Of President Donald Trump’s many disruptions to the established order, his foreign policy has been perhaps the least understood and least accepted by elites. Yesterday, President Trump resisted public pressure and declined to significantly reorient American foreign policy in light of Saudi Arabia’s brutal killing of its political opponent Jamal Khashoggi, who was also a columnist for the Washington Post.
In a statement, Trump said that what happened to Khashoggi was terrible, but that Saudi Arabia is an ally that shares our broader strategic interests in the region, while Iran remains a foe to be countered.
Trump had already imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi individuals over their alleged roles in Khashoggi’s killing. Anti-Trump journalists, Obama-era supporters of the Iran deal, and Republican supporters of Bush-era democracy-spreading wanted the United States to do much more to dramatically change its relationship with Saudi Arabia on account of the killing.
“In unusual statement disputing the CIA and filled with exclamation points, Trump backs Saudi ruler after Khashoggi killing,” opined NBC News in its snarky headline for a news story on the announcement.
“The President’s and Secretary of State’s Khashoggi statements to date are inconsistent with an enduring foreign policy, with our national interest, with basic human rights, and with American greatness,” asserted Utah’s newly elected Republican Sen. Mitt Romney.
It’s unclear what Romney meant by his remarks, which were a more sober version of the general outrage Trump’s statement generated. It was clear that much of elite D.C. still believes that the job of U.S. foreign policy is less to protect the country’s strategic interests and more to spread democracy and other “American values,” arguments and rhetoric also used in favor of the invasion of Iraq during the George W. Bush administration.
Let’s Take a Step Back
Following decades of a broad bipartisan consensus in favor of foreign intervention and lengthy wars, Trump shocked the Republican electorate in 2016 by inveighing against the Iraq War.
CBS’s John Dickerson asked Trump during a South Carolina debate in 2016 if he still felt that President George W. Bush was wrong for getting the United States into the war. As soon as he started to respond, the audience — filled with fans of other candidates — booed him. He was undeterred:
The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives, we don’t even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second-largest oil reserves in the world. Obviously, it was a mistake.
George Bush made a mistake. We can make mistakes. But that one was a beauty. We should have never been in Iraq. We have destabilized the Middle East.
The post-debate analysis, including mine, was that Trump’s rhetoric against the Iraq War discredited him with voters. But when the South Carolina primary was held a few days later, Jeb Bush got less than 8 percent to Donald Trump’s first-place finish of 33 percent.
Trump’s public skepticism toward the bipartisan foreign policy consensus of the last two decades is loathed by Beltway denizens but was a key factor in his electoral triumphs. Too many of the former alleged experts and journalists are in denial and refuse to look critically at their mistakes in the various long-running wars they advocated for. They also continue to labor under the delusion that all the Middle East or other regions need to thrive like America is America saying “Here are our ideals that you need to follow.” They still think it’s 2003 and countries will greet us as liberators when we enforce our will.
The rise of Trump and his foreign policy is noteworthy in part because it wasn’t that long ago that dissent against the elite foreign policy consensus was treated as unacceptable, with National Review famously and viciously calling those of us who questioned the invasion of Iraq “Unpatriotic Conservatives.” On the left, the anti-invasion activists were treated more favorably during that war but they mostly disappeared when, instead of Bush, it was Barack Obama overseeing the continued wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the invasion of Libya, and the killing of untold numbers via drone strikes in faraway lands. It was a broadly bipartisan group of elites who agreed on when and where to
go to war “spread democracy and American values.”
Few of these elites even attempted to seek or receive approval for various wars from Congress, as the Constitution requires. And the American people — including the many in the military who bore the brunt of the efforts — grew weary even as the bipartisan elite sought new countries to invade, if not defeat.
Alliance Formation: How Does It Work?
It was unsurprising that a different approach would be supported by Americans both inside and outside the Republican Party. Replacing the “they’ll greet us as liberators” argument is one that says the Middle East is chock full of bad people doing bad things. When determining U.S. interests in a region, the decision isn’t between finding saints to work with or forming no alliances. The decision is figuring out who to work with, if anyone, to advance U.S. interests.
With his nuclear deal, President Obama attempted to reorient U.S. foreign policy toward Iran, a theocratic republic with a Shia Islamic political system that perpetrates widespread human rights abuses such as a ton of executions without fair trials, torture, horrific prisons, political prisoners, privacy violations, draconian limits on expression including criticism of the regime, serious press restrictions and imprisonment of reporters, and so on and so forth. The government has serious corruption, limits rights for women and minorities, and subjects gay people to the death penalty. It also supports human rights abuses in other countries and is a state sponsor of terrorism.
