“America First!” That’s how Donald Trump began and ended his November 20 statement addressing Saudi Arabia’s gruesome murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey, on October 2.
Khashoggi’s murder had sparked a global furor and created what the Washington Post called a “foreign policy crisis” for the U.S. Trump had dodged and double-talked around the issue of who was responsible for the killing for weeks. But growing evidence and even a CIA assessment that Trump ally Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) had ordered the assassination—along with the way in which the Khashoggi furor was turning global attention toward the towering war crimes being committed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in Yemen—forced Trump’s hand.
Trump didn’t back down from his support for MBS and the blood-soaked, medieval Saudi kingdom. He doubled down. And in the course of his lie-filled, fascist rant, he laid bare some truths about what this country is all about, what it really brings to the world, and the serious difficulties America’s empire is mired in.
Just titling a statement about this brutal murder “Standing with Saudi Arabia” and starting and ending it with declarations of “America First!” spoke volumes and sent a barbaric message. This made clear that he and his regime weren’t going to let Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, concern for traditional norms like abiding by international law, professed concerns for human rights and press freedoms, and a little thing like the truth get in the way of their pursuit of naked imperialist domination and plunder. Instead, they stood ready to commit any crime, tell any lie, and embrace any ally, no matter how barbaric, if that advanced the interests and overcame the obstacles faced by their predatory system.
“The world is a very dangerous place!” Trump continued. But he wasn’t talking about how the U.S. has made it that way for decades by launching wars of aggression—in Korea, Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, Afghanistan—that have slaughtered tens of millions.
No! He was talking about the dangers to America’s global dominance, to America First, that were growing because of the contradictions rending the old “liberal [read: imperialist] world order.” Wars like the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were meant to secure American pre-eminence. Instead, they ended up contributing to a world in which American dominance and empire is being challenged from many different directions—by China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran, by reactionary Islamic fundamentalist militaries, by rival imperialists in Europe. And Trump represents one extreme—imperialist—answer to that; the one in power, and determined to hammer into place a fascist regime.
Targeting Iran—Not for Khashoggi’s Murder but for Challenging American Dominance
These challenges are especially acute in the Middle East, and Trump immediately pivoted—not to anything that had anything to do with Jamal Khashoggi or his murder—but to one of those dangers for “America First”—Iran. “The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen,” Trump claimed, and then he ran out a litany of other offenses in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. And it’s true—since the revolution of 1979 that overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah, Iran’s reactionary Islamic Republic hasn’t been under the U.S. thumb and has extended its reach and influence across the region—in sharp competition with Saudi Arabia—and does threaten the U.S. death grip on the Middle East’s 400 million overwhelmingly oppressed and impoverished peoples.
While this naked imperialist geostrategic obsession with “solving the Iran problem” is shared by the entire U.S. ruling class, there are sharp contradictions over how to do that. These contradictions found expression in Trump’s reversal of the nuclear agreement negotiated by Obama, but extends even into Trump’s own “team.” One point of this speech, as we’ll get into, was to set terms on that for the whole ruling class.
Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is a bulwark for the American empire and a key spearhead of the escalating and dangerous U.S. offensive against Iran—a role the Khashoggi murder has seriously complicated. This—not business interests—is at the core of Trump’s “bond” with MBS, and Trump made it clear he’d do everything in his power to try and ensure that Khashoggi’s murder would not be allowed to weaken that bond or their joint offensive against Iran.
Green-Lighting Mass Murder in Yemen
Trump’s lies regarding Yemen were especially outrageous—and revealed the enormity of the crimes this fascist regime is willing to carry out in service of “America First.” After blaming Iran for starting the war in Yemen (a blatant lie—Saudi Arabia launched the war in March 2015), he claimed “Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave. They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance.”
Say what? Iran may have provided Yemen’s Houthis, who are fighting the Saudis, some minimal military aid and political support. But they can’t “agree to leave” Yemen, because their forces have never been shown to be in Yemen! But Saudi Arabia and its allies are in Yemen: 150,000 troops and 100 warplanes which have conducted close to 20,000 bombing raids.
These Saudi forces are deliberately destroying Yemen’s food, water, and health systems and blocking humanitarian relief—in short, using starvation and disease as weapons in a war that’s murdered 50,000 people, starved 85,000 children to death, and pushed 14 million people to the brink of famine! And America and its planes and its bombs and its special forces are in Yemen too, making the slaughter possible and helping turn Yemen into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today!
