'America First' and the Killing of Khashoggi
As President Trump heads to Argentina and the G20 Summit, he is being pushed to get tough with the Saudi kingdom over the gruesome killing of Jamal Khashoggi. This is the same Saudi Arabia largely held blameless for the 9/11 attacks when nearly 3,000 Americans were murdered at the hands of 19 al-Qaeda terrorists, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals. Instead of invading Afghanistan and then Iraq, some Americans wondered why we were not ending the House of Saud’s control of its desert kingdom and replacing the regime with one more clearly on the side of the United States.
Instead, the Bush administration chose to work with the existing regime, believing it could be a check on Islamic radicalism and that the leaders had learned the error of their ways. However unsatisfying, it was a way to keep the cauldron of Islamic hatred in check, something that might be better done by Saudi Arabia and its ruthless practices, than by the United States acting alone. Now, with Khashoggi’s killing, Trump is being asked to break up this tenuous alliance. All of this begs the question: Is anyone surprised that this is how the Saudis deal with their political enemies?
Jamal Khashoggi played in the dangerous world of Middle East intrigue where distinctions between journalists, intelligence operatives, and political revolutionaries are tenuous. Whether or not Khashoggi was still a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, itself an enemy of the United States and the cause of human freedom, he defended its political agenda. As recently as August, he argued in his Washington Post column that the key to democracy in the Middle East was the promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam. The festering problem, in Khashoggi’s view, was nominally secular, pro-Western governments such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Americans know that the vast majority of the nations we trade with do not share our principles. That we might find them distasteful was recognized early in our republic. When presented with the dilemma of what role we ought to play in their affairs, the real-world and limited-government views of John Quincy Adams prevailed. “America,” he wrote, “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Donald Trump’s views are quite similar. Our job is to perfect our republic since our social compact is, after all, with we Americans and no one else. To try and change other nations by force would ultimately change the character and disposition of the American people. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan give ample evidence of this.
What the president was pushing for with his statements about Khashoggi’s slaying was a return to the common-sense realization that when it comes to America’s relations with other countries, most especially authoritarian and totalitarian nations, there are, for the most part, few good options. There is one set of bad actors repressing and killing another set of bad actors as they vie for power. Such is the nature of world affairs since the dawn of time. What matters is whether those in power are on the side of the United States or whether they are against us. If, in the meantime, we can benefit the economic well-being of the American people through lower oil prices and defense contracts that provide money and jobs, so much the better.
Trump’s candor with the American people over this matter, far from an affront to American values, respects the view that a free people can understand this a dangerous world and that it is worth telling them the truth about what is at stake.