Serious Politics Is Not About Recalibration

The Biden administration’s position on the accountability of Mohammed bin Salman reveals what’s wrong with the world today.
Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, Saudi Arabia, Saudi crown prince, Saudi journalist murder, Jamal Khashoggi, Joe Biden, Biden Administration, US Saudi Arabia relations, Peter Isackson

People hold images of Jamal Khashoggi on the two-year anniversary of his assassination in Istanbul, Turkey on 2/10/2020 © Kemal Aslan / Shutterstock

Donald Trump’s brand of hyperreality over the past four years relied heavily on melodramatic plotting to keep the audience invested in the performance. To reestablish the more sober style of hyperreality the Democratic Party as an ideological force has come to represent, US President Joe Biden has cultivated the Democrats’ artificial style of neo-realism in its approach to political conflict. The Biden administration’s rhetorical creativity offers some insight into how this hyperreality is intended to play out.

Trump, the former US president, typically chose an easy media strategy. He would disregard all existing standards, preferring to bully and shock. He relied on the public’s acceptance of the notion that — as he once said about himself — he could get away with murder in the middle of Fifth Avenue. (This paralleled his boast about women, whom he would grab in their private parts when he tired of shooting men in broad daylight.)


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Biden has inherited a different, more “presidential” role. Independently of the policies he adopts, he finds himself having to exaggerate the contrast with Trump by at least seeming to reflect on complex issues, weighing the pros and cons and engaging in thoughtful deliberation on the same topics that Trump typically bulldozed his way through. After all that deliberation, the result tends to differ more in style than in substance.

The Daily Devil’s Dictionary recently considered the case of Trump’s sanctions against Fatou Bensouda and the International Criminal Court (ICC). Biden has found himself in the awkward position of having to reaffirm the nation’s traditional refusal to be judged for war crimes while, at the same time, recognizing the legitimacy of the actions of the ICC so impudently denied by Trump. Now, Biden has a similar juggling act to carry out with Saudi Arabia after his director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, followed the prescribed democratic logic of obeying a command made by Congress that Trump had simply refused to acknowledge. It concerned the release of the CIA’s assessment of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist working for The Washington Post.

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Trump chose to shield the perpetrators from any form of judgment. After all, Saudi Arabia spends hundreds of millions on American weapons. After showing such virtue, what crime could they possibly be accused of? Biden had to find a way of countering Trump while reaffirming America’s commitment to the ideal of even-handed justice. It is all in the name of preserving “American interests” (which everyone by now should know means simply money and geopolitical influence).

The Washington Post explains how Biden has accomplished that mission: “The Biden administration will impose no direct punishment on Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite the conclusion of a long-awaited intelligence report released Friday that he ‘approved’ the operation, administration officials said.”

When the press corps confronted Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, questioning her over whether MBS could be “sanctioned personally,” she responded that something would be done, though without any indication of what that might be. She nevertheless offered this explanation, while insisting twice on the word “clear.” She said, “the president has been clear, and we’ve been clear by our actions that we’re going to recalibrate the relationship.” What could be clearer than the totally objective, scientific notion of recalibration?

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Recalibrate:

Redefine a policy or relationship in such a way as to make the undermining of any existing moral principles appear justified in the pursuit of selfish interests

Contextual Note

Most Americans consider cold-blooded murder a moral fault as well as a criminal act. The idea of dealing with it by recalibrating a relationship might sound to some like a sick joke. How many people on death row in the US wouldn’t welcome the idea of recalibrating their relationship with the justice system? Considering that most of them — a majority of blacks, some of them later proven innocent — have not have benefited from the kind of rigorous investigation the Turkish government and the CIA carried out concerning the Khashoggi murder, the leniency of recalibration would certainly interest them.   

The Guardian notes a slight contradiction with the moral stance Biden took concerning the Khashoggi murder during the campaign: “The decision to release the report and expected move to issue further actions represents the first major foreign policy decision of Joe Biden’s presidency, months after he vowed on the presidential campaign trail to make a ‘pariah’ out of the kingdom.” 

This recalibration of attitude illustrates an interesting phenomenon in politics: the freedom opposition politicians have to invoke what resembles the truth followed by their tendency to equivocate as soon as they have their hands on the reins of power. “Recalibrate” deserves to be voted the Orwellian Newspeak word of the year.

Historical Note

To put things in perspective, Secretary of State Antony Blinken explained: “The relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual.” A lot of Americans, from Henry Ford to Joseph Kennedy and some of the most prominent US companies — IBM, Coca-Cola, Chase Manhattan, General Electric, Kodak, Standard Oil and Random House among others — felt exactly the same way about Nazi Germany. Why compromise a productive relationship simply because one man spouts heterodox ideas and has a tendency to kill people in the name of those ideas?

The Washington Post quotes Blinken invoking Jen Psaki’s “recalibration” trope. In his press conference, he praised Joe Biden for moving “toward a promised ‘recalibration’ of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.” Oddly, the secretary of state seems to have forgotten that it wasn’t “one individual” who carried out the assassination, but a team of 15 who flew in and out of Istanbul for this specific effort.

The Guardian realistically described how Mohammed bin Salman’s team culture works: “Prince Mohammed had ‘probably’ fostered an environment in which aides were afraid that they might be fired or arrested if they failed to complete assigned tasks, suggesting they were ‘unlikely to question’ the prince’s orders or undertake sensitive tasks without his approval.” As Hamlet once said of Denmark, “something is rotten in the state.” Like Biden and Blinken, Hamlet was reacting to a high-profile murder. Part of his quandary was that it wasn’t just about “one individual,” even though the Danish prince was focused on the man — his uncle — who had killed his father. 

As a political metaphor, the idea of recalibration may appear reassuring to some people thanks to its scientific ring, expressing an engineer’s objectivity in seeking to work with the most accurate measurements. But does it make any sense when what is at stake is a moral question, in this case literally of life and death? Or should we conclude that, for those who practice it, there are no moral questions in politics, only pragmatic ones, only questions that can be decided according to the unique criterion of “national interest?”

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the limits of purely “national” reasoning. The awareness of those limits will inevitably be challenged again over the next decade by the impending drama of climate change, possibly other pandemics and another global economic crash. The question of supply chains that the US encountered at the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 and now concerning semiconductors demonstrates the absurdity of a world that has made sacrosanct the status of the nation-state. 

Some kind of global system of cooperation — not just between nations and regions but between all manner of human groupings as well — must emerge if an economy now defined by the unique principle of technological exploitation of the earth’s resources is to persist. The ideal of growth that guides every national government is little more than a strategy of accelerated depletion of the world’s common patrimony. The very idea of national interest in a world of competitive nation-states has become a weapon of mass obliteration.

The more technologically developed the world becomes, the more it needs to adopt some form of moral compass capable of constraining the decision-making of nations. Growth and job creation have become the only public values today’s nations are capable of putting forward. Their political imagination withers and dies as soon as they attempt to reason beyond these goals. These “public” goals are nothing more than the veneer on the surface of a powerful system dedicated to private gain.

Such a system needs something more than simple recalibration if it is to survive.

*[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. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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