“Hypocrisy,” said the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, the 17th century French aristocrat best remembered for his Maxims, “is the homage vice pays to virtue.”
By that standard Donald Trump is no hypocrite, at least when it comes to justifying his decision to give Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi heir apparent, a pass for having had his goons liquefy Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
In announcing last week that MBS, as the prince is commonly referred to, would pay no price for the heinous crime for which the CIA is all but certain he is responsible, Trump made not the faintest genuflection to virtue — to the point of slyly suggesting the turbulent journalist might have deserved dismemberment as “an enemy of the state”, an epithet Trump likes to apply to the American press.
His statement, thuggish in phraseology and teenaged in punctuation, was greeted with a rare blast of bipartisan disgust as not the manner in which an American president ought to be presenting his country to the world. I confess to having found it refreshing in its lack of sanctimony.
For as long as the US has been a superpower, it has supped with devils. In many cases we have dressed them up as freedom fighters or bulwarks against communism. Look at the beauties we underwrote and protected in Africa, Latin America and East Asia in the name of defending democracy and Western values. The Mobutus, the Savimbis, the Pinochets, the Somozas, going back to Syngman Rhee, the thug we rescued in South Korea.
Some of our proxies have been so awful we have had to take them down ourselves. Saddam Hussein springs to mind. Some were so noisome that we had to prop them up secretly. We were even in the assassination game until we turned squeamish in the 70’s. One way or another our leaders sought to cloak the ugliness of realpolitik with nobility of purpose.
But not Trump. He expresses himself with the directness of Tony Soprano. Did MBS order the hit on Khashoggi? The president shrugged: “Maybe he did and maybe didn’t.” What did it matter either way? “The world is a very dangerous place”.
The Saudis, he explained, are a great ally against Iran; they have agreed to spend billions of dollars in the fight against “Radical Islamic Terrorism”; they’re terrific customers for the US military industrial complex; they’re investing billions in the US beyond arms purchases; they’re keeping the oil price down; and — this from teleconference with military officers on the Thanksgiving holiday last Thursday — “Israel would be in big trouble without Saudi Arabia”.
“I hate the crime,” Trump told the soldiers. “I hate what’s done. I hate the cover-up. And I will tell you this: the Crown Prince hates it more than I do.” If “it” is the cover-up, no doubt the Crown Prince hates it a lot. It didn’t work and it looks as though some of his knights are going to have to lose their heads to maintain the polite fiction that they were rogue.
Lord knows whether the Saudis will really help Trump achieve his stated goals of regime change in Iran, Palestinian surrender to Netanyahu and a world free of ISIS, Al Qaeda et al., but at least he has had the decency to confess the utterly amoral, transactional nature of his relationship with Riyadh. Perhaps he will be held accountable if the Saudis don’t deliver.
The Saudis have purchased men one is loath to mention in the same breath as Trump. Still seared on my memory is Nelson Mandela, at a Washington press conference not long after he had returned to private life, delivering a craven panegyric on Saudi enlightenment regarding women and democracy. He was earning the cheque he had just received for one of his causes.