The apparent murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist and U.S. resident, should force Americans to confront unpleasant truths about the Saudi regime — and its enablers in the White House.
Let's understand first that there is nothing truly unusual about the Khashoggi crime, except for its location in a consulate on foreign soil. Putting dissidents to death is what they do in Saudi Arabia, where the favored means of execution is beheading by sword (in much the same style as ISIS, not coincidentally).
The regime has executed dozens in a single day, such as the execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr and more than 40 peaceful protesters on a January afternoon in 2016. At this moment, several activists are in prison, awaiting trial on capital charges for seeking to advance women's or minority Shiite rights.
Until last week, such daily abuses of human rights scarcely discouraged anyone from seeking access to the enormous fortune controlled by the Saudi royals. Indeed, the typical response of American financiers, corporate executives, media bigwigs and politicians was to ignore all the atrocities, pretend that meaningful "reform" was imminent and ask for a nice slice of that oily pie.
That was why so many of our most illustrious leaders in business, finance and media coveted their invitations to the Future of Investment Initiative, or "Davos in the Desert," conference scheduled in Riyadh next week. Enthusiastically, they had endorsed the dubious reform narrative promoted by Saudi's hundreds of public relations agents and lobbyists over the past few years following the rise to power of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In Washington, D.C., and New York, those lavishly paid operators diverted attention from the regime's continuing domestic repression and its aggressive foreign policy (which is creating a humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen).
Buttressed by hundreds of millions in spending, the Saudi public relations and lobbying apparatus has enjoyed enormous success in isolating the regime's critics. That success is even more impressive because the House of Saud bears singular responsibility for spreading the Wahhabist perversion of Islam that has inspired terrorists worldwide — including al-Qaida's 9/11 perps, who were mostly of Saudi origin, and the murderous ISIS networks.
So imagine the crown prince's shock when the disappearance of Khashoggi sparked worldwide outrage, provoking many of the regime's friends in U.S. financial, business and media circles to gingerly back away. No doubt they will rush back to the Saudi teat when the heat dies down. But for the moment, nobody is defending or excusing the regime.
Nobody, that is, except President Trump. Even beyond the president's innate attraction to despotism everywhere, he has sucked up to the Saudis with unusual gusto. Naturally, he is thinking of those big Trump Organization apartment buys by Saudi princes, as well as the various hotel deals inked by his company in Saudi Arabia during his presidential campaign.
As the Khashoggi scandal engulfs the monarchy, Trump predictably has invented excuses and conspiracies to avoid any direct pressure on his royal business partners. With his usual combination of blunt greed and deceptive rhetoric, Trump has grossly exaggerated the value of U.S. weapons purchased by Riyadh, while pretending to believe that someone else — "rogue killers"? — might be culpable in the journalist's demise. (Meanwhile his idiot son Donald Trump Jr. echoes vile lies from the far right suggesting that Khashoggi was an al-Qaida sympathizer.) Trump has dragged in Justice Brett Kavanaugh too, complaining that like his tainted Supreme Court nominee, the poor Saudi rulers are being held "guilty until proven innocent."
Maybe Trump is reciting ridiculous talking points he heard from a Saudi agent. Perhaps King Salman told Trump what to say in their phone conversation, when he "firmly denied" any involvement in Khashoggi's fate. Typically, the president is ignoring U.S. intelligence agencies, which reportedly have confirmed intercepts showing that the Saudis plotted to lure the troublesome journalist to Saudi Arabia. Instead of assessing real evidence, Trump appears determined to cover up a murder conspiracy.
In this disgraceful display, we see again many of the elements observed in Trump's relationship with the Kremlin — the same clownish obsequiousness, the same telltale money trails, the same rejection of U.S. intelligence estimates, the same attempt to deflect attention away from discomforting facts and toward bogus conspiracy theories.
Worst of all, we see the same disdain for international norms and American traditions that has undermined our reputation since the day he was inaugurated. Is anyone still surprised when he shames us?
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.