Donald Trump on Tuesday issued a statement proclaiming that, notwithstanding the anger toward the Saudi Crown Prince over the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, “the United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.” To justify his decision, Trump cited the fact that “Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world” and claimed that “of the $450 billion [the Saudis plan to spend with U.S. companies], $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors.”
This statement instantly and predictably produced pompous denunciations pretending that Trump’s posture was a deviation from, a grievous violation of, long-standing U.S. values and foreign policy rather than what it actually and obviously is: a perfect example – perhaps stated a little more bluntly and candidly than usual – of how the U.S. has conducted itself in the world since at least the end of World War II.
The reaction was so intense because the fairy tale about the U.S. standing up for freedom and human rights in the world is one of the most pervasive and powerful prongs of western propaganda, the one relied upon by U.S. political and media elites to convince not just the U.S. population but also themselves of their own righteousness, even as they spend decades lavishing the world’s worst tyrants and despots with weapons, money, intelligence and diplomatic protection to carry out atrocities of historic proportions.
After all, if you have worked in high-level foreign policy positions in Washington, or at the think thanks and academic institutions that support those policies, or in the corporate media outlets that venerate those who rise to the top of those precincts (and which increasingly hire those security state officials as news analysts), how do you justify to yourself that you’re still a good person even though you arm, prop up, empower and enable the world’s worst monsters, genocides, and tyrannies?
Simple: by pretending that you don’t do any of that, that such acts are contrary to your system of values, that you actually work to oppose rather than protect such atrocities, that you’re a warrior and crusader for democracy, freedom and human rights around the world.
That’s the lie that you have to tell yourself: so that you can look in the mirror without instantly feeling revulsion, so that you can show your face in decent society without suffering the scorn and ostracization that your actions merit, so that you can convince the population over which you have ruled that the bombs you drop and the weapons with which you flood the world are actually designed to help and protect people rather than slaughter and oppress them.
That’s why it was so necessary – to the point of being more like a physical reflex than a conscious choice – to react to Trump’s Saudi statement with contrived anger and shock rather than admitting the truth that he was just candidly acknowledging the core tenets of U.S. foreign policy for decades. The people who lied to the public and to themselves by pretending that Trump did something aberrational rather than completely normal were engaged in an act of self-preservation as much as propagandistic deceit, though both motives were heavily at play.
The New York Times Editorial Page, as it so often does, topped the charts with pretentious, scripted moral outrage. “President Trump confirmed the harshest caricatures drawn by America’s most cynical critics on Tuesday when he portrayed its central objectives in the world as panting after money and narrow self-interest,” bellowed the paper, as though this view of U.S. motives is some sort of jaded fiction invented by America-haters rather than the only honest, rational description of the country’s despot-embracing posture in the world during the lifespan of any human being alive today.
The paper’s editorial writers were particularly shocked that “the statement reflected Mr. Trump’s view that all relationships are transactional, and that moral or human rights considerations must be sacrificed to a primitive understanding of American national interests.” To believe – or pretend to believe – that it is Mr. Trump who pioneered the view that the U.S. is willing and eager to sanction murder and savagery by the regimes with which it is most closely aligned as long as such barbarism serves U.S interests signifies a historical ignorance and/or a willingness to lie to one’s own readers so profound that no human language is capable of expressing the depths of those delusions. Has the New York Times Editorial Page ever heard of Henry Kissinger?
So extensive is the active, constant and enthusiastic support by the U.S. for the world’s worst monsters and atrocities that comprehensively citing them all, in order to prove the ahistorical deceit of yesterday’s reaction to Trump’s statement, would require a multi-volume book, not a mere article. But the examples are so vivid and clear that citing just a few will suffice to make the point indisputable.
In April of this year, Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, the dictator of Guatemala during the 1980s, died. The New York Times obituary, noting that he had been convicted of genocide for “trying to exterminate the Ixil ethnic group, a Mayan Indian community whose villages were wiped out by his forces,” explained that “in the panoply of commanders who turned much of Central America into a killing field in the 1980s, General Ríos Montt was one of the most murderous.” The obituary added: “In his first five months in power, according to Amnesty International, soldiers killed more than 10,000 peasants.”
