, democracy and the rule of law. All too often, however, that claim is undercut by a subsequent readiness to ignore violations of those same values by partners — in Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, to name but three — and that blindness is justified by geopolitical logic.
The realists claim that Tokyo cannot afford to antagonize other governments given the fierce competition with China. Yet that thinking discredits the far more powerful argument — that Beijing’s readiness to disregard those same values ultimately undermines that country’s influence in the region. Neither Washington nor Tokyo can argue that another country’s indifference to values damages that country’s standing — and allows it to make the same mistake without suffering the same consequences. That indeed, “is what it is.”
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