For Donald Trump the world was “dangerous” last week and “vicious” this week. The trend is downward. What will it be next week?
Donald Trump’s simplistic worldview has never been particularly hard to decipher. But the more he talks about delicate subjects, where crass slogans and gratuitous insults won’t settle the issue, the more we learn about the specific contours of his peculiar perspective. His delicate subject of the moment is the task of assigning blame for the Jamal Khashoggi assassination. Let’s call it “the great accountability question.”
Four major voices are participating in the discussion, composing a kind of four-part disharmony: Turkey, who initiated the debate; Saudi Arabia, who wishes it would go away; President Trump himself, as the national voice box; and members of Congress from both parties singing from the same hymn sheet as the CIA.
In the past week, we have seen a faltering attempt on the Saudi-Trump side at what might be called a standard “diplomatic compromise.” Others prefer to call it a whitewash. It consisted of designating a group of people — initially five — known to be involved in the murder and arresting them for eventual trial in Saudi Arabia. This was intended to prove the Saudis’ commitment to justice.
The Trump administration went further and applied meaningless sanctions to 17 people, hoping it would clear the way to business as usual with his Saudi friends. France and Germany followed suit by imposing sanctions on the same individuals. The idea behind the compromise is that while those measures are being put in place, concern about the masterminds of the operation will either be delayed or, ideally, pushed aside and eventually forgotten.
The plan might have worked but for the insistence of the Turkish government. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan clearly wants the head of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Turkey’s investigative work managed to convince the CIA, an agency that is usually expected to be in docile agreement with any US president. But not with President Trump, who, even before taking office, made the signal mistake of alienating the entire agency over their investigation of Russian interference on his behalf in the 2016 election.
Trump may be making a big mistake. The CIA still has some measure of credibility in the US and plays a vital support role in the maintenance of the US global empire. Its mission is focused on facts rather than narratives, even though the facts the agency delivers are often used by presidents to construct political narratives more consistent with “alternative facts.”
But Trump’s talent for lying hasn’t convinced his opponents or the media. And while he maintains, along with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, that there are no facts, only “assessments,” the US president appears to be aware that the demand for accountability is real.
Trump began last week’s solemn “statement” on the question — which both denied and excused MBS’ role in the killing — by lamenting that “the world is a dangerous place.” Now he takes it a step further: “[M]aybe the world should be held accountable because the world is a vicious place. The world is a very, very vicious place.” In his eyes, the world is not just a place, but a moral agent that can be held accountable.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Ferociously aggressive against one’s own interests, even when one’s own interests are ferociously aggressive against everyone else’s interests
Donald Trump reduced his own narrative about Mohammed bin Salman’s accountability to the suitably simplistic, “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t,” with the implication, “forget about it.” But because he lacks the leverage to bend the CIA’s facts to his dismissive conclusion, Trump took the extraordinary verbal initiative of calling the CIA’s findings, “feelings, an odd choice of vocabulary since “feelings” is used almost exclusively in the phrase, “hurt one’s feelings.” Does Trump believe the CIA is upset because Saudi Arabia hurt its feelings?
The Saudis and Trump are doing everything they can to prove that the CIA’s findings are unreliable. They are not totally wrong. The problem is that if we compare the reliability of the Saudis’ narrative from the very beginning of the Khashoggi affair with the CIA’s, there can be little doubt about who is systematically unreliable. The Saudis have changed their story as many as five times, starting with saying that nothing happened and ending with: Lots of things happened but it was all a mistake and nothing was authorized.
Prince Turki al-Faisal, a member of the Saudi royal family, uses his knowledge of history to point out how the CIA got its facts wrong when it reported to George W. Bush its assessment of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “The CIA has been proved wrong before. Just to mention the invasion of Iraq for example,” he said.
Expressing his doubts about the CIA’s assessment, Prince Turki sets the bar high about how to seal the case against MBS: “So we don’t take it as being, as I said, divine revelation.” In other words, if it isn’t in the Qur’an it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Case dismissed.
Had he really been interested in history, he would have understood that it was President Bush who twisted the CIA’s assessment to assert that Saddam had WMDs: “[T]he intelligence community concluded in a 93-page classified document used to justify the invasion of Iraq that it lacked ‘specific information’ on ‘many key aspects’ of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs.”
In other words, presidents tend to be even less reliable than the CIA when it comes to facts.
*[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.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.