Saudis murdered the Washington Post columnist Jamal Kashoggi in their Turkish embassy. Now President Trump is making the case that we must stand by Saudi Arabia. The term for this sort of strategy is “realpolitik” — but the level of such arguments is typically intellectual, not playground taunts.
What is realpolitik? It is international relations conducted based solely on the value of alliances for a country’s long-term goals, rather than out of ethical considerations. Henry Kissinger used realpolitik to support the policy of standing by our allies, no matter how odious their behavior, in the geopolitical struggle of the cold war.
There’s very little question that Saudi Arabia is an odious ally. The Turks have a recording of Kashoggi, the columnist and critic of the Saudi leadership, being killed inside the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. The CIA says that the Saudi leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, personally order the killing.
In this situation, you can either criticize and punish Saudi Arabia, or you can argue that even though they behave this way, it’s worth keeping them as an ally. The latter argument is very difficult to make, but Trump attempts it. Because his attempt is pitched at kindergarten level, it comes off very lamely — and if you’re trying to justify a murderous ally, that’s not very effective.
Analyzing the Trump statement about Saudi Arabia
Here’s Trump’s full published statement on Whitehouse.gov about Saudi Arabia, from yesterday. Commentary and translation are mine.
Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Standing with Saudi Arabia
Foreign Policy, Issued on November 20, 2018
The world is a very dangerous place!
Commentary: Let’s start by scaring people. Fear is always good in these situations.
Translation: The world is a very dangerous place!
The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more. Likewise, the Iranians have killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East. Iran states openly, and with great force, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” Iran is considered “the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”
Commentary: Um, I thought this was about Saudi Arabia?
Translation: Iran is worse than Saudi Arabia. Although, except for the “Death to America” chants, its main sin appears to be choosing the opposite side from Saudi Arabia in Middle East conflicts.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave. They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has agreed to spend billions of dollars in leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism.
Commentary: These statements are all based on what would happen, and on money promised without any proof that it works.
Translation: Saudi Arabia fights our enemies, therefore they are good. Once they stop bombing Yemen and strangling journalists, you’ll see that.
After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!
Commentary: Apparently America has a price to ignore state-sanctioned murder. It is a high price: $450 billion. (Politifact says this number is made up.) And the stuff about Russia and China is classic realpolitik — if it were true. While holding up those arms sales would doubtless cause the Saudis to go elsewhere, it’s not so easy to put Russian and Chinese arms on American-sourced military hardware.
Translation: If you buy enough from us, we ignore your behavior.
The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone. Indeed, we have taken strong action against those already known to have participated in the murder. After great independent research, we now know many details of this horrible crime. We have already sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body.
Translation: Murder is bad. We’re against Saudi murderers.
Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that – this is an unacceptable and horrible crime. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!
Commentary: Why mention Kashoggi’s “enemy of the state” status if it does not matter? Trump has called American journalists “enemies of the state” — would that justify their murders? But it’s ok, because after this feint, we get to the real crux: was the Saudi leadership responsible? Of course not. They not only denied it, they did so “vigorously.” Despite the CIA’s conclusion, Trump says the truth is up in the air.
Translation: Kashoggi was a bad person, but you can’t prove the Saudi leaders ordered his murder. Since that would be inconvenient, I choose not to believe it.
That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. 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!
Commentary: Trump is adept at making up facts, but in this case, he chooses to deny the conclusions of his own intelligence agency.
Translation: Terror is bad! Saudis are helping! Saudis are good!
I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction – and they are free to do so. I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America. After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. 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!
Commentary: This is how you describe realpolitik to kindergartners in small words. The simple, logical statements here are at odds with the rambling in the rest of the document. Could someone else have written this part?
Translation: If you don’t line up with Saudi Arabia, you’re not putting America first!
Let’s review why you don’t make arguments this way
Here’s a summary of how Trump argues that sticking with Saudi Arabia despite this murder is good policy:
- Say the world is dangerous.
- Talk about how bad Iran is.
- Remind people that Iran says “Death to America!” and Saudi Arabia doesn’t.
- Talk about American jobs and include a made up number.
- Imply that Saudi Arabia would buy from China or Russia without evidence.
- Say murder is bad, and the Saudi murderers are bad, but the victim was sort of bad, too.
- Deny evidence from your own CIA that Saudi leaders ordered the murder.
- Say “we’ll never know” when there is a recording in which the murderers say “tell your boss,” referring to the Crown Prince.
- Say the only thing that matters is putting America first.
- Use lots of exclamation points and words like “vigorously” and “great” and “tremendous.”
This is unlike any other public statement ever written by an American president. When you take Kissinger-style realpolitik and write it in the style of a Trump speech mixed with Trump tweets, this is what you get. It mixes the terrifying logic of realpolitik with the rambling babble, unhinged illogic, and made up facts of a Trump rally. It is, frankly, breathtaking.
I have a question.
Imagine for a moment, that Iran was our ally and Saudi Arabia our enemy. And imagine that Iran had executed one of its dissidents in its embassy in another country. Could you write this same speech supporting Iran and its leaders and excusing its flaws since we needed its help?
It wouldn’t even require much of a rewrite.
It’s difficult to figure out what to do when our global allies behave this badly. It requires a measured response, and a reevaluation of those alliances.
Kindergarten-level speeches full of exclamation points aren’t helping.