Maybe we all should have paid closer attention a year ago when Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman imprisoned, terrified, and strong-armed dozens of people – including Lebanon’s Prime Minister – in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Anyone wanting to understand how and why Jamal Khashoggi met such a horrific end in Istanbul could have seen the warning signs and patterns of criminality in the events that unfolded there. Someone even died as a result of a vicious beating. And of course, MBS’s bloody adventures in Yemen didn’t foreshadow a rule rooted in integrity and caution, either. That a man of such low character should become the lynch-pin of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, and so central to Jared Kushner’s absurd strategies for Israeli-Palestinian “peace” and the containment of Iran, tells us that leadership crises are not confined to the Arabian Peninsula, but rather, empowered and welcomed in Washington, DC. Watching the U.S.’s weak response to Saudi Arabia’s bizarre and ever-changing stories about what happened to Khashoggi certainly lends credence to rumors that MBS has Kushner “in his pocket.” For gangsters like those sitting in seats of power in Riyadh and Washington, it’s all about money at the end of the day. The means justify the ends, human dignity is worth nothing, and truth has no currency.
And maybe we all should have paid closer attention two years ago this week, when Donald Trump emerged as the surprise winner of the 2016 presidential election, despite polling data and pundits’ predictions to the contrary. Although many Americans hoped his campaign rhetoric was just for dramatic effect and evidence of his showmanship as a former reality TV star, his Inaugural speech promising to end America’s “carnage” revealed his tenuous grip on reality, and indeed his complete disrespect of and disregard for facts. From his first week in office until now, he has told numerous lies every day, beginning with his claims that the audience for his inauguration was the largest in American history, to his most recent ravings about Middle Eastern terrorists infiltrating a caravan of Central Americans heading to the US border to escape poverty and violence in their countries of origin.
Here in the U.S. we go to the polls today to vote in the midterm congressional elections. For several weeks, every day has brought us more evidence that an unhinged, unprincipled, and dangerous man inhabits the White House. Lies, threats, bullying, and scare-tactics are President Trump’s métier, and election rallies are his favorite setting to display his toxic talents, strutting around like a garish peacock showing off its plumage. Our president has lit fires of hatred, racism, and anger, and they will be very hard to put out. After the anxiety, shock, and confusion of October, which brought us not only the disappearance of Washington Post columnist Khashoggi, but also a bizarre and tarnished supreme court confirmation, mail bombs, and a mass shooting at a synagogue, any normal person would hope that the leader of the free world would offer measured, comforting, and sensible words of wisdom. Not Trump. Former President Obama has been out on the campaign trail, speaking and acting the way a responsible leader should, and making a lot of people nostalgic for maturity and decency in Washington, DC, despite the fact that Obama’s administration oversaw very harsh immigration policies and drone killings throughout the Middle East.
The crisis of criminal leadership is becoming a global problem. Witness Brazil’s election results last week. Look at Hungary’s decision to kick the Central European University out of the country. The Philippines’ Duterte never fails to shock, and Bibi Netanyahu is saying outright that MBS’s complicity in Khashoggi’s murder is not a big deal and should not disqualify him from serving as a key figure in U.S. Middle East policy. Ethics, principles, and moral considerations have never been a key component of foreign policy and international relations, but the current global situation is particularly bleak.
Will the U.S. midterm elections change anything? It’s doubtful, sadly. One election cannot reverse the momentum of Trump’s dubious visions and policies at home or abroad. Early voting and mail-in balloting for this election has been particularly robust, but many people are not going to vote at all, calculating that their vote does not make a difference and that the system is too broken for any election to change anything. One of my friends made a wise comment the other day: “Voting on Tuesday is not about transformational change or the salvation of the country, but rather, simply harm reduction.”
Many things are seriously amiss in the world today, and even more frighteningly, in the background the climate change crisis and scientists’ predictions that we have only a dozen years to halt the worst repercussions of global warming adds to a sense of despair and urgency, as well as a sense of powerlessness. It will take radical changes and new movements across the world – not just in the U.S.– to reverse the dangerous trajectory the human race is now travelling. We need a new leadership, one fostered and nurtured from the ground up, everywhere. No one should look to the United States for deliverance or even answers. Russia is run by a murderous autocrat, China is imprisoning Muslims and contributing to global warming more than any other country. Europe is poised on the edge of populist and nativist political movements that could soon repeat the trends of the 1930s. Maybe it’s time for the peoples of the Middle East to offer some solutions and alternatives. Don’t look to Washington for any answers – at least not until we manage to elect a new leadership committed to truth, human dignity, and rational policies. That could be a long time from now. Reconsider the Arab Spring; it’s a better alternative than the American winter.