Donald Trump has made it clear that he intends to do nothing—literally, nothing—in reaction to the near certainty that Saudi Prince MBS ordered the brutal murder of the moderate dissident journalist Khashoggi. Trump’s typically dishonest, weasel-like whitewash of Jared’s soul brother has elicited well-justified cries of outrage and dismay, even from Republicans. What has impressed me about the whole affair, though, is that it took this particularly brazen and reckless act to provoke widespread serious critical scrutiny of our Saudi ally. Sen. Lindsay Graham, for example, tells us proudly that until the murder, he had been a staunch defender of the Saudi regime.
As crimes go, the murder of Khashoggi is dwarfed by the carnage inflicted by the Saudis on the people of Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition has been responsible for the vast majority of the many thousands of direct civilian deaths, as well as the incipient mass famine (with 50,000 already dead), produced by their war against the Houthi rebels. Only since the outcry over the Khashoggi killing has the demand for the US to do something to stop the Yemen slaughter gotten serious traction.
How is it that the killing of one man elicits outrage, while mass murder gets a pass? Part of it is the old story that one death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic. The thousands of nameless and faceless dead in Yemen somehow don’t add up to the tragedy of the death of one man with a name and a face—particularly a name and face that are well-known and respected in the right circles. I think there is also a general implicit assumption that a duly constituted government acting under cover of war has a right to kill large numbers of people if necessary in the defense of its national interests. War is a dirty business and people die—that’s just the way it is. But that’s not just the way it is. There are laws of war, rooted in centuries of moral theory, that require combatants to make reasonable efforts to minimize the suffering and death of civilians. The Saudis in Yemen have routinely flouted those laws.
Donald justified his indifference to the prince’s culpability in terms of US national interests, citing, among other things, the relative virtues of the Saudi regime compared to his bugaboo Iran. That turns reality on its head, as commentators as diverse as Thomas Friedman and Juan Cole have pointed out.
So, maybe the murder of a journalist and the reaction of a morally vacant POTUS will have accomplished some good if the outrage they provoke leads to a long-overdue reassessment of our coziness with our Saudi ally. But, given the formidable pro-Saudi lobby in Washington, that may be too much to hope for.