Herb Rothschild Jr.: Jamal Khashoggi and the Saudis

Back on May 28, 2016, I wrote of Saudi Arabia that “the kingdom flunks any test for democracy or human rights,” but that it has been off-limits to criticism because “Big Military + Big Oil + Big Money = U.S. foreign policy.” And when it comes to foreign policy, the mainstream media almost invariably take their cue from the sitting administration. But when one of their own is harmed, it trumps their tractability, which is what happened when the Saudis murdered Jamal Khashoggi in their consulate in Istanbul.

For a while the heat will be on, but it will cool. Our president has been forthright about the most compelling motive to play nice — our pending $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia (our liar-in-chief occasionally is more candid than his predecessors).

By value, oil, arms and drugs are the top commodities in global trade. Each in its own way is lethal. The U.S. is a major trader in all three.

Although our nation now rivals Saudi Arabia by volume of oil production, in 2016 we nonetheless imported 7.93 million barrels per day, 16 percent of total global imports, second only to China’s 17 percent. We are the world’s largest exporter of arms; between 2012 and 2016 we controlled 33 percent of the market, followed by Russia at 23 percent and China at 6.2 percent. We supply major weapons systems to at least 100 countries, but Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey are our largest customers. Last, there are no reliable data on the trade in illicit drugs, but it’s reasonable to guess that we are their leading importer.

We know what we must do to reduce oil imports. Reducing the traffic in arms presents a greater challenge. Currently, nations that wish to buy arms are going to find suppliers, so it’s easy to argue that if, say, Saudi Arabia wants to buy fighter jets, it’s just as well that it buys Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors as MiG-29 Fulcrums or Chengdu F-7 Airguards. But the arms trade is more laissez faire than that. With their countries’ assistance, arms makers promote sales to state and non-state buyers alike at giant arms bazaars. The U.S. is no exception.

Amnesty International has repeatedly warned that the poorly regulated arms trade contributes to war crimes and other serious human rights violations worldwide. At the very least, the U.S. should insist on strict adherence to the Arms Trade Treaty, which entered into force in December 2014. The treaty is designed to prevent weapons sales to “bad actors.”

In truth, however, the only effective way to curb the arms trade is to ban it. Demand will still exist and the profits will be tempting, but it’s easy to audit the output and shipments of arms factories, and it’s hard to smuggle weapons larger than small arms.

Neither of these conditions apply to drug trafficking, which is why the long-standing ban on it has been an utter failure. At the U.N. General Assembly Special Session on Drugs in 2016, countries like Mexico and Guatemala, which have been ravaged by the insistence on criminalizing our unstoppable drug use, urged the U.N. to abandon its unrealistic commitment to a “drug-free world,” but without success. Yet, they are correct. Ending efforts to impede the drug trade would be beneficial. It would hugely diminish the profits, thus curtailing the volume, and countries could focus on treating drug abuse as a public health issue.

The line between business and crime depends on who draws it.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.

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