That the Saudi government and its powerful figure crown prince Mohammed bin Salman are brazenly lying about what happened to Jamal Khashoggi is now blindingly obvious. There is an unbridgeable gulf between their initial response that Khashoggi had left the consulate and they did not know where he was to their most recent grudging admission that he died after he got into a ‘fist fight’ with people inside the consulate. The body has still not been produced. What we are now seeing is careful maneuvering to decide what is the most they can concede that will enable their most ardent supporters, in this case Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner, to continue their warm relationship with both the kingdom and bin Salman.
Whether this story will be sufficient to provide cover for bin Salman’s ardent supporters in the US media or whether they need to go further remains to be seen. Andrew O’Hehir describes the furious backtracking going on by people like Thomas Friedman at the New York Times and David Ignatius at the Washington Post to wriggle out from under their earlier effusive praise of bin Salman.
O’Hehir says that is is important to realize that people like Friedman and Ignatius are not expressing just their own opinions. Even though they work for newspapers and not the government, they are important channels by which the political-military-business establishment in the US sets the boundaries of acceptable range of opinions.
If we assume for argument’s sake that Friedman’s opinions (or Ignatius’ opinions) are really his opinions, they are never his alone. They are formed by consensus, shaped by a coalition of “responsible adults” who work in the national security agencies, the State Department, the Washington policy think tanks and various foreign governments closely allied with our own. He speaks them as a representative of a particular elite caste who have Thought Deeply About Such Things, are not overly swayed by personal or sentimental considerations and are working (as they perceive it) for the ultimate betterment of humanity, under the permanent mentorship of the United States of America.
Meanwhile, Friedman has spent much of the last two weeks quoting his own previously-expressed doubts and reservations about MBS — always carefully inserted between the fawning passages — and I guess you can’t blame him. Beneath all that ass-covering, we may detect a note of protest: My friends made me say all that stuff but I never totally believed it!
It is of course not just these two who have drunk the bin Salman Kool-Aid. The article points to others like Bob Woodward and Dennis Ross, and Glenn Greenwald has listed others in the media, including in Khashoggi’s own paper the Washington Post, who have been shills for bin Salman and Saudi Arabia.
O’Hehir says that this situation can be traced back to a deal that people like Friedman and Ignatius sold to the public on behalf of the establishment.
The U.S. cut a nearly explicit deal with the Saudis, some decades ago: Keep the oil flowing, keep the Arab nations from attacking Israel and keep acting as a regional rival to Iran, and “you can do whatever you want out back” (in Friedman’s words), including running the most repressive theocracy anywhere in the world, exporting an especially poisonous blend of fundamentalist Islam that fueled violent uprisings in many different places, and waging a brutal proxy war in Yemen that may be the worst and least-noticed humanitarian disaster of this century.
One thing on which there seems to be some disagreement is as to which nation in the US-Saudi relationship has the upper hand. It is argued that by virtue of its oil production capability, it is the Saudis and that if they cut oil production it would hurt the US. I am not convinced of this. The US imports just a few percent of its oil needs directly from that country and it would be easy to switch to other suppliers. Furthermore, oil is fungible in that nearly all the oil essentially goes into a big pool and buyers buy from that pool. Bilateral deals are not that significant. It is true that a cut in production by the Saudis would raise prices somewhat and affect the global economy but it is not clear by how much. And cutting production might hurt the Saudis more by drastically reducing its revenues, thereby hurting its grandiose military and other ambitions and its ability to maintain an oppressive state and buy off its domestic population to prevent them from revolting.
The arms issue seems to me to be more salient. Trump’s claims of how much money the Saudis are spending on buying US arms is, as with all his statements, exaggerated but it is not insignificant. If the US were to cut off arms, could the Saudi’s buy them from other countries like Russia?
I believe that the Saudis have the upper hand in their relationship with the US not because of oil or arms sales but because the US has made them an essential player in the long-range plan to have the US-Israel-Saudi Arabia alliance be the dominant force in the region, controlling events and seeking to destabilize Iran, the only possible rival for dominance. The US has dealt the Saudis these cards and they are playing them against the US. This is why successive US presidents including Barack Obama have made ritual pilgrimages to that country and groveled before its king.
I hate to be so pessimistic but I think that there is no atrocity that the Saudis can commit on an individual limit (such as with Khashoggi), on a domestic policy level (as with its internal terror policy and barbaric punishments of activists and criminals) or on a international level (as with its horrendous war in Yemen or its export of its highly intolerant Wahabi form of Islam) that will cause the US government to take any meaningful action. The US administration will let various members of Congress mouth off their protests to give the impression of outrage but nothing concrete will happen, and hope that this outrage will eventually die down.