Well, I Guess He IS Our Son of a Bitch
President Trump, despite my earlier blog (Not Our Son of a Bitch, published October 24, 2018) advising him that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) should not be our son of a bitch, has declared that, indeed, MBS is our son of a bitch. In a crass exposition of realpolitik, President Trump stated that the Saudis buy billions and billions of dollars worth of our stuff and he does not want to harm this profitable relationship. For example, there is a pending arms sales to Saudi Arabia valued at $100 billion and it is clear that the president does not want to jeopardize that cash inflow. Just the ticket to wipeout that nagging little trade deficit we have with the country.
It is true that in the past, the United States has papered over the crimes committed by strategically important countries. I can’t quite call tinhorn Latin American dictators like Anastasio Somoza an ally, but when you are fighting commies the enemy of your enemy is your friend. And Iran is our enemy and it is also the enemy of Saudi Arabia. So there you have it. (Ironically, it was the assassination of journalist and editor Pedro Chamorro that was one of the contributing factors to Somoza’s downfall.)
The Middle East is really a nasty place to do business. Saudi Arabia is not alone in sending out hit teams to assassinate rivals and dissidents. An Iranian diplomat was recently stopped by German police for transporting bomb materials that were intended to blow up a rally of Iranian dissidents. There is a bloody civil war in Syria, ISIS has converted from a caliphate to a terror cell and there are riots in Pakistan because the government declined to execute a Christian woman for blasphemy. Also keep in mind is that the reason the Turkish government has tapes of Khashoggi’s murder is that they were obviously spying on the Saudi Consulate.
It is hard to be involved in the region without getting your hands dirty. But President Trump was very blatant about the reasons why he was not going to put more sanctions on Saudi Arabia or call out the crown prince for the murder. It all came down to money. That’s why most people do business in the Middle East – as long as they don’t mind getting their hands dirty. The Europeans don’t mind paying a little baksheesh to get a juicy contract and the Chinese excel at it.
Americans trying to do business in the Middle East and other parts of the world do so with one hand tied behind their backs. For Americans, a little baksheesh might mean a little jail time. When I worked in Africa the American companies all told me that they kept losing contracts to the French and the Italians because the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prevented them from matching their offers.
The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) no doubt has reduced the exports of American products around the world and thus contributed to our gargantuan trade deficit. Why should we care if a foreign leader dishes out contracts based on the bribes he receives? He (or she) is breaking local laws and harming the citizens of his (or her) country, not ours. And our refusal to pay out bribes won’t stop the practice. It just means that companies from other countries and their workers will benefit from these sales instead of our companies and workers. President Trump was quoted by the New York Times as saying the FCPA is “a horrible law” and was reported to have said the world is laughing at us for enforcing it.
But the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is an expression of American principles. It is wrong to bribe government officials in the United States and it is wrong to do this in other countries. American exceptionalism is not based on our GDP or the New York Stock Exchange. It is based on our principles. And the Founders declared that these universal principles apply to all men (and women). We can’t be good citizens and true to our principles in our country and bad citizens ignoring our principles in other people’s countries.
President Trump does not believe in America’s principles. He thinks people are laughing at us because we try to live by our principles. He thinks principles prevent us from being great again.
But America was exceptional long before it was big and strong. Jefferson knew it in 1802 and De Tocqueville noted it when he came to America in 1831. It was American exceptionalism that made us great and it was our principles that made us exceptional. President Trump’s vision of American greatness is not based on principles but on size, power and money. That might make a great big bully but it doesn’t make a great and exceptional country.
So it is easy for President Trump to forsake principle and overlook the crimes of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman because it is profitable to do so. No doubt he thinks that many of our Founding Principles are horrible and that people are laughing at us for trying to live up to our principles. But how great will we be if we are as unprincipled as everyone else?
And while we’re at it:
A while back, the Finance Ministry driver that was taking me to a meeting with local bankers told me that he greatly admired the United States because it operated under the rule of law. Something unknown in his country. And one of my LinkedIn contacts from Central America describes herself as an “Economist in Love with the Free World and the Rule of Law.”
I think President Trump is wrong about people around the world laughing at us. The caravans of people fleeing their home countries to get into America by any means possible aren’t laughing at us. The nearly one million people that are legal residents and annually apply to become citizens aren’t laughing at us. The students that clamor to come here to study at our universities aren’t laughing at us.
No. I think the people that are laughing at us are crooks, criminals and petty dictators who would be laughing at us from behind bars if they came to our country. They are envious mean-spirited people that are jealous of our freedom and prosperity.
There are people that hate and fear us, not because of our idealistic principles, but because of our violation of those principles time and time again for profit or power. We have looked the other way to other assassinations, coup d’états, civil wars and worse.
We have been unfaithful to people that have been faithful to us and to good allies that feel betrayed.
No, our American principles are not the problem. The problem is Americans not living up to their principles.
Foreigners cannot understand how Americans can elect a president who views principles as weakness and contemptuously violates any principle that hinders his policies. A president that fraternizes and flatters dictators while insulting democratic leaders. A president that cannot tell the difference between great big and greatness.
The last presidential election was between two candidates that did not believe in America’s Founding Principles (one disdaining any principles and the other adhering to Marxist principles) and I fear that the next presidential election will present us with the same dilemma.