When coun­tries don’t even pre­tend to care

Annapolis Valley Register - - NEWS - Rus­sell Wanger­sky’s col­umn ap­pears in 36 SaltWire news­pa­pers and web­sites in At­lantic Canada. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­[email protected]­gram.com – Twit­ter: @wanger­sky.

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 you didn’t ex­pect, but prob­a­bly should have re­al­ized were com­ing.

What I’m talk­ing about is U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion to pub­licly an­nounce 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.

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 Trump’s ac­tions, as it is the mes­sage 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 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 roll out 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 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 that 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 Eastern Pas­sages

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