The genocide-committing General Rios Montt was a favorite of President Ronald Reagan, one of the closest figures the U.S. has to a secular saint, after whom many monuments and national institutions are still named. Reagan not only armed and funded Rios Montt but heaped praise on him far more gushing than anything Trump or Jared Kushner has said about the Saudi Crown Prince. The Washington Post’s Lou Cannon reported in 1982 that “on Air Force One returning to Andrews Air Force Base [from South America], [Reagan] said Rios Montt had been getting ‘a bum rap’ and ‘is totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala.’”
At a press conference standing next to the mass murderer, Reagan hailed him as “a man of great personal integrity and commitment,” who really “wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.” What about all those unfortunate acts of mass slaughter against Guatemalan peasants? That, said President Reagan, was justified, or at least understandable, because the General was “faced with a challenge from guerrillas armed and supported from those outside Guatemala.”
Trump’s emphasis yesterday on the Saudis’ value in opposing Iran provoked particular anger. That anger is extremely odd given that the iconic and notorious photograph of Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein took place in 1983, when Rumsfeld was dispatched to Baghdad to provide arms and other weapons to the Iraqi regime in order to help them fight Iran.
This trip, Al Jazeera noted when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, all happened while “Iraq was at war with Iran and was using chemical weapons. Human rights abuses were practised on large sections of the Iraqi population.” The U.S. nonetheless “renewed the hand of friendship [with Saddam] through the special envoy Rumsfeld” because “Washington wanted Iraq’s friendship to stymie Iran” – exactly the rationale cited yesterday by Trump for continuing friendly relations with Riyadh (The Saudis “have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran,” said Trump).
As for the Saudis themselves, they have long been committing atrocities on par with and far worse than the Khashoggi killing both within their borders and outside, and their partnership with U.S. Presidents has only flourished. As the Saudis beheaded dissidents and created the planet’s worst humanitarian crisis by slaughtering Yemeni civilians without mercy or restraint, President Obama not only authorized the sale of a record amount of weapons to Saudi tyrants, but also cut short his visit to India, the world’s largest democracy, where he was delivering lectures about the paramount importance of human rights and civic freedoms, in order to travel to Riyadh to meet with top U.S. leaders from both political parties to pay homage to the murderous Saudi King who had just died (only in the last month of his presidency, with an eye toward his legacy, did Obama restrict some arms to the Saudis after allowing those weapons to freely flow for eighteen months during the destruction of Yemen).
UK Prime Minister David Cameron – perhaps Obama’s only worthy competitor when it came to simultaneously delivering preening speeches about human rights while arming the world’s worst human rights abusers – actually ordered UK flags flown at half-mast in honor of the noble Saudi despot. All of this took place at roughly the same time that Obama dispatched his top officials, including his Defense Secretary Robert Gates, to pay homage to the rulers of Bahrain after they and the Saudis crushed a citizen uprising seeking greater freedoms.
In 2012, Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa came to Washington – fresh off of massacring his own citizens seeking greater freedoms – and, in the words of Foreign Policy, “he left with hands full of gifts from the U.S. State Department, which announced new arms sales to Bahrain today.” How did the Obama administration justify all of this? By invoking exactly the same rationale Trump cited yesterday for his ongoing support of the Saudis: that although the U.S. did not approve of such upsetting violence, its “national security interests” compelled its ongoing support. From Foreign Policy (italics added):
The crown prince’s son just graduated from American University, where the Bahraini ruling family recently shelled out millions for a new building at AU’s School of International Service. But while he was in town, the crown prince met with a slew of senior U.S. officials and congressional leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain, as well as several other Washington VIPs.
On Friday afternoon, the State Department announced it was moving forward on a host of sales to the Bahraini Defense Forces, the Bahraini National Guard, and the Bahraini Coast Guard. The State Department said the decision to move forward with the sales was made solely in the interest of U.S. national security, but outside experts see the move as meant to strengthen the crown prince in his struggle inside the ruling family.
“We’ve made this decision, I want to emphasize, on national security grounds,” a senior administration official told reporters on a Friday conference call. “We’ve made this decision mindful of the fact that there remain a number of serious, unresolved human rights issues in Bahrain, which we expect the government of Bahrain to address.”
In 2011, Americans gathered around their TV sets to cheer the inspiring Egyptian protesters gathering in Tahir Square to demand the ouster of the brutal Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarak. Most TV announcers neglected to remind excited American viewers that Mubarak had managed to remain in power for so long because their own government had propped him up with weapons, money and intelligence. As Mona Eltahawy put it in the New York Times last year: “Five American administrations, Democratic and Republican, supported the Mubarak regime.”
