Mohammed bin Salman’s Special Style of Denial

The fact that politics across the globe is now dominated by politicians expertly performing the art of denial should be seen as a sign of the degree of radical distrust most nations have reached.
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Mohammed bin Salman in Buenos Aires, Argentina on 11/20/2018 © Matias Lynch / Shutterstock

In an interview that will appear in a documentary called “The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia” to air on PBS, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), we discover, deigned to speak in December 2018 about his responsibility concerning the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The international media are presenting this “news” today as if was a scoop.

MBS, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, is quoted as admitting: “It happened under my watch. I get all the responsibility, because it happened under my watch.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Under my watch:

A way of describing unfortunate events that may have taken place while one was blinking or otherwise distracted

Contextual Note

This is an intriguing confession. Mohammed bin Salman’s formulations merit our attention. He says it happened “under my watch” and not, as is usual, on my watch. First of all, what is the watch MBS is referring to? We know it wasn’t his Rolex, although he appears to be very fond of that brand. Or perhaps it was an Apple watch, like the one Khashoggi was thought to be wearing.

If so, MBS means news about the murder came on his watch from the rogue team he claimed were the ones who executed the Saudi journalist, but he was probably too busy to consult his watch and therefore remained in the dark. That absurd hypothesis is, of course, no more absurd than the crown prince’s own explanation when, as The New York Times reminds its readers, “The day after it happened, [MBS] told reporters from Bloomberg that he did not know where Mr. Khashoggi was and that Saudi Arabia had ‘nothing to hide.’”

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The metaphor of “on my watch” comes from the traditional defense of castles. Are we to think of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia as a man who prays and meditates on a rooftop or the top of a minaret as he casually surveys from on high what the people below are doing?

That appears to be his drift — metaphorically speaking — because when PBS journalist Martin Smith who interviewed MBS asked “how the killing could happen without him knowing about it, Smith quotes Prince Mohammed as saying: ‘We have 20 million people. We have three million government employees.’” When a watchman is looking on from such a rare height at such a large crowd milling about below, how can he possibly notice what the rascals down there are getting up to?

To Smith’s question concerning the authorization of the hit team to take private government jets on such unorthodox missions, MBS answered: “I have officials, ministers to follow things, and they’re responsible. They have the authority to do that.” In other words, MBS accepts “all the responsibility” on the condition that we accept that it’s other people who were responsible. The crown prince, known for controlling everything that happens in his kingdom (including the price of Aramco’s public offering to the dismay of the Financial Times), shows himself to be a leader who boasts of his taste for sharing authority and delegating, which we learn about selectively and principally after the facts become known.

Then there’s the somewhat peculiar phrase MBS uses: “I get all the responsibility.” The media seem to understand this as Mohammed bin Salman’s assuming the responsibility for the first time. But “get all the responsibility” sounds more like “get saddled with the responsibility after the fact because of who I am, not because of what I did.”

Like US President Donald Trump or British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, MBS seems schooled in the art of saying things that sound somewhat like an admission of responsibility or fault, with the intention of denying it later. That said, unlike Trump and Johnson, the crown prince is also schooled in remaining silent for long periods of time and avoiding contact with the media. It’s a sign of his deeply felt conviction that he is unaccountable.

Historical Note

Political power has always relied on lies about responsibility, particularly after incidents that result in the loss of human life. The word for this is “coverup,” which has become a standard institutional practice. A good coverup relies on a rhetorical ploy called “plausible deniability.” Plausible deniability, as it was traditionally practiced, put minor emphasis on denial and major emphasis on plausibility.

A perfect example is the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which most people not committed publicly to outright denial (the position of almost all established media) realize must have been the result of a concerted action, in not a conspiracy, though who and how many people were involved no one has managed to definitively establish. But to avoid spending time denying that the most commonly cited suspects — the CIA, the FBI, the Cuban government or Lyndon Johnson — were involved, the Johnson administration undertook the monumental task of producing the 888-page Warren Report to establish the plausibility of the lone assassin theory. It served its purpose as it appeared to be at least superficially plausible. It remains a supreme example of the fine art of plausibility, a quality no doubt assured by one of the members of the commission, former head of the CIA Allen Dulles, who had been fired by President Kennedy in 1961 after “getting all the responsibility” for the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Americans, with the help of the generally obedient media, appear now to accept any serious effort at plausible denial, even while entertaining solid doubts about the denial itself and the facts being covered up. That may be the principal lesson of the Warren Report. It made things much easier (for example, less than a year later in the Gulf of Tonkin) for those skilled at scheming and conspiring to push forward with little concern for possible blowback. 

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The golden age of trust in plausibility began its steep decline with George W. Bush’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) campaign to launch the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Once the truth became known, the task of plausible denial became harder. This has led to a major historical shift, now evident in the discourse of Trump, Johnson and others, notably including Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. The emphasis today, with these leaders, is just no longer on plausibility, but on denial. Plausibility is for sissies. Denial need only be repeated over and over again to make its point — that the people must understand that the notion of accountability has been replaced by accounting (if it brings prosperity or ensures security in any form, it was worth doing).

MBS may be hedging slightly when he says, “I get all the responsibility” rather than admitting he is responsible. But he needn’t go any further. The Saudis’ role in the world economy is too important for anyone to be bothered by the morality of its leaders. And so another strategy falls into place. In nations where the media are active and at least superficially “free,” the strategy perfected by Trump and Johnson is simple: deny, deny, deny! People will get the message that nothing will come of the efforts to render politicians accountable when, after back-and-forth between accusers and deniers, they tire of the repetitive debate.

For closed, despotic nations, such as Saudi Arabia, a leader has no need to entertain the media with denials. Silence and the uninterrupted flow of money will get the job done. In time, people’s expectations of accountability will fade as they end up preferring business as usual.

The hyperreal dimension politics has taken in recent decades has brought us to the point where the world’s Trumps and Johnsons will repeat endlessly the same lies and denials of wrongdoing. But they have innovated as well by introducing one additional tactic. It consists of using the opportunity to accuse others of worse crimes in the often justified hope that the accusers will eventually give up. As there are plenty of crimes to choose from, even among the most innocent politicians, that will always help, making plausibility unnecessary.

The end of September has delivered some high drama for Trump and Johnson. Now, with the anniversary of Khashoggi’s assassination imminent, there’s a boatload of denial from three continents for the media to savor and exploit.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

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