President Trump's casual disinterest in the murder of Jamaal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia's leaders, a crime he once abhorred, may be only the final repudiation of America's ancient obedience to human rights, but what if it is much more? What if it is a prelude to war?
With prosecutorial and congressional investigations closing in, Trump may soon need the distraction of more American troops dying on foreign fields, which never fails to arouse our patriotic impulses, but that is not what I mean.
It is not a calculated step toward a wider and deadlier conflict in the Middle East — Trump never seems to think far ahead on anything — but shuffling off the butchery of the old journalist, the father of three U.S. citizens, betrays an unholy allegiance to the royal leaders who have in mind just such a war, between the United States and Iran, the Saudis' religious and secular rival for hegemony in the turbulent Muslim world. Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran at the Saudis' urging, and his men are threatening to overthrow the regime that negotiated the nuclear deal and has a tenuous hold on the democratic wing of the Iranian government.
When Khashoggi's slaughter in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a government murder squad came to light, Trump said he didn't like it "even a little bit." He was going to get to the bottom of it and severely punish everyone who was responsible. But when his intelligence agencies told him the evidence was irrefutable that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered it, the president changed his tune. He said bin Salman told him he didn't order the murder and cover-up and he believed his friend, not the evidence. It was time to move on because he was not going to jeopardize U.S companies' sale of billions of dollars of armaments that bin Salman uses in the three-year bombing of the people of Yemen to oust the ruling faction allied loosely with Shiite Iran.
The day before Khashoggi's murder, Trump's intelligence agencies intercepted a plan from the Saudi palace to lure Khashoggi into a trap and they passed the information on to the White House. It isn't known whether it reached the president or whether anyone tried to warn Khashoggi in Istanbul or his daughters in the U.S.
Why would the president be averse to punishing the murderers of a U.S. resident and those behind it? He once bragged that the Saudi royalty had helped him make a fortune.
"Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them," he said at a rally in Alabama in 2015. "They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million a year. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much."
At another rally, he said: "I make a lot of money from them. They buy all sorts of my stuff — all kinds of toys. They pay me millions and hundreds of millions."
Now he says he never had any financial connections to the country, only a recognition that the world's biggest oil producer is a great ally, even if it is one of the world's absolute tyrannies and enemies of human rights.
Trump and his State Department denounce Iran as the world's leading exporter of terrorism, a title that belongs exclusively to Saudi Arabia, which spawned Osama bin Laden and provided 15 of the 19 hijackers who killed 2,997 Americans and injured 6,000 on 9/11. The Bush administration blocked an inquiry into the Saudi royalty's role in the 9/11 attacks. When Trump banned travel from "terrorist countries" after taking office, he omitted Saudi Arabia and the other three countries that provided the Sunni hijackers and spawned the ISIS brigades that U.S. troops have been fighting in Iraq and Syria.
The most encouraging thing about Trump's race was his insinuation that he would never engage in the religious and secular rivalries in the Middle East, as previous administrations had done at terrible costs to America and the region.
He was unaware of the depth of that history. Reversing the policy of President Truman, President Eisenhower in 1953 acceded to pleas from Winston Churchill and sent the CIA to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, who was threatening to nationalize the British petroleum company for refusing to allow an audit to see whether the Brits were cheating Iran out of payments for Iranian oil that it marketed across the world.
Operation Ajax was the first covert U.S. action to overthrow a foreign government in peacetime. Classified records opened five years ago showed that the CIA planned the coup, drove the propaganda against Mossadegh, bribed politicians and military leaders and arranged for Mossadegh to spend the rest of his life in detention. We gave Iran the dictator Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was overthrown in the revolution of 1979. Retaliating for giving the country 26 years of tyranny and giving the shah sanctuary, student revolutionaries held American diplomats hostage in 1979 and 1980. Under a secret arrangement with agents for Ronald Reagan to hold the hostages through the election, the Iranians freed the Americans at the exact moment Reagan was sworn in. He repaid them with multiple shipments of arms.
Trump recently increased American forces in Syria to combat Iranian support for the Syrian government. His national security adviser, John Bolton, an architect of the war in Iraq, said the other day they would stay there until the Iran-backed regime is gone. Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani said recently that Trump was going to overthrow the Iranian government.
"It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years," he said. "But it's going to happen."
Needless to say, the risk of an incident — in Syria, Yemen, Gaza, Israel — that could provide an excuse for war is constant. The butchery of a journalist? Trifling, when bigger prey is at hand..