The Khashoggi Murder: In A Realm Of Brutal Utilitarianism, How Is It A Special Case?

 Foreign affairs is always an ethics-gray zone, with complex “ends justify the means” trade-offs amid cultural clashes and uncomfortable alliances are unavoidable. President Trump has apparently decided that the nation’s alliance with Saudi Arabia is more important than taking a hard moral-ethical stand regarding what the CIA has determined was a premeditated murder committed by a member of the Saudi ruling family against a journalist. In foreign policy, such trade-offs are the norm rather than the exception, “Everybody does it” is the operative rationalization because, for centuries, every country does do it. It’s not ethical. It’s practical. The American news media is making this episode  special because a) it involves a journalist, so their interests are skewed and b) it is President Trump, and everything he does must be condemned to further the aims of the resistance.

Here was the Times this morning:

President Trump has long viewed foreign policy as a series of business deals, stripped of values and idealism. But his 633-word statement on Tuesday about the brutal killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi showed the extent to which he believes that raw, mercantilist calculations should guide the United States’ decisions about the Middle East and the wider world.

Mr. Trump made clear that he sees alliances as transactional, based on which foreign partners buy the most weapons. American jobs outweigh American values. And all countries act abhorrently, so an American president should never hold friends to different standards than enemies.

Tuesday’s message could become something of a blueprint for foreign leaders — a guide to how they might increase their standing in the eyes of the American president as well as how far they can go in crushing domestic critics without raising American ire.

The question of how far the U.S. should go in pursuing its own interests while excusing unethical or immoral acts by foreign governments is an enduring one the stretches at least back to the United States alliance with Stalin in World War II. Outside of the fact that it involves a journalist, however, the Trump “guide,” even stated in deliberately pejorative terms, seems to me to vary not one bit from the standards used by previous administrations, including the Obama Administration. China…Cuba…Iran,,,and yes, the Saudis, who have overseen state-sanctioned  brutality and human rights outrages affecting whole classes of people, not just one journalist, for a long as anyone can remember.

Trump’s “new blueprint,” it seems to me, varies from the old blueprint not one bit. Whether the old blue-print is necessary or defensive is another issue.

30 thoughts on “The Khashoggi Murder: In A Realm Of Brutal Utilitarianism, How Is It A Special Case?

  1. Trump has broken the mold in many ways for better or worse on the global stage. It is a shame he hasn’t been bolder and more truthful, even if toothlessly so, in addressing the malicious subculture of state moderate allies like SA.

  2. Jack,
    No doubt Trump is doing what you quite eloquently stated.

    However, he is being condemned for not demonstrating American values by not imposing some type of sanction on the Crown Prince himeself. I thought one of the most sacrosanct American value was that everyone is entitled to a fair trial. Simply because our intelligence agencies have a high confidence in their assessment I don’t believe that rises to beyond a reasonable doubt, especially given no defense has been heard. What of the right to cross examine witnesses, or trial by jury? Are these not American values. We applauded Vos’ change in Title IX rules regarding allegations of sexual harrassment or rape claims making it more fair for the accused. The ACLU has successfully gotten courts to conclude that even persons outside the US have due process rights, so do those rights only extend to the socially marginalized and not to heads of state? Lest we imagine that principal here where the wealthy get fewer legal protections than Joe average worker. How will that work out? Probably like the French revolution.

    The simple fact is allegations are just that allegations. Should we alter our interests based only on allegations alone or should we wait for a conviction based on a fair trial?

    • Yes, that too. This unusual story is being hyped because 1) it is juicy, with bone saws and intrigue 2) it is allied to the “Trump is an autocrat who would do the same to journalists if he could” conventional wisdom on the Left and 3) because “get Trump.” His attitude is consistent with his approach to Russian meddling in the election: “we don’t know” means “they deny it,” and “I’m not going to say definitely that they did it.”

      • I find it fascinating that none of the NATO members are sanctioning the Saudis.

        The entire notion of American values is suspect. Do we really hold dear the sanctity of life or only when it suits us. Do we truly believe in equity when we only fight for things that benefit our families. Perhaps our American value is simply do that which increases our utility or satisfaction. If that is the case then Trump is not abrogating American values.

          • Zoomie thanks for the enlightenment. The report did however equivocate by saying the Eurofighter aircraft was not subject to the embargo. The weapon sales affected involved some patrol boats and some electronics which involved a multinational consortia that included Lockheed Martin. The report said that there were no pending arm sales under negotiation so the loss was limited.
            Keep in mind both France and Germany did not want the Iran deal nullified by the US as the reinstatement of sanctions would adversely affect them economically.
            The raw mercantilist decision matrix is ubiquitous no matter how sanctimonious a nation acts.

            Its all in how an issue is framed.

