On October 2, 2018, Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. He never left. In the ensuing weeks, the official story went from Khashoggi had secretly left the consulate, he had been dismembered by “rogue killers” inside the consulate, to Khashoggi had started a fist-fight with 15 men and someone killed him in self-defense. As absurd as the cover-up was, no one ever doubted the Saudi government, in particular their ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was behind the killing. Last week, the CIA released their report on the matter, coming to the conclusion bin Salman had ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
The Trump administration, which has become close with Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi monarchy, announced last week they would not punish the Crown Prince or his nation for the killing. Their reasoning: the world is a mean and nasty place, and sometimes we need to tolerate mean and nasty things for our strategic and humanitarian interests. This is called foreign policy realism, and on the surface, it’s not entirely wrong.
Let’s face it, the Saudi monarchy is a wicked and repressive regime. They publicly behead people. Women’s rights are stuck in the 14th century. Their export of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism spreads global terrorism(15 of 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi). They have been engaged in a proxy war in Yemen that has descended into indiscriminate bombing and one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet. And through it all, we’ve stuck by the Saudi monarchy. Not to go full Tywin Lannister, but I fail to understand why it is less of a problem to kill a building full of Yemeni civilians eating dinner than murdering a dissident in an embassy. That’s not to say the Khashoggi murder isn’t wrong, but the Saudis do things much worse on a routine basis.
I’m not stating there’s no way for us to reprimand the Saudi government. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill to the Senate that would end US co-operation with the Saudi’s war in Yemen. That’s probably a good idea. But to say the Saudis ought to be forsaken is naïve. The Middle East is split in a proxy war between the two regional Muslim powers- Saudi Arabia and Iran. If it’s a choice between a repressive theocracy that chants “death to America” (Iran) and a repressive theocracy that doesn’t, I’ll take the latter. You might argue I’ve created a false binary, and I would usually agree with you. Except in foreign policy, there isn’t a real option of stepping back and not getting our hands dirty. If you do, someone more nefarious steps in, which is what happened with Russia intervening in Syria. In a region with no good guys, sometimes you have to make compromises. For years, the US propped up a military dictator in South Korea, tolerated his atrocities, and eventually, he laid the framework that allowed liberty to succeed. Sometimes the road to freedom runs through tyrants.
Not forsaking the Saudi’s, an evil regime but an evil regime we know, is something you can do. You know what you don’t do? You don’t question the CIA’s conclusion Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder. You don’t claim “the world” killed Khashoggi (this by the way, is the antithesis of responsibility, the backbone of conservatism). You don’t excuse the murder because we have lucrative defense contracts with the Saudis or they help keep oil prices down. The President’s statement on the Khashoggi murder last week was morally bereft and some have used it as an opportunity to critique foreign policy realism. But this isn’t exactly the case. Realism need not be a sacrifice of American values, it is a recognition that sometimes we have to accept the nasty world of today so tomorrow those values can be realized.
I call this principled realism. Sometimes America has to tolerate things that makes our stomachs turn. But what the President has never realized is we don’t need to act like the bad actors we’re tolerating aren’t bad actors. President Reagan exemplified this in his dealings with the Soviet Union, routinely labeling them the “evil empire.” But eventually, he was able to reach a landmark nuclear treaty and help bring the end of the Cold War. Our realism was the vehicle our principles could be fulfilled, and our principles gave us our vision for our realism. President Trump’s statement was devoid of those principles, and it’s a substitution of extremely crude realpolitik for principled realism.
This is the big problem of the Trump administration. What they do is not wrong or unprecedented, but the way they do those things is sloppy. Their sins are not really in ideology, they’re in methodology. And often, how you do something is as important as what you actually do.