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Putting Kashoggi into perspective



To some extent I sympathize with Trump in this MBS-Kashoggi incident. His attitude—portrayed as loathsome by critics including some Republicans—is that America shouldn’t let “mere” moral considerations interfere with our global, strategic interests. Saudi Arabia wants to invest hundreds of millions of dollars here, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. The Saudis also side with us (and we with them) in their proxy war with Iran; we need them (or so it’s said) in the fight against terrorism. Why let a messy extra-judicial killing screw up a beautiful friendship?

This country always has made truck with nasty foreign leaders. The list of countries we protected and supported—countries that harassed, or imprisoned, or murdered their internal opponents—is vast, stretching from the Iran of the Shah to the dictators of Central and South America we shielded and did business with for decades during the Cold War. Always, we did so (and so justified it to ourselves) because it was “good for America.” And maybe it was.

I suppose, if you’re a president of the United States, you have to do some pretty squeamish things. Trump once told a reporter (I can’t find the precise quote but you probably remember) “What, you don’t think we kill people too?” He didn’t go into specifics but he confirmed what, I think, all of us know: occasionally a U.S. president gives a kill order against a specific individual. Osama bin Laden is the textbook example, but there have been many others: commanders from al Qaeda, al-Shabaab, ISIS, you name it, or, in the old days, various Nazis and Communists. It goes with the territory.

So, from that point of view, there’s nothing especially shocking about another country doing it. In this case, MBS rightly or wrongly determined that Kashoggi was an enemy of the Saudi state, and had to be eliminated. Is that any different from Obama or Trump ordering a drone strike against Islamic militants in Nangarhar district? It isn’t really, if you think about it. The Saudi torture and beheading of Kashoggi, in their own embassy in Istanbul, obviously is more shockingly dramatic and gruesome, but the end result is the same: somebody’s husband, son, father is killed violently, on the order of a national leader, who did it for reasons of national security.

This incident, though, does raise larger questions. What is the moral price we pay as a people to achieve economic security? We all want cheap gasoline, we all want our workers to have good jobs. Is the death of one man too high a price to pay for those worthy ends? Put another way, would you give up your job if you were assured it would save the life of a person halfway around the world whom you never knew and never will? You probably would not. Would you do it to save, say, a thousand lives? You might have to think about it a little harder. Maybe you would, because (you tell yourself) you can always get another job.

What if you knew you couldn’t get another job? Your savings would soon run out. Your family would be hungry; you couldn’t pay your rent or mortgage. Those are important things. A thousand lives also are important things. You put one on one side of the scale, another on the other side, and weigh the balance. It’s very difficult.

Citizens routinely shut their—our–eyes to certain things that governments do, and the bigger and more powerful the country, the tighter we all have to close those eyelids. I think most of us can live with the thought that some foul deeds are committed in our names by our leaders, Democratic or Republican. This emphatically doesn’t mean we, the American people, should do nothing. We make ourselves feel better protesting, tweeting, writing letters to the editor, all to cloak ourselves in moral outrage. But in the end, what good does it do?

The governments that kill their political enemies always hope, of course, that these murders don’t come to public light. Kashoggi’s did. That forces everybody to go into CYA-mode. Trump, who probably knew about the murder in advance (and signed off on it), now has to pretend to be “concerned” and perhaps even considering “severe” punishment for the Saudis. He has to make suitable noises about punishing them. But he knows this incident will subside, to be replaced by the next incident, and the one after that, and it will be business as usual, only with this difference: leaders will instruct their henchmen—the ones who actually carry out the killings—to be more discrete, less sloppy about them. “We don’t want another Kashoggi!” they’ll instruct their intelligence chiefs. The word “to Kashoggi” will go down alongside “to Bork” as a surname-become-verb, in this case, to murder a political opponent and have it be discovered through the incompetence of the killers. The word already has gone out from Trump’s Oval Office: “I don’t want any Kashoggis.” Extra veils of secrecy will now mask America’s political assassinations. You, and I, will be happier for not knowing what our government does in our name.

Have a lovely weekend!


  1. Bob Henry says:

    “… In this case, MBS rightly or wrongly determined that Kashoggi was an enemy of the Saudi state, and had to be eliminated. Is that any different from Obama or Trump ordering a drone strike against Islamic militants in Nangarhar district? It isn’t really, if you think about it. . . .”

    I am thinking about it.

    And yes, it is different.

    Profoundly different.

    Islamic militants have committed war crimes against the civilian population in Nangarhar district.

    Let me cite this Voice of America report (April 23, 2018):

    “Islamic State Militants Slay 3 Brothers in E. Afghanistan”


    “Islamic State militants decapitated three brothers in Chaparhar district, its traditional stronghold in eastern Nangarhar province, officials told VOA.