President Trump exited that deal and reoriented U.S. foreign policy to bolster its work with Saudi Arabia, a monarchy that bases its system of government on Islamic law. It also commits human rights abuses, such as extralegal killings and torture, capital punishment without due process, punishment for anti-government activists, restrictions on privacy and freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, severe restrictions on religious liberty, and criminalization of same-sex activity. The government tortured royal family members under the claim of rooting out corruption. In its efforts against an insurgency in Yemen, it caused disproportionate damage to infrastructure and the civilian population.
Moody Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said allies don’t do bad things. “‘Great allies’ don’t plot the murder of journalists, Mr. President. ‘Great allies’ don’t lure their own citizens into a trap, then kill them,” he exclaimed. Except sometimes they do, sadly, since the U.S. sometimes makes alliances in its strategic interest with really bad hombres. World War II would not have been won without the “great ally” of the Soviet Union, but they committed horrific human rights abuses on an almost unimaginable scale.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether Iran or Saudi Arabia is the better oppressive regime to work with to advance U.S. interests, but the realist doesn’t think that the brutal extralegal torture and killing of a single domestic opponent would change the decision significantly since the alliance was never formed out of shared beliefs on religious freedom, freedom of speech, women’s rights, or rule of law.
The Trump statement, which you can and should read here, begins with a subhed of “America First!” and a first line that the “The world is a very dangerous place!” It positions the alliance with Saudi Arabia as the preferred option over one with Iran. It blames Iran for the conflict in Yemen. It praises the arms deal made with Saudi Arabia last year. It decries the killing of Khashoggi, while noting that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia denies involvement from the King or Crown Prince.
It says that, regardless of the horrific killing, the alliance stands, adding “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!” It encourages politicians who seek a different route to consider U.S. security as they offer suggestions. The statement ends with Trump saying, “As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!”
It’s a far cry from the Bush-era foreign policy that was articulated in Charles Krauthammer’s Irving Kristol lecture in 2004. The speech attempted to make moral case for heavy U.S. involvement in the region by discussing different foreign policy schools.
He argued in favor of “democratic globalism” which “rallied the American people to a struggle over values” and “seeks to vindicate the American idea by making the spread of democracy, the success of liberty, the ends and means of American foreign policy.” He said this school must be tempered to a “democratic realism” that is targeted and focused. But in his view, the limited focus included literally the entire “Islamic crescent stretching from North Africa to Afghanistan.”
Some still cling to the vision of a foreign policy premised on spreading democracy rather than advancing America’s strategic interests. Sen. Marco Rubio’s response to Trump’s statement, for instance, reiterated Bush-era talking points about spreading American values in the Middle East: “Our foreign policy must be about promoting our national interests. It is in our natl interest to defend human rights. HR violations lead to mass migration, help extremism flourish & often result in new governments hostile towards the U.S. because we supported their oppressors.”
As you can see, his lofty response failed to address what happens if the alliance with Saudi Arabia is dropped and Iran regains the upper hand in the region. Here are a few of the other things the outraged missed or got wrong about Trump’s statement.
Yes, the World Is Dangerous
“The Colbert Report’s” Frank Lesser suggested nationalism makes the world more dangerous, followed by Vox.com’s David Roberts saying that acknowledging the world’s danger is the “core message” of tyranny. Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron said, to the acclaim of U.S. journalists, that nationalism was a betrayal of patriotism and that putting your country’s interests first means you “erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what gives it grace and what is essential: its moral values.”
Kudos to Macron for summarizing the globalist argument, but it’s nonsensical. Patriotism must have an object, which is, in fact, the nation. Putting one’s own nation’s first is not just not immoral, it’s deeply moral, particularly for those constitutionally charged with protecting the nation and her interests. Yoram Hazony argues as much in his most recent book, and Christian and Jewish philosophers have long argued that it’s moral to be concerned first with one’s near neighbors, extending the concern out as able.
As for the hyperbolic claim that acknowledging the world’s danger means you are a tyrant, it’s not just silly and unserious, it shows a lack of reading comprehension. Trump’s argument was obviously that the world’s dangers extend far beyond the horrific killing of one regime’s opponents, most notably in a region where Iran benefits from a fraying of the U.S.-Saudi alliance.
Intelligence Agencies Shouldn’t Set Foreign Policy
This weekend, intelligence sources leaked to various media outlets that they believed the Saudi Crown Prince had ordered the attack on Khashoggi. Here’s how CNN wrote up the leaks from anonymous sources:
The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite the Saudi government’s denials that the de facto ruler was involved, according to a senior US official and a source familiar with the matter.
The senior US official told CNN on Friday the conclusion is based on a recording provided by the Turkish government and other evidence, including American intelligence.
The sources told CNN that the CIA based its assessment on available intelligence, as opposed to any specific smoking gun-type of evidence.