In the face of these monstrous horrors, Trump’s lies turned reality on its head and green-lighted further Saudi aggression there, aggression which now threatens to cut off Yemen’s only lifeline for humanitarian aid, the port of Hodeidah.
Hawking a Shameful, Chauvinist Bargain: American Jobs for Middle East Blood
Trump then went on to heap praise on Saudi Arabia. This longtime U.S. ally under both Democrats and Republicans is one of the most oppressive states in the world. Women have virtually no rights and people who violate even minor tenets of Islamic law or who dissent against the ruling House of Saud are publicly whipped or beheaded on a very regular basis. But Trump didn’t care about any of that: he crowed that the “Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States.”
These are widely exposed lies (the Saudis have reportedly only pledged to buy $14.5 billion in U.S. arms), but Trump was dangling this to whip up and unite people around bellicose chauvinism and a poisonous bargain: “Don’t think about the murdered journalist, the starving children, the war-ravaged environment… just think about your own country and your own economic position, and support whatever crimes we deem necessary and you’ll get a share of the spoils of global plunder.”
Trump Finally Gets to Khashoggi…
Only after all this—after setting down an ideological orientation of “America First” and a strategic orientation of the need to work with Saudi Arabia to crush Iran—only then did Trump even bring up Khashoggi. First there’s some disingenuous double talk about how this “was a terrible crime” that “our country does not condone.” OK, box checked, the U.S. does not officially support chopping up dissidents into little pieces.
But right from there, in classic Trumpian style, he brings up that some “say that Jamal Khashoggi was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Read between the lines and Trump is saying that Khashoggi got what he had coming (and by the way, Trump implies that the “enemies of the people”—journalists—in the U.S. deserve the same treatment).
Then the real kicker: Trump says “… it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event—maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” In other words, even if MBS did it, it doesn’t matter because our imperialist interests come first, and “the Kingdom … has been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. 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.”
Here again, Trump is blustering, but also revealing some of the profound strategic weaknesses and challenges the U.S. faces in the Middle East: most of its allies, including Saudi Arabia, are widely hated, internally fragile tyrannies presiding over viciously oppressed, and repressed, populations. The exception as regards this “internal fragility” is the settler-colonial state of Israel, America’s main military bastion in the region. But even in the case of Israel, its merciless ethnic cleansing has failed to break the resistance of the Palestinian people, and its assaults on Palestinians are increasingly condemned all over the world, including by a growing number of Jewish people.
Trump Threatens His Ruling Class Critics—Go Ahead, Make My Day!
Trump concludes by threatening his ruling class critics—none of whom says the U.S. should not have an extremely close alliance with Saudi Arabia or should not be putting a heavy squeeze on Iran, or rules out war with Iran. They just favor the traditional global norms and alliances as the best way to maintain U.S. imperialist control. In particular, these critics—ranging from the Democratic Party to Republican senator and Trump supporter Lindsey Graham, along with perhaps forces in his own administration—are concerned that MBS may be recklessly propelling the U.S. toward another war, which could end up weakening the U.S. hold on the Middle East… and perhaps worse. They are further worried that the whole incident weakens the legitimacy of MBS and the Saudis in any future conflict with Iran and is already having unpredictable and negative consequences, from the viewpoint of US imperialist interests, in other power relations and arrangements in that part of the world. And they’re worried that brazenly ignoring any pretense of human rights, justice, truth, and nakedly practicing naked might-makes-right politics will expose the core nature of U.S. capitalism-imperialism and call its legitimacy into question—at home and around the world.
Trump seems to “acknowledge” these concerns (“I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction—and they are free to do so. I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me…”) only to forcefully dismiss them: “…but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America. … As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!” In other words: This is what we are doing. If you agree I will listen to your ideas, if you don’t agree, shut up. And Trump’s warning that “The world is a very dangerous place” is aimed at reminding people, including people in the ruling class and even including people within the regime, what time it is.
He has told the world. Again. And what will we do?
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Trump’s Statement on “Standing with Saudi Arabia”
The following is the text of the November 20 “Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia”:
The world is a very dangerous place!
The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more. Likewise, the Iranians have killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East. Iran states openly, and with great force, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” Iran is considered “the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave. They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has agreed to spend billions of dollars in leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism.
After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!
The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone. Indeed, we have taken strong action against those already known to have participated in the murder. After great independent research, we now know many details of this horrible crime. We have already sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body.
Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that – this is an unacceptable and horrible crime. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!
That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. 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. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!
I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction – and they are free to do so. I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America. After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!