    ” ‘Nisar, Naeem and Abul Wahab, all working in the medical profession, did not have any links to the Afghan government,’ Attullah Khogyani Nangarhar, provincial government spokesperson, told Voice of America (VOA). ‘They were all taken out from their residence in Chaprahar district and were slain brutally,’ he said.

    “IS militants operate in different parts of eastern Nangarhar province where they target local residents and Afghan security forces, officials claim.


    “Hazrat Hussain Mashiqiwal, Nangarhar province police chief, said, ‘Militants killed the father of the three brothers last year, but no group claimed responsibility for the killing. We are investigating the killing of the three brothers.’

    “Local residents claim the brothers were killed in public.

    ” ‘They (IS militants) warned us to not touch the bodies,’ Taaj Mohammad, a local resident of Chaprahar district, told VOA. Chaprahar district is located 20 kilometers south of Jalalabad, the capital city of eastern Nangarhar province.

    “The Afghan National Army prepare for an operation against insurgents in Khogyani district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan Nov. 28, 2017.
    The Afghan National Army prepare for an operation against insurgents in Khogyani district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan Nov. 28, 2017.
    Doctors plan strike

    “Medical professionals in eastern Nangarhar province claim to have been threatened, kidnapped and even killed by various criminal groups.

    ” ‘We condemn the killing of the medical profession members. It is a barbarous act,’ Gulam Sakhi Rahmanzai, director of Doctors’ Union in eastern Nangarhar province, told VOA.

    “On Sunday, several people associated with the medical profession said they would go on strike in eight days unless the government improves their security.

    “According to the Nangarhar Medical Sector, during the past six months, two doctors were killed, five more were wounded, and seven doctors were released after they paid ransom.

    ” ‘National security forces have arrested six suspected kidnappers, including two Taliban insurgents. Two of the suspects have confessed to having links with (the) Islamic State terror group,’ said Khogyani.


    “IS’s self-styled Khorasan province branch (IS-K) emerged in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan more than two years ago and has wreaked havoc in several Afghan provinces, including eastern Nangarhar province.

    “But Afghan officials said they and their U.S. allies are fighting back. Monday, a U.S. artillery attack on the Deh Bala district of eastern Nangarhar province killed at least 17 IS militants.”

    — AND THIS —

    From The New York Times Online
    (September 11, 2018):

    “Bombing in Afghanistan Kills at Least 68 at Peaceful Protest”


    “Extremists in eastern Afghanistan bombed a peaceful protest on Tuesday, killing at least 68 people, officials said, the deadliest in a series of attacks in Nangarhar Province over the day.

    “The bombings, which also struck three schools, followed a pattern of recent attacks by the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which has publicly vowed to target educational institutions and which staged a seven-hour assault on a school for midwives in the provincial capital, Jalalabad, in July.

    “The attack on protesters gathered in Momand Dara District, in a rural part of Nangarhar, also left at least 165 wounded, according to Attaullah Khogyani, the spokesman for the governor of Nangarhar.

    “In the case of the three schools, two high schools for girls and one for boys, bombs were hidden near the school buildings. One 14-year-old boy was killed, and four people were wounded.

    “The protesters in Momand Dara had gathered to demand the dismissal of a police commander, Bilal Pacha, whom they accuse of involvement in arbitrary killings, robberies and maintaining a private prison. A suicide bomber approached the crowded tent where the protesters had gathered and detonated his explosive vest, Mr. Khogyani said.

    “There was no immediate claim of responsibility for any of the four attacks, but the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for similar strikes on government institutions, international aid groups, sporting events and other targets in the province in recent months. Taliban insurgents, also active in the area, denied any role in the bombings on Tuesday.

    “The Islamic State’s last remaining stronghold in Afghanistan is in the southern part of Nangarhar, where American and Afghan forces have carried out many operations against the group and reduced the area it controls. The militants have responded by carrying out attacks in urban centers and against lightly defended targets.”



    And this speculative statement is beyond the pale:

    “Trump, who probably knew about the murder in advance (and signed off on it) . . .”

    I think you need to walk this one back.

  2. Bob Henry – I’m speaking in generalities when I say everyone does it: i.e., all powerful leaders order the assassination of their political enemies. The cases you cite, of the Islamic State’s crimes, justify our war against them. I grant that. But from the Saudi point of view (about which we know very little because they are a closed society), perhaps Kashoggi represented as much of a moral and political threat as Islamic militants. He must have been a dagger at their throat for them to have taken such extreme action. So, while I understand your umbrage at my comparing Kashoggi with ISIS, I’m just saying that political assassination is how the world works.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    In a private e-mail to you regarding the Kashoggi outrage, I wrote:

    ” ‘Authoritarian’ governments oppress their dissident citizens.

    ‘Totalitarian’ governments kill their dissident citizens.”

    The U.S. swore off the assassination of its political — not military — enemies following the release of the Church Committee report.

    For a history lesson, see Wikipedia entry:


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