Will Trump Split the World by Endorsing a Bold-Faced Lie?

The Saudi “investigation” into the Khashoggi murder, conducted on the demand of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is not yet complete. But preliminary conclusions have been announced in the Saudi media. Turns out (surprise, surprise!) Khashoggi died while in a choke-hold following a fist-fight in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in a botched effort to detain him.

Asked Saturday in Arizona if he found the Saudi account credible, Donald Trump said that he did, praising the investigation as “a very important first step and it happened sooner that people thought it would happen”—as though its timing had not been determined by Pompeo’s pressure.

“I think it’s a good first step, it’s a big step,” the president repeated (as the world sighed). “Saudi Arabia has been a great ally,” he added, like that was relevant. Then in an interview with the Washington Post he indicated that he felt Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman may have learned of the murder only after the fact. He went out of his way to praise the prince—his son-in-law Jared’s good buddy. He actually said he’d “love it” if the prince was not responsible.

This raises the real prospect of the administration—which according to the Post demands a “mutually agreeable explanation” from Riyadh—signing on to a narrative radically different from that provided by Turkish police. According to the latter,  the Saudi court ordered the gruesome murder in the consulate on Oct. 2.  It dispatched 15 assassins including members of MbS’s personal security detail and the kingdom’s top forensic doctor equipped with a bone-saw to execute the deed. Turkish sources provide a detailed account of a seven-minute process of apprehending Kashoggi, cutting off his fingers (to punish him for his writing), followed by more torture, murder, dismemberment, and the transport of the body-parts to the nearby Saudi consul’s home where they were dissolved in acid.

Turkish sources say the bone-saw was used before Khashoggi died and that the supervisor of the effort urged the team to listen to music on their earphones during their work (because that’s how he always does it). They report how the Saudi ambassador to Washington stated implausibly that there was no video of his exit from the consulate because the consulate’s CCTV is only live feed and not recorded.

A “mutually agreeable explanation” with a credulous U.S. president on board—a president determined to maintain the existing U.S.-Saudi relationship (especially the arms traffic) at all costs—might not satisfy Congress, to say nothing of Turkey and the world. Indeed, U.S. acceptance of a plainly bogus explanation for obviously pragmatic reasons might be viewed like the U.S. departure from the Kyoto Accord, U.S. efforts to sabotage the Iran Deal, the decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the decision to pull out of the UN Commission on Human Rights, etc. The U.S. is provoking the world, inviting its contempt.

The U.S.-Israel-Saudi axis is already isolated in the world. World leaders generally understand that the U.S. is led by a cruel, ignorant, amoral buffoon. Israel, as repeated UN votes indicate, is almost universally deplored for its occupation of Palestinian land and repeated assaults on Gaza, saved from condemnation time and time again by the reliable U.S. veto. Saudi Arabia is widely known to be a land where judicial beheadings—for such offenses as atheism, blasphemy, homosexuality, sorcery, adultery, “waging war on God,” sometimes followed by the crucifixion of the headless body for public display—-are common, and the condition of women is about the most abject on the planet. There is much criticism in the world of all three countries, and their common determination to attack Iran.

Now let us say that the axis led by Trump embraces a Saudi narrative that makes no logical sense. The UN General Secretary Antonio Guterrez has already pronounced it “not credible” and German chancellor Angela Merkel calls it “insufficient.” The Washington Post calls it a “coverup.” CNN says frankly: “Trump’s Saudi Arabia response is riddled with lies.”

But let’s say Trump, influenced in particular by his son-in-law, accepts the Saudi explanation. It will be clear to the world that the U.S. values lucrative arms sales over a principled defense of the most basic human rights.

It will be a clear statement that Trump has no interest in truth as such but in the use of Big Lies to justify policy. In this he is no different than his immediate predecessors. They blamed 9/11 on the Taliban, conflating it with al-Qaeda in order to justify regime change in Afghanistan. They concocted a brew of lies to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq. They lied about the real situation in Syria, representing al-Qaeda linked forces as Syrian patriots fighting for democracy. They lied about Libya, claiming an imminent risk of genocide when none existed.

Given this history it would be totally fitting for Trump, in league with his national security advisor, arch-neocon and career liar John Bolton, to embrace a mendacious explanation about Khashoggi’s execution. The willing gullibility might draw into high relief the whole history of U.S. propagation of lies from September 11, 2001, deployed to facilitate the torture of the Middle East from Afghanistan to Libya. Maybe even imperialist alliances will fray.  That could only be good, and a fine legacy of the Saudi journalist.

Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu