Killer Politicians

What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.

Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.

.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.

.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.

.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.

Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.

.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.

When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.

A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.

.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.

U.S.-Saudi Defense Ties on Track to Weather Controversy

President Trump last year heralded nearly $110 billion in potential deals during a trip to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. Many defense analysts said that figure includes existing commitments and contracts that could last as long as 30 years.

.. “We continue to believe that the death of Jamal Khashoggi will not lead to a major break in U.S. or European defense sales to Saudi Arabia,” said Byron Callan at Capital Alpha LLC. Mr. Callan estimated that Saudi Arabia accounts for about 5% of sales at the big U.S. defense companies.

.. Saudi Arabia is the world’s third-largest defense market after the U.S. and China and the biggest export destination for U.S. contractors, which made more than $3 billion in sales to the kingdom last year

.. The biggest signed deal is a $10 billion purchase agreed in 2014 of hundreds of armored vehicles by a Canadian subsidiary of General Dynamics, which is continuing to make shipments.

..  The kingdom’s wealth and longstanding tensions with Iran led it to plan to purchase best-in-class capabilities such as Lockheed’s Thaad missile-defense system.

.. Saudi Arabia has also bought precision bombs and missiles

.. Defense executives were among prominent attendees lined up for the Future Investment Initiative conference in capital Riyadh next week. A number of executives from finance and industry have pulled out of the conference.

.. Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson in April hosted a tour of a U.S. satellite and missile facility by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir to the Saudi throne and the kingdom’s day-to-day ruler.Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg in March hosted the prince at the plane maker’s plant in Seattle. Other executives, including Mr. Kennedy at Raytheon, have talked of frequent trips to the kingdom

.. Saudi Arabia’s huge arms bill has led the country to push for a greater share of the economic benefits, especially jobs. The kingdom has said it wants to become less reliant on imports and spend half its weapons budget in domestic facilities—compared to just 2% at present—part of a plan to diversify its economy beyond the oil industry by 2030.

.. That has led U.S. companies to open Saudi subsidiaries and to agree to shift assembly and other production processes to the kingdom. Boeing announced a joint venture in March that would place more than half the repair work for Saudi helicopters in the country, creating 6,000 jobs.

.. BAE Systems BAESY -3.80% plc, Europe’s largest weapons maker with deep ties to Saudi Arabia, is expected to have representatives at the business conclave in Saudi next week,

Robert Stallard, an analyst at Vertical Research, said the signing of the multibillion-dollar combat jet deal could be delayed. He said, though, long-term BAE’s business would not be dented. “We think the Saudi situation will blow over,” he said in a note.

A President Kowtowing to a Mad Prince

And if there are no serious consequences this time as well, even now that his moniker is said to stand for “Mr. Bone Saw,” what will M.B.S. do next?

The truth is that for decades, we have enabled Saudi Arabian misconduct, including the extremist education and terrorist financing that contributed to the 9/11 attacks. We stood by as Saudi Arabia seeded fanatical madrasas in places like West Africa, Pakistan and Indonesia, gravely destabilizing poor parts of the world.

Franklin Roosevelt supposedly once described a Nicaraguan dictator as “a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch,” and that may be how some Americans see M.B.S. But M.B.S. duped Americans. He talks a good game but didn’t deliver on his promise to buy $110 billion in weapons, didn’t back the Trump peace plan for the Middle East and hasn’t managed to take the Saudi oil company Aramco public.

His plans keep backfiring. His war in Yemen created new opportunities there for Al Qaeda, his confrontation with Qatar benefited Iran, his kidnapping of Lebanon’s prime minister left Hezbollah stronger than ever, and the alleged Khashoggi kidnap-murder is a gift to Saudi rivals in Turkey and Iran.

In short, the mad prince is not only barbaric, he’s also unreliable and incompetent. He doesn’t advance our interests; he damages them. Indeed, one of my fears is that he will try to drag us into a war with Iran.

Yet even as Saudi officials lie low, Trump has become the kingdom’s puppet and apologist, suggesting that “rogue killers” might have been responsible for the apparent murder. He dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for an unctuous mission to thank King Salman for his commitment to a “thorough” and “transparent” investigation.

Trump acts as if the Saudis have leverage over us. In fact, the Saudis desperately need us and our spare parts for their American-made aircraft. The Saudis haven’t even been able to defeat a rebel militia in Yemen, so they depend on us for their security — yet we squander our leverage.