  3. Is it surprising that when it involves a “journalist”, much of the press ignores the fact that conducting affairs of states cannot be whipsawed into meaninglessness by outsized reactions to every unpleasant occurrence that gains media attention? Of course, it’s also “TRUMP!” that’s a prime driver here, as you say.

    I would have more sympathy for their outrage if they had shown even a ghost of similar concern for things like the treatment of Christians over the years in Arab countries.

  4. I recently read a book about Allied POWs who were captured by Germans on the Eastern Front. When the Soviets retook Poland and the Ukraine according to the Yalta Agreement they were supposed to repatriated back to the Allies. Stalin would have none of this as he considered all POWs traitors: Many of the men wound up in the Gulag or put in Soviet concentration camps where their treatment was worse than when they were in German camps. Only a few made it back to Allied lines with much help from an OSS agent, Captain Robert Trimble.

    • To say nothing of the forced repatriation of anti-Communist emigres who’d never been Soviet citizens or who had fled the USSR. Many of them were executed immediately upon their return.

  5. There must be other political machinations operating here. To compare: quite regularly Israel sends teams of assassins to kill enemies and, if my perception is accurate, does not receive anything close to the blaming and accusations Saudi Arabia is getting. I have always gotten a sense of mild admiration in fact. There is likely some other reason why some faction within the Establishment wants to play heavy with Saudi Arabia.

  6. The Khashoggi murder in itself isn’t a ‘special case’ but the Trump response or lack of it, certainly is.

    Having a ‘green card’ and a job with the Washington Post no longer provides the protection against foreign princes that most of us (and particularly Khashoggi) must previously have presumed.

    Maybe Trump isn’t being unethical in refusing to acknowledge the almost certain guilt of Prince Mohammed bin Salman. But he must surely be ill advised. I guess Machiavelli would have been appalled.

  7. This was an interesting case because Kashoggi seemed to be a power broker working to destabilize the Saudi Royal Family and promote the Muslim Brotherhood. In most countries, this is coming close to treason. Why someone who promotes an Islamic terrorist group was given a Green Card so quickly is a good question. Why such a person would be employed as a ‘journalist’ is another.

    As a sign of the bias of our news media, China seems to have done the same thing to the head of Interpol just a few days before. The lack of news coverage of this event may have emboldened the Saudi’s to kill Kashoggi. After all, if you can just call in the head of Interpol to clear up some paperwork, kill him, and no one says a word, who would care about a sleazy journalist?

  8. “The question of how far the U.S. should go in pursuing its own interests while excusing unethical or immoral acts by foreign governments is an enduring one the stretches at least back to the United States alliance with Stalin in World War II”

    Yep. Bingo.

    Geopolitics is not a place for absolutist application of internal value sets. It is a realm of red lines and established limits but those boundaries are established by very different set of calculations and ethical formula.

    This Khashoggi fiasco IS a special case though. But not for what the screeching harpies in the media say it is, as their only motive is to sow as much internal discord in a non-Democrat administration as possible. No, this kerfluffle (which is business a usual as long as the Middle East has been the Middle East) is between two partners.

    Turkey, as the power sitting on the Bosporus, the Sea of Marmarra, and the Dardanelles, is automatically a key player in any anti-Russian geopolitical maneuvers – as the Black Sea is Russia’s ONLY warm-water access point to the world’s oceans. Without it, Russian northern naval ports only have access to the oceans in the summer time when the seas are not heavily impeded by ice. The Mediterranean is a maze of choke points starting with the Crimea and ending with the Straits of Gibraltar. Since Crimea fell to the Russians and no one seems eager to actively bolster Ukraine’s defense of it’s borders, Turkey immediately becomes far more important. If Turkey falls under Russian influence the Mediterranean world becomes a new and very unpredictable diplomatic battlefield. Keeping Turkey “western” keeps the Mediterranean in a semi-state of disinterest.

    Saudi Arabia needs little explanation for it’s strategic position from which any interested party has an easy player in influencing or checking Iran, Syria, Egypt, and any power seeking to wield consolidating hegemony in that region. You see their usefulness playing out in the proxy war in Yemen.

    (Side Bar: This is why, though a libertarian, I cannot trust libertarians on foreign policy as the “Non-Aggression Principle” being used as an absolutist flail in solving all our international decisions leads our party to have some pretty silly and un-nuanced approaches to world problems. As hideous as the civilian suffering in Yemen is, this isn’t a “Yemen liberation war” as we’ve dumbed down the conversation…it’s a proxy war involving Iranian subterfuge. Often the source of frustration in the oceanic choke point of the Straits of Hormuz, giving Iran a foothold in Yemen gives them the ability to influence the 2nd choke point Bab al-Mandab Strait. Without diving too deeply into this sidebar…which we could…the question ultimately boils down to: is the world in which Iran can lock down two key middle eastern choke points a world in which there is less suffering or more suffering than a world in which Iran cannot lock down two key middle eastern choke points? Then, we ask if the suffering of the Yemeni’s in this proxy war worth mitigating the inevitable suffering of letting the Yemen conflict wrap up to Iran’s advantage? It’s the same question we ask with North Korea…is comparing the known suffering we see know to the unknown but assured suffering of solving the problem… But libertarians just scream “Non-Aggression Principle” and leave it at that.)

