Opinion: Arms and the very bad men

A few days ago, Pat Robertson, the evangelical leader, urged America not to get too worked up about the torture and murder of Jamal Khashoggi, because we shouldn’t endanger “$100 billion in arms sales.” I guess he was invoking the little-known 11th Commandment, which says, “On the other hand, thou shalt excuse stuff like killing and bearing false witness if weapons deals are at stake.”

OK, it’s not news that the religious right has prostrated itself at Donald Trump’s feet. But Trump’s attempt to head off retaliation for Saudi crimes by claiming that there are big economic rewards to staying friendly with killers — and the willingness of his political allies to embrace his logic — nonetheless represents a new stage in the debasement of America.

It’s not just that Trump’s claims about the number of jobs at stake — first it was 40,000, then 450,000, then 600,000, then 1 million — are lies. Even if the claims were true, we’re the United States; we’re supposed to be a moral beacon for the world, not a mercenary nation willing to abandon its principles if the money is good.

That said, the claims are, in fact, false.

First, there is no $100 billion Saudi arms deal. What the Trump administration has actually gotten are mainly “memorandums of intent,” best seen as possible future deals rather than commitments. Many of these potential deals would involve production in Saudi Arabia rather than the U.S.

It looks unlikely, then, that deals with Saudi Arabia will raise U.S. annual arms exports by more than a few billion dollars a year. When you bear in mind that the industries involved, mainly aerospace, are highly capital intensive and don’t employ many workers per dollar of sales, the number of U.S. jobs involved is surely in the tens of thousands, if that, not hundreds of thousands.

Finally, it’s worth noting that under current conditions, increasing exports, even if you can do it, won’t create net additional jobs for the U.S. economy. Why? Because the Federal Reserve believes that we’re at full employment, and any further strengthening of the economy will induce the Fed to raise interest rates. As a result, jobs added in one place by things like arms sales will be offset by jobs lost elsewhere as higher rates deter investment or make the U.S. less competitive by strengthening the dollar.

So what’s the real reason he’s so willing to forgive torture and murder?

One answer is that he doesn’t actually disapprove of what the Saudis did. By now it’s a commonplace that Trump seems far more comfortable with brutal autocrats than with the leaders of our democratic allies. Remember, when Trump visited Saudi Arabia, his commerce secretary exulted over the fact that there were no protesters to be seen — something that tends to happen when protesters get beheaded.

Beyond that, the Saudis have funneled tens of millions of dollars to Trump personally, and are continuing to do so. And the very real millions going to Trump are a much more plausible explanation of his friendliness toward Mohammed bin Salman than the mythical billions going to U.S. arms manufacturers.

Accepting torture and murder is a betrayal of American principles; trying to justify that betrayal by appealing to supposed economic benefits is a further betrayal. And when you add in the fact that the claimed economic payoff is a lie, and that the president’s personal profit is a much more likely explanation for his actions — well, genuine patriots should be deeply ashamed of what we’ve come to as a nation.

Writes for The New York Times

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