De­fend­ing Amer­ica First for­eign pol­icy Trump de­fends his de­ci­sion to pri­or­i­tize an al­liance with Saudi Ara­bia

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Lee Smith

Pres­i­dent Trump’s state­ment this week in de­fense of an Amer­ica First for­eign pol­icy has united what oth­er­wise ap­pears to be a di­vided for­eign pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment. While Wash­ing­ton de­mands Mr. Trump pun­ish Saudi Ara­bia’s Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man, or MBS, for the mur­der of Saudi na­tional Ja­mal Khashoggi, Mr. Trump de­fended his de­ci­sion to pri­or­i­tize an al­liance with an oil-rich coun­try that gen­er­ates Amer­i­can jobs while serv­ing as a pro-U.S. an­chor in a re­gion full of dan­ger­ous ad­ver­saries, from Iran to ISIS.

Thus, ac­cord­ing to Re­pub­li­cans and Democrats alike, Mr. Trump has be­trayed Amer­i­can val­ues.

Mr. Trump cre­ated plenty of wig­gle room for the Saudi leader -- who is ex­pected to rule the king­dom for the com­ing decades -- when he ex­pressed doubt as to whether MBS knew be­fore­hand about Khashoggi’s mur­der. The pres­i­dent’s op­po­nents ex­pressed dis­may that he ques­tioned the as­sess­ment of the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency, which last week con­cluded that MBS or­dered the as­sas­si­na­tion.

It’s not clear, how­ever, that the CIA wanted that as­sess­ment to go pub­lic. Ac­cord­ing to sources, it was very likely Demo­cratic con­gres­sional or Se­nate of­fi­cials briefed on the mat­ter who were re­spon­si­ble for the leak.

Democrats are us­ing the Khashoggi af­fair as part of a larger cam­paign to pro­tect their pol­icy pref­er­ences. They see Mr. Trump’s friendly re­la­tion­ship with a long­time U.S. ally as a threat to one of the party’s re­cently erected for­eign pol­icy pil­lars — re­align­ment with Iran.

In­sti­tu­tion­al­ized by Barack Obama’s nu­clear deal with Tehran, re­align­ment sees the cler­i­cal regime as a U.S. re­gional part­ner, tak­ing the place of Saudi Ara­bia and Amer­ica’s other long­time Mid­dle East ally, Is­rael.

Mr. Trump with­drew from the nu­clear deal in May, but Democrats like for­mer Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry have urged the Ira­ni­ans to wait out Mr. Trump un­til the next Demo­cratic pres­i­dent re­stores the deal. What­ever the cur­rent Re­pub­li­can White House does to strengthen the U.S.-Saudi re­la­tion­ship, the Democrats see as a threat to re­align­ment.

Re­pub­li­can crit­ics of the pres­i­dent’s state­ment may be aware of the larger cam­paign to pro­tect a state spon­sor of ter­ror that em­bod­ies both an­tiAmer­i­can­ism and anti-Semitism. In any case, they see re­cent events pri­mar­ily as an op­por­tu­nity to es­tab­lish their cre­den­tials as un­bi­ased ar­biters of for­eign pol­icy de­ci­sions. Demo­crat or Re­pub­li­can, if the pres­i­dent makes bad choices, im­moral choices, he has to be held ac­count­able.

How­ever, nei­ther Re­pub­li­cans nor Democrats are in any po­si­tion to call balls and strikes, for both par­ties are re­spon­si­ble for a se­ries of for­eign pol­icy dis­as­ters in the Mid­dle East stretch­ing back to the be­gin­ning of the war in Afghanistan.

Seven­teen years later, the United States is still fight­ing in Afghanistan. Why? There is no strate­gic goal to be won there be­cause it is not strate­gic ground. And yet Democrats and Re­pub­li­cans have both in­sisted that the U.S. stick it out. Surely, Amer­ica’s moral val­ues are not be­ing pro­moted by a per­pet­ual cam­paign where civil­ians are killed in a point­less war.

So why are Mr. Trump’s crit­ics fix­ated on his de­ci­sion to leave the Saudis to them­selves?

Many of Mr. Trump’s crit­ics con­tend that they don’t want to see MBS crip­pled, just pun­ished. Oth­ers say they don’t want the regime in Riyadh top­pled, just MBS ban­ished from the palace. Surely, there are many suit­able choices among the king­dom’s many princes.

How­ever, the last sev­eral decades have shown that the United States, nor any­one, can guar­an­tee out­comes in the Mid­dle East. There are un­in­tended con­se­quences to even the best-laid plans.

It seemed like a good idea to keep U.S. troops in Saudi Ara­bia after Op­er­a­tion Desert Storm flushed Sad­dam Hus­sein out of Kuwait in 1991. Who knew that would in­spire Osama bin Laden to de­clare war on Amer­ica? There is no Amer­i­can pun­dit or pol­i­cy­maker who can say with cer­tainty how in­ter­fer­ing with the in­ter­nal dy­nam­ics of the Saudi regime might af­fect the coun­try or the re­gion.

There is no doubt, how­ever, that the steep­est price for an Amer­i­can cru­sade driven by de­mands for so­cial jus­tice for Mid­dle Eastern­ers will be paid by Mid­dle Eastern­ers.

Those who weren’t on board with democ­racy pro­mo­tion in the Mid­dle East, said its ad­vo­cates, were af­flicted by the soft big­otry of low ex­pec­ta­tions. Iraqis paid a heavy price for that cam­paign pro­mot­ing Amer­i­can val­ues, hun­dreds of thou­sands dead in a war that turned the coun­try into an Ira­nian satrapy.

Egyp­tians paid when a Wash­ing­ton pol­icy es­tab­lish­ment en­tranced by scenes of rev­o­lu­tion broad­cast on CNN de­manded the White House force Hosni Mubarak from power. Egyp­tians paid more yet when the army took power back from the Mus­lim Brother­hood.

The sanc­tions re­lief from Mr. Obama’s Iran deal filled Tehran’s war chests, leav­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of Syr­i­ans dead and mil­lions dis­placed. Mr. Obama dis­patched drones to Afghanistan, Ye­men, So­ma­lia, cam­paigns that con­tinue un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Khashoggi’s mur­der, as Mr. Trump said, was a ter­ri­ble crime. How­ever, there is noth­ing wrong with putting Amer­ica First. A pol­icy that rec­og­nizes the United States should be more mod­est when try­ing to shape the af­fairs of for­eign­ers is as close as for­eign pol­icy gets to moral­ity.

Many of Mr. Trump’s crit­ics con­tend that they don’t want to see MBS crip­pled, just pun­ished.

Lee Smith is the author of “The Strong Horse: Power, Pol­i­tics, and the Clash of Arab Civ­i­liza­tions” (Dou­ble­day).


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