is Crude. But He’s Right about Saudi Arabia
By Michael Doran and
New York Times
November 21, 2018
There’s not much Republicans and Democrats agree on
nowadays, but President Trump’s expression of support for Saudi
Arabia on Tuesday in the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi killing managed to unite
them. Democratic and Republican leaders declared that the president’s
statement was dishonest, morally blinkered and strategically obtuse.
True, Mr. Trump’s sidestepping of reports that the C.I.A.
believes that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing as “Maybe
he did and maybe he didn’t!” was jarring. But every president
since Harry Truman has aligned with unsavory Middle Eastern rulers in the
service of national interests. The difference here is that Mr. Trump seemed
unapologetic about this state of affairs with only a passing nod to the affront
to our values that Mr. Khashoggi’s murder represents.
That’s nothing to cheer. But it is vitally important to
evaluate the policy on its merits more than its mode of expression. And the
truth is that on the big strategic questions, Mr. Trump is cleareyed and right.
Let’s start with the question of honesty. Critics focused
on Mr. Trump’s claim that “we may never know all of the facts surrounding”
Mr. Khashoggi’s death, highlighting the contradiction between this energetic
uncertainty and the reported assessment of the C.I.A.
Presidents, however, routinely advance useful fictions.
President Barack Obama, for example, helped sell his
nuclear agreement with Iran by claiming that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, had
issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons. No bipartisan
clutch of senators insisted that Mr. Obama’s claims clashed with the views of
intelligence analysts, who possessed hard evidence of a nuclear weapons program.
The true test of whether a presidential fiction is
acceptable is whether the strategy it serves is sound.
In Mr. Obama’s case, the answer was no, because his
policy did not actually stop Iran’s nuclear program. It only delayed it, and,
in the meantime, strengthened Iran without moderating Tehran’s fundamental
anti-Americanism. But Mr. Trump understands the centrality of Riyadh in the
effort to counter a rising Iran and he is rightly unwilling to allow the murder
of Mr. Khashoggi to imperil that strategy.
Mr. Trump’s critics counter with the claim that he is
emboldening evil. Samantha Power, former ambassador to the United Nations, cited
autocrats like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt
and Vladimir Putin of Russia, in addition to Prince Mohammed, in saying that
“Trump’s siding with the meanest and nastiest out there” will “leave the
world even nastier.” His statement, she said, “is a green light for would-be
murderers in countries that have things Trump thinks we need.”
Notably absent from Ms. Power’s list of evildoers,
however, are Iran and its proxies. The omission is telling. As part of its pivot
toward Iran and away from the Sunni states and Israel, the Obama administration
turned a blind eye to the slaughter in Syria that Moscow, Tehran and its proxies
unleashed, and, thanks to the nuclear deal, delivered countless billions to the
Iranian war machine.
His critics would say that Mr. Trump is now similarly
emboldening a reckless Saudi regime.
This is a false analogy. The Saudis are not the moral
equivalents of Iranians and the Russians. The kingdom has sheltered comfortably
for over 75 years under the American security umbrella, which the United States
happily extended not least because the Saudis and their oil have played a
pivotal role in American economic strategies. Mr. Trump’s statement
acknowledged that the Saudis are assisting him with stabilizing global oil
prices as he seeks to quash Iranian oil sales.
Whatever Prince Mohammed’s faults may be, he actively
supports the American regional order that the Iranians openly seek to destroy.
Mr. Trump’s critics are asking us to believe that the
priority for stabilizing the Middle East today is distancing the United States
from one of its oldest allies and instead working to achieve a balance of power
between Riyadh and Tehran. The Saudis, they claim, need us far more than we need
This is a dangerous assumption that is not born out by
experience. In recent years all of America’s allies, from Mr. Sisi in Egypt to
Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, have begun
spending as much time in Moscow as in Washington. Why would we think the Saudis
might not also seek protection from Russia if they are shunned by America?
Instead of standing with the Saudis, Mr. Trump’s critics
call for, as Senator Lindsey Graham recently did, sanctions that would persuade
King Salman to appoint a new crown prince. But King Salman is not the de facto
ruler of Saudi Arabia; Prince Mohammed is. A policy that seeks to change the
king’s mind is based on a delusion that is far more deranged than anything in
Mr. Trump’s statement.
Let’s imagine Mr. Trump’s critics get their wish. A
replacement crown prince who rose to power under pressure of sanctions would be
severely weakened, if not entirely illegitimate. This would serve only to
validate Al Qaeda’s anti-Saudi ideology, which depicts the royal family as
American stooges. Would a compromised crown prince be a more reliable partner
for the United States in stabilizing the Middle East?
In all likelihood, sanctions would simply embitter Prince
Mohammed, who would respond by tacking toward Russia and China. The United
States could console itself by celebrating its staunch commitment to principle,
but its influence would diminish considerably.
Less likely but worth keeping in mind is the worst-case
scenario. Prince Mohammed’s enemies, inside and outside the kingdom, are
numerous, and American sanctions on him would put a target on his back. In a
violent succession battle, what horrific forces would be unleashed? Outside
actors, such as Iran and Russia, coveting control of the kingdom’s oil wealth
and influence over the Islamic holy cities, would rush in. The United States
would find itself embroiled in another civil war as in Syria.
In either scenario, Iran would rejoice. Critics of Mr.
Trump’s Saudi policy are already demanding that the United States pressure the
kingdom to end the war in Yemen without so much as mentioning the need to ensure
that the country does not become another base, like Lebanon, for Iran.
The murder of Mr. Khashoggi was a brutal and grotesque act.
The United States has registered its feelings loudly and clearly by putting
sanctions on the 17 men who were directly involved in the killing. Punishing the
de facto leader of Saudi Arabia will not bring justice for Mr. Khashoggi, nor
will it make Saudi Arabia a more dependable ally. It will simply diminish the
influence of the United States and embolden its enemies.
The biblical advice to be as “wise as serpents, and
harmless as doves” offers sound counsel to anyone who seeks to see their
principles influence the world. The advice of Mr. Trump’s critics is long on
abstract morality but lacking in strategic wisdom.