    You see Saudi Arabia’s usefulness playing out in the odd and unspoken friendship that is quietly developing and will never be mentioned between it and Israel and several other nations as they seek to counter Iran’s attempted growing influence in Syria, as that becomes a proxy war between a mess of players…as well as how they will want to try to manage the Assad regime.

    But unfortunately, Turkey, who we like because of their usefulness versus Russia, becomes problematic because they also have interests to the south, putting them in direct competition with Saudi Arabia…

    So here we sit. Two partners in competitions on different fronts become rivals when they stare across the fertile crescent at each other. Right now, Turkey is much much much more beholden to wanting to make us happy because as much as Russia would love to influence Turkey, the Turks generally hate the Russians and would loathe coming under their influence. So we can afford to not punish Saudi Arabia for their gross transgression. But it still comes with a cost. And somewhere somehow behind the scenes, I’m sure we’ve already greased some deal that will allow Turkey, after boldly declaring it’s disgust with our inaction, to quietly drop the Khashoggi affair.

    And I’m certain as well that behind the scenes, we’ve quietly made the Saudis sweat, so they don’t think they can just get away with something like that again. Of course, if the Saudis do something publicly egregious again, we’ll have to take some level of more visible pressure. But it won’t (and can’t) be on the level that our stupid media is indirectly demanding.

    • The true markers that this is mostly an attempt by Leftist media to sow more discord in America is their deeply cynical ploy to cast Kashoggi as practically an American citizen. I don’t think there was ever a mention of Kashoggi without constantly harping on him in terms of “long term resident”, “credentialled by Washington Post”…etc.

      All to undermine our own international actions. Enemies of the People (and increasingly behaving like treasonous wretches or even seditious).

      Let’s also remind ourselves that this is the same Leftist media that practically wanted carry North Korea’s baby after their deeply offensive one night stand during the Winter Olympics when they fell all over themselves drooling over the dictatorship.

      (6 months after the North Koreans murdered an actual US citizen…Otto Warmbier)

        • So you wanted to stimulate further debate? I seriously wonder at your and Jack’s mental wiring. Your reactions to the Khashoggi case (rather than the case itself) trigger my ‘ethics alarms’ almost to blow the fuse box. ‘Rationalisations’ which you decry elsewhere suddenly are accepted apparently because: “foreign affairs is always an ethics-gray zone with complex “ends justify the means” trade-offs amid cultural clashes and uncomfortable alliances are unavoidable”, according to Jack.

          You can make up whatever ‘ethics’ you want and there are a wide variety of intellectual frameworks operating in different ‘cultures’. To my mind there is always however one crucial test for those claiming to be ‘good’ or ‘ethical’. When do their rules break down? (But this is an exception because it is ‘business’ or ‘politics’ or ‘religion’ or ‘sex’ or ‘foreign affairs’ or ‘war’ or whatever.)

          I like Jack’s list of ‘unethical rationalisations and misconceptions’ and I am amazed that he and you trash it so easily for MBS / Khashoggi. I strive for an ethical framework that is universal.

          My crude ‘ethics alarm’ system accepts a ‘greater good’ argument, that in extreme situations an apparently unethical act like stealing a loaf of bread can become justified in a wider context of say feeding a starving child. Simplistically I line up with Valjean rather than Inspector Javert. (Les Miserables).

          Shielding, excusing, and supporting MBS is clearly wrong at the first level. The key question has to be: is there a wider context in which that ‘wrongness’ is offset by a greater good?

          I can’t see it. In foreign affairs the US has a recent sad history of shielding, excusing and supporting ‘bad men’ doing ‘bad things’ on a ‘greater good’ justification. Supporting MBS and his machinations looks like a dismal repeat.

          • Your opinion, your right.

            Names one country that acts like you wish in your ‘universal’ ethics code.

            Hell, the USA is far better (warts and all) than ANY other: our citizens have civil rights. Countries who do not employ some degree of realpolitik are not countries for long.

            • Sorry Slickwilly. I can’t point to any such country but I don’t think I have got my point across : my failure not yours. My main point is simply to suggest that setting a special class of ‘foreign affairs’ where normal ethical principles don’t apply is a bad idea and unnecessary.