The earlier story in the Washington Post that hinted at or revealed various sources and methods, which we’re always told is dangerous, had anonymous sources saying the same things.
None of this would be necessarily shocking, if the selective anonymous leaks were true, even if U.S. intelligence agencies sometimes assert a high degree of confidence about assessments that should perhaps have a lower degree. The leaks seemed designed to influence U.S. foreign policy, which is also unsurprising given the general leakiness and political shenanigans from intelligence agencies in recent years to subvert the elected head of state. To date, there has been no accountability for the deluge of leaks against the Trump administration, including criminal leaks against Trump advisors.
Trump’s statement acknowledged the crime against Khashoggi, said it was terrible and that the country did not condone it. He reminded Americans of the sanctions against 17 involved individuals. He said that Saudi Arabia viewed him as an enemy but that it didn’t matter as “this is an unacceptable and horrible crime.” He said that the Saudi royalty denied knowledge but that intelligence agencies are continuing to assess the matter. Even if it turns out that they had knowledge, however, the United States will continue the alliance because it serves U.S. interests.
No, the job of intelligence agencies is not to engage in leak campaigns to affect U.S. foreign policy, or to otherwise engage in politics. Their assessments are most worthwhile when they don’t attempt this, which is why their years-long campaign against Trump was an unfortunate self-own. Trump used intelligence agencies’ assessment, as demonstrated by his trust in their account of the Turkish tape of Khashoggi’s killing. That doesn’t mean he must follow their lead on how to set foreign policy, particularly given their track record.
Of Course Khashoggi Discussions Are a Proxy
Nobody would disagree that the brutal killing of Khashoggi is immoral and unjust. The question has always been what the United States should do about it. Fans of the Iran nuclear deal used the Khashoggi killing as a way to discuss the relative problems of dealing with Saudi Arabia and the perceived benefits of dealing with Iran.
Joe Cirincione of Ploughshares (of Iran echo chamber fame) quickly weighed in on Trump’s statement. One journalist snarked, “Really rich that the president suggests in his statement on Saudi Arabia that the lawmakers calling for a firmer response to Khashoggi’s murder might be doing so ‘for political or other reasons.'”
But of course everyone in this fight is making arguments for political reasons, including those such as Rand Paul who oppose the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia while it’s fighting in Yemen, and others who prefer Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood as hegemons in the Middle East. There’s nothing wrong with political argumentation. The problem is when people pretend they’re talking about a shared hatred of a brutal murder instead of talking about underlying foreign policy goals.
Benjamin Weingarten wrote about the political use of the Khashoggi killing weeks ago in this piece, “Why Is Khashoggi Being Made The Defining Issue Of U.S. Foreign Policy?”
The Full Picture Of Khashoggi
Some journalists and pundits were extremely upset that Trump didn’t describe Khashoggi, who was a columnist, as merely a journalist or that he noted Saudis said he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Here, for instance, are two journalists saying that there is “no evidence” of that and that it’s a “smear and a lie” to say so:
— Tom Elliott (@tomselliott) November 20, 2018
The contention is absurd. As the tweet indicates, Brookings admits he was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in an article arguing that this doesn’t mean he deserved to die. Khashoggi’s last column for the Post was literally titled “The U.S. is wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood — and the Arab world is suffering for it.”
Lee Smith, an expert reader of the Arab press, explained how journalists such as Khashoggi operate differently from the ideal (if fading) American journalistic model, in this article on some of the ironies of the Khashoggi story.
An Honest Statement
From the subhed to the many exclamation points, critics commented on Trump’s writing style. “How do even the prepared written statements come out sounding like demented stream-of-consciousness rants?” Julian Sanchez wrote.
“There are many things to say about this astonishing press statement, but I can’t stop noticing that the first line—’The world is a very dangerous place!’—is written in near amphibrachs, putting Trump in the very American company of Dr. Seuss and Migos,” said The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer.
Bloomberg’s Shannon Pettypiece wrote, “Weird how nothing in this statement is in all caps.” This missed what my colleague noted, that Trump didn’t just mention but capitalized the phrase that dared not speak its name in the previous administration: “Radical Islamic Terrorism.”
More interestingly, the statement was refreshingly honest and blunt. Or, as Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Jonathan Schanzer wrote, “I see the outrage as it relates to Khashoggi. But don’t pretend this is some deviation from the norm. Trump’s response gives words (minus the exclamation marks) to the Saudi policy of every other POTUS before him.”
On that last point, we can all agree: Trump could cut back on the exclamation points. But moving from the failed attempt of using a heavy hand to spread democracy and American values to advocating a foreign policy in favor of the country’s strategic interests is something to be excited about.