We have all seen the scene at least once, although some of us have savored it perhaps dozens of times. The handsome, dynamic, misunderstood, modernizing young king, with his slender physique, slender beard, and even more slender morals, strutting about the banquet hall knocking the plates and goblets off the table in a drunken frenzy. Finally, in a fit of seething fury, he bellows that royally rhetorical question: “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
I have always liked that scene from Becket and, when I was a child, I even sympathized with the wine-swilling, friend-killing king. My child-mind looked at the problem with that shallow realism too often mistaken for deep wisdom: The poor king was just trying to keep his country together, he was just trying to strengthen its secular institutions, and he was just trying to preserve his lineage. Moreover, I concluded, he had been a good friend and that Thomas guy had the effrontery not to be grateful for all the benefits he had reaped from his royal connections. But as St. Paul reminds us, “we should put away childish things,” including making excuses for evil acts, once we grow up. The child-mind is always ready to make excuses and to fabricate different scenarios to lessen the crime and blur moral clarity. One can always find a million excuses, some even plausible, for committing almost any act. This making up of excuses, this straining of the bounds of credulity, is exactly what President Trump has done by refusing thus far to acknowledge the obvious: Nothing so momentous an act as the killing of an internationally respected Saudi citizen and journalist would ever be dared without the approval of the royal family.
One can almost imagine a similar Becket scene in the Royal Palace in Riyadh. A young prince, Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS, is on a noble and beneficent quest to modernize his backward country. He is almost as handsome as Peter O’Toole, although not as slender of body or beard, and embraces an even more slender morality. The young Crown Prince’s dearth of morals would have made Henry marvel and blush simultaneously, but Henry would certainly understand the need to protect the royal image and to do whatever was necessary to continue his modernization program. In this Becket-like scene, the Crown Prince is just another misunderstood royal who really only wants what is best for his country and is willing to do, quite literally, whatever it takes to protect his reputation and that of his nation. He is understandably upset over the disrespectful journalist, and he fears that his own hold on power is threatened by any opposition to his rule. The journalist in question, Jamal Khashoggi, is not as close a friend of the Crown Prince as Becket was to Henry, but Khashoggi was a close confidante of the Saud and had benefited greatly from his connections to the royal family. So the movie scene proceeds: Angry, outraged, losing control, the Crown Prince finally asks to be rid of that “meddlesome journalist” and thus triggers, unintentionally, a “rogue operation” within his Kingdom for which, according to our president, the earnest young prince cannot be blamed. The problem with this script is that four of the fifteen Saudi experts who traveled to Istanbul to “retrieve” or “interview” Khashoggi were members of the Royal Guard, which is under the direct control of the Crown Prince. It is one of those intriguing little coincidences between the historical event in England and the current drama reeling out today in Saudi Arabia, that it is exactly four would-be helpers of the young modernizers who are seen as culpable for doing what they earnestly know they had been commanded to do.
Of course, it is hard to imagine a drunken display of outrage by the young Saudi prince; the Saudi royals prefer to be circumspect and hide their unspeakable vices from the public. But it is far less difficult to understand why President Trump and others are so reluctant to accept the disturbing evidence of the Crown Prince’s complicity in the murder of Khashoggi. We have gotten so used to listening to Saudi lies and being duped by Saudi flattery that it would take an incredible act of will to accept what has happened. Just as former President Bush let the Saudis off the hook for high-level support for Osama bin Laden and just as former President Obama let the Saudis off the hook by ignoring their appalling human rights record, so too President Trump will strive mightily to avoid any unraveling of the Saudi-American relationship. While the newspapers have been replete with explanations of the multi-billion dollar arms deals and the need for oil, they have almost completely ignored the overriding reason why President Trump and the United States will want this problem to go away: Iran and Israel. Israel has for a long time sought to convince us to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, but that will be nearly impossible without Saudi Arabia endorsing our air strikes. The Israelis, who probably have gathered from their own intelligence sources in Turkey more incriminating evidence against the Saudis, have been intriguingly silent throughout this entire episode. They too are hoping this crisis passes quickly.
History Does Not Repeat, but Royal Excuses Do
It is probably too much to expect American politicians ever to “give up childish things” and it is certainly unrealistic ever to think any depravity is beneath the dignity of a Saudi prince, but unless the United States has completely lost its moral bearings, President Trump will have to do better than fabricate a Henry II defense for his friend, Mohammed bin Salman. There is, of course, some validity to the Trumpian argument that even monarchs should be accorded the right of presumed innocence, but the circumstantial evidence against the Crown Prince is compelling and the history of the House of Saud indicates strongly that murder is not something they would be squeamish about at all. To say the Saudi royals are known for their piggishness is to slur those lovable porcine creatures. It is no surprise that the Crown Prince probably ordered Khashoggi’s murder; the surprise, rather, is that anyone is at all surprised. When Senator Lindsey Graham expresses outrage and condemns the killing, it is to be commended. But when he adds that he feels “used and abused” because he has been, in his own words, the Kingdom’s “biggest defender,” one can only conclude that he–and so many others including our last several presidents–have willfully ignored the well-documented abuses and crimes of that regime.
If the Crown Prince eventually acknowledges the murder and bemoans the fate of his victim, he will be following in a long line of dissembling dignitaries, stretching back at least as far as ancient Rome when the Emperor Claudius feigned sorrow and regret at the execution of his wife, Messalina. Even in England, Henry II does not stand alone in his surprise at how his minions circumvented his orders. Perhaps the Oscar for best actor expressing regret should go to Elizabeth I, who having signed the execution warrant for Queen Mary of Scotland, nonetheless convinced so many of her subjects that she was surprised and saddened that the execution had actually been carried out.
Perhaps we have all been watching the wrong Peter O’Toole movie. Perhaps the answer to what is going on in Saudi Arabia is not in Becket, but in Lawrence of Arabia. I have known many Arabs whom I admire and who are among the most decent people I have ever known, but I think O’Toole’s observation is dead on when referring to the House of Saud: “A little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel.” Our president once long ago understood this. Long before becoming president he raged against the Saudis, but he has been seduced by their charm and their feigned affection for him. They would as soon kiss him as dismember him, depending on which act would serve their interests best.
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