Do you think that anyone in the Trump administration actually, truly cares that Saudi Arabia probably kidnapped, murdered, and disappeared a journalist? I will tell you the answer: no.
Here is who cares, truly, about the fact that the highest levels of the Saudi Arabian government appear to have conducted a brazen assassination of Jamal Khashoggi: other journalists. We care, for obvious reasons. Human rights advocates care. And people in Saudi Arabia certainly care. But to think that the U.S. government, as embodied by the Trump administration, actually cares about this, in the sense of being deeply outraged by this awful crime against human rights and freedom of speech, is foolish. They don’t care. And this will all blow over with some ceremonial hand-wringing, and everything will be as it was, except with one less vocal critic of the Saudi Arabian government.
At least Donald Trump, unlike Barack Obama, has been kind enough to more or less come right out and say it. The Saudis spend a lot of money on American-made weapons, and they are considered a “strategic” ally in the Middle East, and we therefore overlook all of their human rights abuses, as we have for decades. “We don’t like it, and we don’t like it even a little bit,” Trump told reporters, referring to one of their colleagues being butchered by government agents. “But as to whether or not we should stop $110 billion from being spent in this country, knowing they have four or five alternatives, two of them very good alternatives, that would not be acceptable to me.”
It is not as though this is the first Saudi Arabian human rights violation that we have kindly overlooked. The decision would not have been any different under Obama, or Bush, or Clinton. The U.S. government cares about arms sales and oil and military cooperation more than it cares about the life of a journalist. That is a fact. If you do not understand that fact then much of the meaning of what journalists produce has been lost on you. The only remarkable thing about this case is that Donald Trump has less ability to pretend to care than previous presidents. He can hardly disguise his complete disinterest in this assassination. The press will bother his administration about it a lot, and so they will make gestures. Perhaps there will be a minor diplomatic retaliation. Perhaps the Saudis will find a low-level official to take the blame. Statements of disappointment will be made. And then all will carry on as before. This apparent kidnapping, murder, and dismemberment must not be allowed to interrupt business.
The job of the media is ultimately to inform the public about the world as it truly is. It would be a shame for the death of a member of the media to be used in service of obfuscation of the truth. The truth is the American government cares about business. The American government does not care about the murder of a journalist if caring about the murder of a journalist would significantly impede business. This has always been the calculation, and any journalist who wrote otherwise should now take some time to taste the bitterness of reality. If Jamal Khashoggi had been an American-born staff writer for the Washington Post, the tut-tutting by the American government would have been louder, but the final outcome would be the same. Business must go on. Remember this the next time that the U.S. government tries to sell the public on the idea that they are undertaking military action in order to protect someone else’s human rights. That is not what we do.
At least let the man’s murder open a conversation that’s based on the truth. Saudi Arabia and the United States will both be happy when the pageantry of concern is concluded, so they can get back to business.