There are things you can’t say. You may believe them, they may even be absolutely true, but you can’t say them.
Because saying them out loud has other ramifications. They lead to behaviours that you didn’t expect, but probably should have realized were coming.
What I’m talking about it U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to publicly announce that he plans to continue dealing with Saudi Arabia, after that country’s regime was implicated in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. For weeks now, Trump has cast doubt on the findings of his own intelligence agencies about how far up the leadership chain the call for Khashoggi’s murder went — and, at the same time, taking every opportunity to point out the importance of Saudi Arabia’s ties to the U.S., as an oil supplier, as a weapons buyer, and as an important Middle Eastern ally.
And while Trump may have said it publicly, many other countries are quietly doing the same thing — that is, despite condemnations, business goes on.
The German government may have moved away from dealing with the Saudi Arabian regime, but despite severe tut-tutting, the Canadian government hasn’t cancelled this country’s $15-billion armoured car deal with the country. In fact, the Canadian government has stayed pretty much silent on whether or not it would launch any sanctions against Saudi Arabia whatsoever.
That’s a dose of realpolitik. (As Merriam-Webster puts it, “politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives.”)
But the other part of realpolitik is how you publicly cast your message.
Would other American presidents have continued to deal with Saudi Arabia after Kashogggi’s murder? They would probably have been much louder in their condemnations — but if there really were billions of dollars’ worth of work and hundreds of jobs at stake, they’d probably find a way to hold their nose and not break off relations. Much the way Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government appears to be doing — unless, of course, the outcry becomes too great for the federal government to ignore.
The message is that the United States isn’t even going to pretend to do what’s right.
I’m not saying the pragmatic hold-your-nose decision is the right decision — morally, it’s repugnant to think of doing business with a nation that would callously and cruelly murder journalists simply for writing critically about a regime. But murders and jailings of journalists happen in many places in the world, and if those countries are powerful enough, business goes on.
The problem isn’t so much President Trump’s actions, as it is the message that he’s sending to foreign leaders. And that message is that the United States isn’t even going to pretend to do what’s right — and by having Trump broadcast that message, it’s a granting a licence for others to overstep, thinking that the U.S. has now made it clear that the only thing it’s considering is the money.
This may seem like a stretch, but I don’t think it is all that far out of line: as I watched the news unroll about the frightening Sea of Azov confrontation between Ukrainian and Russian vessels on Sunday — a ramping-up of the two nations’ long-running confrontation — I couldn’t help but think that the Russian government might well feel more comfortable about taking military action because of Trump’s complete lack of action with Saudi Arabia. Well, maybe not his lack of action, but his clear statement what matters above all else is American jobs, regardless of the brutality of regimes who are also American customers.
If you don’t even pretend to care, it’s not hard to understand why foreign despots would feel emboldened to do whatever they like.
And that is a serious threat for all of us.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.