              If you follow Jack’s template you will be very aware of the dodgy rationalisations list, particularly ‘everybody does it’ (1a I think). If ‘everybody does it’ is dangerously insufficient to make what is otherwise ‘wrong’, ‘right’, then it seems also the case that ‘nobody does it’ cannot make what would otherwise be ‘right’, ‘wrong’.

              More directly, and in less gameplaying mode, once you’ve accepted ‘foreign affairs’ as an exceptional area, why stop there? Jack says “It is literally impossible to run a nation ……. without tolerating the misconduct of other nations”. One of my more ethically challenged clients might have said those words with ‘business’ replacing ‘nation’. And he’d certainly have a point in the markets he hunts in.

              I follow ‘ethics alarms’ not because I expect to agree with Jack, or anyone else, but to stimulate my own thinking about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. I accept both Jack’s and my client’s observation that in foreign affairs and in business, and war too maybe, certain ethical compromises are sometimes justifiable. We might have to decide whether to go along with clear ‘wrongness’ (like killing civilians or poisoning forests with Agent Orange) in the pursuit of some greater good. Jack seems to suggest in such circumstances we should simply turn off the ‘alarm’ system’ as not applying. I think such situations are when our ethics are tested to the core, and our sensitivities should be on the highest settings. What is the ‘greater good’ and why is it worth it? What alternatives are there? If some immediate ‘wrongness’ has to be tolerated, how can it be minimised?

              I am not an impractical ‘goody goody’. I am not interested in whether there was any arguable ‘greater good’ justification for MBS murdering Khashoggi, I simply don’t know. There should however in my view be much greater scrutiny into whatever might be the ‘greater good’ justification for President Trump failing to respond more vigorously. Even the peripheral thought that the commercial interests of the Trump family might be at play, is appallingly corrosive.

              Also, sorry as to your last para – “Hell, the USA is far better than ANY other (country)”. I’m not engaging!

              • Fair enough, Andrew.

                You have a point: turning off ethics alarms could turn into a slippery slope. That is why the ethics incompleteness principle exists.

                I appreciate your thoughts and patience with discussion: you make me think.

          • Check the Ethics Incompleteness Principle, AW. It is literally impossible to run a nation in world politics and international trade without tolerating the misconduct of other nations. Impossible. The alternative, trying to force the culture of other nations to embrace Western ethics and values has also caused death and destruction, Pick your poison. China has been revealed again to have engaged in brutal human rights against Muslims. We need China to tame the evil egime in North Korea. Go ahead, hot shot: what would you do?

            The point of the post was that since literally every US President in this century and the last one had to excuse at least the equivalent of Trump’s winking at the current murder. And that is true. His critics on the Left are using a double standard, and know it.

          • 1) Yes, I was hoping to stimulate further discussion, since the Left wants to play dumb dumb games by simplifying Khashoggi murder to a “Trump better declare war on Saudi Arabia or he tolerating evil” false dichotomy. So I listed clear reasons why some crappy governments, that happen to be sitting on prime strategic real estate or are positioned to check even more evil players on the world stage, sometimes get a pass. I also alluded to the notion, however, that those passes aren’t free and aren’t limitless.

            2) If we play the absolutist values game, America would have to build a 20 foot tall concrete wall and interact with no other nations in the world…ever.

          • Interestingly enough, the United States loves the notion of BREXIT, even while wine sipping ‘intellectuals’ in progressive echo chambers will decry the “nationalistic rube behavior” of BREXIT. BREXIT benefits anti-hegemonic interests of the USA in Europe. What Germany couldn’t accomplish in two vicious world wars it has accomplished in the soft domination of European politics via the EU.

            We entered WW1 and WW2 with a mix of noble AND utilitarian purposes. Among the utilitarian purposes was to prevent a unification of the European peninsula under a single hegemon…in this case Germany.

            While we’ll talk a good game about supporting the EU and bolstering it (which vicariously means bolstering German strength in Europe) we’ll quietly strengthen ties with any nation that distances itself from EU, because it is against US interests for a Germanic hegemony to rise in Europe.

            England itself, even while it’s own younger generations are vocally Remainers, given another generation of German dominance, I think you’d see a massive shift in support for BREXIT. England can afford to be the breakaway nation, and will ultimately benefit from the break especially if ties with the US are strengthened. England, though not imperial, still has much greater ties to the ocean-going world than the other European nations. This is Athens and Sparta all over again. Why should England tie itself to an increasingly centralized authority where its own voice is perennially ignored, when it can have a well listened to voice elsewhere?

            Rewind the clock. Should America have been a loyal friend to England despite the violence perpetuated against the Irish in the quite recent past?

            Should we have lifted a finger to save France from Germany despite French conduct in various African nations?

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