But in case anyone was confused about the U.S. posture toward this incomparably heinous Egyptian dictator, Hillary Clinton stepped forward to remind everyone of how U.S. officials have long viewed such tyrants. When asked in an interview about how her own State Department had documented Egypt’s record of severe, relentless human rights abuses and whether this might affect her friendship with its rulers, Secretary Clinton gushed: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”
How can anyone pretend that Trump’s praise for the Saudis is some kind of aberration when Hillary Clinton literally heralded one of the planet’s most murderous and violent despots as a personal friend of her family? A Washington Post Editorial at the time proclaimed that “Clinton continues to devalue and undermine the U.S. diplomatic tradition of human rights advocacy” and that “she appears oblivious to how offensive such statements are to the millions of Egyptians who loathe Mr. Mubarak’s oppressive government and blame the United States for propping it up.”
But this just shows the repetitive, dreary game U.S. elites have been playing for decades. Newspaper editorialists and think tank scholars pretend that the U.S. stands opposed to tyranny and despotism and feigns surprise each time U.S. officials lend their support, weaponry and praise to those same tyrants and despots.
And lest anyone try to distinguish Trump’s statement yesterday on the ground that it was false – that it covered up for bad acts of despotic allies by refusing to admit the Crown Prince’s guilt for Khashoggi’s murder – let us recall when Clinton’s successor as Secretary of State, John Kerry, defended Mubarak’s successor, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, by denying that he had implemented “a coup” when he overthrew Egypt’s elected President in 2013. Instead, proclaimed Kerry, the Sisi-led Egyptian generals, by removing the elected leader, were simply attempting to “restore democracy” – the exact same lie told by the New York Times Editorial Page when right-wing Venezuelan generals in 2002 removed that country’s elected President, Hugo Chávez, only for that paper to hail that coup as a restoration of democracy.
In 2015, as the human rights abuses of the Sisi regime worsened even further, the New York Times reported: “with the United States worried about militants in Sinai and Libya who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, American officials also signaled that they would not let their concerns with human rights stand in the way of increased security cooperation with Egypt.”
Sound familiar? It should: it’s exactly the rationale Trump invoked yesterday to justify ongoing support for the Saudis. In 2015, the Egyptian dictatorship – as it was murdering dissidents en masse – openly celebrated the flow of U.S. weapons to the regime.
None of this recent, ugly history – and this is only a tiny excerpt of it (excluding, just to name a few examples, U.S. support for the 20th Century’s greatest monsters from Indonesia’s Suharto to death squads in El Salvador and U.S. killing of its own citizens to U.S. support for Israeli occupation and apartheid) – justifies what Trump did on Tuesday. But what it does do is give the lie to the flamboyant claims that Trump has somehow vandalized and degraded U.S. values and U.S. foreign policy rather than what he actually did: upheld their core tenets and explained them to the public with great candor and clarity.
This episode also exposes one of the great scams of the Trump era. The very same people who have devoted their careers to supporting despotism, empowering tyranny, cheering on atrocities, and justifying U.S. imperialism are masquerading as the exact opposite of what they are in order to pave their path back to power where they can continue to pursue all of the destructive and amoral policies they now so grotesquely pretend to oppose.
Anyone who objects to exposure of this deceit – anyone who invokes empty clichés such as “whataboutism” or “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue” in order to enable this scam to go undetected – has no business staking moral claim to any values of truth or freedom. People who demand that this deceit go unnoticed are revealing themselves as what they are: purely situational opponents of tyranny and murder who pretend to hold such values only when doing so undermines their domestic political opponents and enables their political allies to be restored to power where they can continue the same policies of murder, tyranny-support and atrocity-enabling that they have spent decades defending.
If you want to denounce Trump’s indifference to Saudi atrocities on moral, ethical or geo-political grounds – and I find them objectionable on all of those grounds – by all means do so. But pretending that he’s done something that is at odds with U.S. values or the actions of prior leaders or prevailing foreign policy orthodoxies is not just deceitful but destructive.
It ensures that these very same policies will endure: by dishonestly pretending that they are unique to Trump, rather than the hallmarks of the same people now being applauded because they are denouncing Trump’s actions in such a blatantly false voice, all to mask the fact that they did the same, and worse, when they commanded the levers of American power.