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Senators Disagree with Donald Trump on MBS

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Senator Lindsey Graham in Washington, DC, USA on 09/08/2015 © Albert H. Teich / Shutterstock

December 06, 2018 15:25 EDT

Donald Trump’s preferred driving style is gunning the accelerator and then leaving the gears in neutral. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains. 

Controversy surrounding the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi continues building in Washington as the world awaits a definitive policy position from the Trump administration concerning US relations with Saudi Arabia. The issue has the potential to change the geopolitical balance of power in the Middle East and has already put a serious dent in the legitimacy of the Trump administration itself.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who has supported President Donald Trump on most issues, has once again called Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) a “wrecking ball,” this time after hearing the testimony of CIA Director Gina Haspel, a person eminently qualified to talk knowledgeably about torture and assassination.

Reporting the accusations of Graham and another Republican senator, Bob Corker, British newspaper The Telegraph felt it necessary to remind its readers of the contrast with Trump’s position: “The senators’ position contradicted that of Mr Trump who has been more neutral, equivocating over who was responsible for Mr Khashoggi’s death.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


1. Opposed to an obvious truth based on the pretext that very few facts can actually be incontrovertibly proved  

2. Willfully blind

Contextual note

Senator Graham spoke ironically not of a smoking gun, but of “a smoking saw” — the bone saw the Saudi team brought along with them on their trip to Istanbul, just in case they were to run into a body that needed dismembering. He added, “You have to be willfully blind not to come to the conclusion that this was orchestrated and organised by people under the command of MBS. I think he is complicit in the murder of Mr Khashoggi to the highest level possible.”

Willful blindness appears to be one of President Trump’s favored strategic tools. He continues to appeal to a principle that can apply to any historical event that was not recorded on video as it happened: “[M]aybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” Even if a direct witness had seen MBS give the explicit command to murder Khashoggi but failed to record it on his smartphone, Trump would remind us that the person could be lying, since even presidents lie.

Trump has fully understood the persuasive impact of the Rashomon effect (a reference to Akira Kurosawa’s classic film), without understanding the Rashomon principle. When confronted with the overwhelming evidence of climate change’s negative impact on the US economy presented by the US Global Change Research Program, mandated by Congress and conducted by the top American climate experts, Trump countered, “I don’t believe it.”

Along with willful blindness, Trump appears to have adopted the heterodox principle of “implausible deniability” by a person in a position allowing for the exercise of arbitrary power. All respectable politicians — and even less respectable ones — learn early on to master the subtle art of plausible deniability. Trump, as the man who unsuccessfully tried to trademark the expression “you’re fired,” is a professional decision-maker who has cultivated the practice not of deniability, but of flat-out denial. His whims and self-interest counterbalance any amount of evidence.

Historical note

Neutrality is a diplomatic concept that Encyclopedia Britannica defines as: “[T]he legal status arising from the abstention of a state from all participation in a war between other states, the maintenance of an attitude of impartiality toward the belligerents.” Everyone’s prime example of a neutral nation is Switzerland, in particular because of the delicacy of its neutral status during World War II, but the tradition of Swiss neutrality dates back to 1515 before being officially formulated in the 1815 Treaty of Paris.

Neutrality therefore implies three contrasting positions represented by two adversaries (or belligerents) and a third party that insists on not taking a position in the conflict. Calling Trump’s position on Mohammed bin Salman neutral can only be considered an aberration. He is not abstaining from participation. On the contrary, his position appears to be a commitment to the side of MBS, with no consideration of the opposite point of view, even when formulated by his own intelligence services, and no attempt to distance himself from both.

This recent tendency in US culture to claim that there are two sides to every issue (rather than multiple perspectives, according to the Rashomon principle) leaves the opening that Trump habitually exploits to characterize his refusal to listen and think as an act of neutrality. But Donald Trump isn’t the only opportunist to follow this logic. It also serves the US media’s tendency to exclude any other view from consideration than the two dominant ones in any supposed “debate.”

For all such debates, typically, there is an official “liberal” (or Democrat) and a “conservative” (or Republican) position. If Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Nancy Pelosi agree that “we’re capitalists and that’s just the way it is,” other points of view that may assess reality differently or propose alternatives can simply be excluded. This also means that practically every debate is reduced, in case of disagreement, to a “he says/she says” or “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t” game, which the voters will eventually decide, irrespective of facts or serious reasoning.

After all, voters are neutral, aren’t they? Even if placing one’s gears in neutral is a recipe for either political inertia or political disaster.

*[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.

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