Godzilla vs. Kong finally opens in theaters this month after a series of delays. There is a good chance this installment in the monster series won’t be good, but with every new battle there is new hope.
Monster movies or the Marvel and DC Comic adaptations never interested this Calvin and Hobbes fan. If Bill Watterson were to do a movie about his classic six-year-old boy and stuffed tiger duo, I would be first in line.
The lack of one is a classic example of how one’s values outweigh one’s interests. Watterson values the comic series as it is, and his fans generally agree. In a 2013 interview he said, “As a comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes works exactly the way I intended it to. There’s no upside for me in adapting it.” Art value defeats financial interest here.
That is admirable these days, because our values have been losing to our interests so much lately. I think it is important to identify that battle when it’s happening because it helps make sense of so many things that lack rationality.
Royalty, for example, is an irrational concept to me, and I am not talking about Harry and Meghan. I’m talking about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. “MBS” is the de facto leader of the nation, though his king father is still alive and technically in charge. Many Americans have trouble respecting “royalty” as the defining authority in government leadership. It is inconsistent with our values.
Late last month, American intelligence agencies declassified reports that the assassination and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamaal Khashoggi was likely ordered, or at a minimum, approved by the crown prince. Anyone paying attention to this brutal act expected these findings. President Joe Biden had said multiple times during the campaign last year that American sanctions for the human rights violation would be coming under his leadership. This was a contrast to the prior administration. Donald Trump, and his middle east advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, wouldn’t even acknowledge that anything nefarious even occurred.
We now know that what we immediately suspected is what happened. And the Biden administration has imposed some sanctions on some Saudis. 76 of them have been placed on a no-travel list, and our Treasury Department has imposed financial sanctions on some others. But MBS got off scot-free. Congressional leaders of both parties believed a “visa ban” on the crown prince was required due to the intelligence findings. Declassifying the intelligence was important, as are the sanctions that actually were imposed. The Saudis certainly object to them. But many of us are disappointed the new administration didn’t directly address the clear root of the problem.
Why would Biden take a pass on sanctioning the crown? Didn’t he promise to do just that? It is awfully early in his presidency for this kind of flipping.
Press Secretary Jen Psaki explained that Biden’s role “is to act in the national interest of the United States. And that’s exactly what he’s doing.” There’s that word again: interest. We are all in agreement that MBS violated our values, but sanctioning him would hurt our interests. Those interests are complicated, three dimensional webs of considerations involving other adversaries. If we damage our relationship with the royalty in Saudi Arabia, it is feared they may go shopping for new friends like China or Russia. And while many believe the interests we share with the Saudis revolve around oil, what is more pressing is our shared opposition to the global security threat presented by Iran.
Neither China nor Russia would give a hoot about Saudi royals destroying a journalist who stepped out of line. That would require them to take a break from their own atrocities. Russian dissident, Alexei Navalny, and the internment camps at Xinjiang take up plenty of energy in those other authoritarian regimes. And Khashoggi was not just a pesky thorn in the side of MBS, he was a real threat to the credibility of authority.
Biden is threading a needle on this one, and that never provides fodder for inspirational speeches like the one he delivered on Thursday night.
Life in America is so much better now that we have a thoughtful leader, but it also reminds us how difficult the battle between our national values and our national interests usually is. It is a battle the prior administration rarely even fought, even though moral leadership requires it. Avoiding that conflict for four years makes facing it today even tougher than it already was.