Friday 20 September 2019

Rob Crilly: World is a dangerous place - and US president has made it more so

Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)
Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali, File)

Rob Crilly

A dissident journalist is murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. His remains are yet to be found and growing evidence points to the involvement of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Crown Prince.

Then, after days of humming and hawing about who's to blame, Donald Trump releases a statement putting himself four square behind the main suspect. It's perhaps one of the clearest demonstrations yet of how US foreign policy works while he baits domestic opponents and throws doubt on the work of his own intelligence agencies. What could be more Trumpian than that?

The calculation released in Tuesday's statement is clear. He came to the presidency on a populist promise to tell it as he sees it. And how refreshing it is to see a president avoid the usual bunkum manoeuvre of offering strong words, while continuing business as usual.

Mr Trump is nothing if not consistent in refusing to play the standard diplomatic game of saying one thing in public and another in private down the phone to useful dictators in strategic neighbourhoods.

(Let us not forget it was the Nobel peace prize winner Barack Obama who sold more arms to Saudi Arabia than any other president since WWII.)

Instead, as he has with so many other bits of politics during the past three years, Mr Trump lifts the curtain on how domestic considerations and realpolitik inform White House decisions. He talks about the importance of Saudi Arabia to US jobs and contrasts its humanitarian assistance with the work of Iran in destabilising the region.

For us cynics, weary of national self-interest dressed up as high-minded principle, it's almost a welcome change. But a man was murdered - and evidence points to the head of state of an ally.

And Mr Trump is insistent on taking that head of state's denials at face value above the apparent conclusions of the CIA, and its evidence of phone calls between the crown prince's aides and the kill team: "Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event - maybe he did and maybe he didn't!" At the same time, Mr Trump appears to be more intent on simply baiting his domestic enemies and the Democrats who will control the House of Representatives.

"I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction - and they are free to do so," he writes, as if the evidence pointing to the Saudi regime simply does not exist.

He smears the journalist with his now familiar "some are saying" technique. "Representatives of Saudi Arabia say Jamal Khashoggi was an 'enemy of the state' and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that - this is an unacceptable and horrible crime," he says, using the sort of sentence structure favoured by victim blamers. Trump supporters will defend it as a president protecting American interests. In a complicated, dangerous world, any other president would have made the same calculation, but shrouded it with self-serving cant. They are probably right.

But what any other president would not have done is issued a statement setting out such clear and one-sided backing. It ultimately offers impunity, carte blanche to a world leader to go about murdering and silencing opponents secure in the knowledge that his most powerful ally will do nothing. His statement will be read in Riyadh with glee. The only thing Mr Trump got right in his idiotic statement was his opening line: "The world is a very dangerous place!" And it just got a bit more dangerous.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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