by Michael Isenberg.
Trump is under attack. (What else is new?)
probably ordered" the hit, albeit the case against him, as far as the public has been told, is circumstantial: he had close ties to some of the conspirators. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress there is no "direct evidence" against MBS. When asked at an October 11 bill signing how the case would affect his dealings with Saudi Arabia, he replied that making money off the Saudis comes first. “I don’t like stopping massive amounts of money that’s being poured into our country on—I know they’re talking about different kinds of sanctions, but they’re spending $110 billion on military equipment and on things that create jobs, like jobs and others, for this country.”
A month and a half has passed since then and the issue hasn’t gone away. The critics have only grown louder, with particular emphasis on holding MBS personally accountable somehow. In an editorial last week, The Washington Post shredded the president’s response as a “craven abdication,” and called for private organizations to suspend their dealings with the Saudi regime and for Congress to attach “a provision to a must-pass budget bill ending military aid to Saudi Arabia until the Yemen war ends and all authors of the Khashoggi murder are identified and sanctioned.” House Speaker Ryan said, “Realpolitik is very important. But Realpolitik works if you do so from a position of moral clarity and with respect to holding people accountable,” leaving me wondering whether he knows what "realpolitik" means. The Senate has gotten into the act as well. A procedural vote on Wednesday, with bipartisan support from senators as diverse as Mike Lee (R-UT) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), advanced a resolution which would cut off US support for the Saudi intervention in the Yemen civil war. A terrible idea—there is a long history of legislative branch grandstanding disrupting delicate behind the scenes negotiations by the executive branch—but it shows the depth of dissatisfaction with Trump's position.
Some of my Trump supporter friends have attempted to justify that position by pointing out that Khashoggi wasn’t the angel that the media has made him out to be. He was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth and was friendly with Osama bin Laden in the 80’s (So was the US!). More recently, in a column titled "The US is wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab World is suffering for it," he argued for more political power for Islamists: “There can be no political reform and democracy in any Arab country without accepting that political Islam is a part of it.” While all these accusations against Khashoggi are true, I don’t think any of them diminish the seriousness or the brutality of the murder. Yes, Khashoggi has expressed some very wrong opinions, but surely that's not a capital offense or an extenuating circumstance that should factor into the US response.
My Trumpista friends are on more solid ground when they point out that Khashoggi’s murder is just one of many atrocities routinely committed by the Saudis. In the words of the 2016 documentary Saudi Arabia Uncovered, Saudi Arabia “is a state which beheads and even crucifies its citizens. Where those who question its authority are lashed and locked up for years. A state where woman lack many basic rights.” Recent cases have included the imprisonment and whipping of blogger Raif Badawi and the 2016 execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric whose sole crime was criticizing the government. And while progress in the form of drivers licenses for women has been greeted with much fanfare, the dirty secret is that many of the women activists who made that possible now rot in Saudi jail cells. The only reason the Khashoggi case has gotten more attention than these others is that Khashoggi is a member of the Western liberal media, thanks to his association with The Washington Post. Again, I don't think this excuses the Saudis in any way. But it does underscore the importance of treating the Khashoggi murder in the context of our overall relationship with Saudi Arabia, and not in isolation.
It would be foolish to engage in a knee jerk response merely because the victim is a Western journalist. Any US reaction needs to be part of a larger, coherent strategy toward the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia in particular. It needs to be a strategy we adhere to consistently, not just when the latest victim of Saudi repression happens to be a media darling. It also needs to be a strategy which supports the interests of the United States. And our primary interest in that part of the world is defeating Islamic terror.
We've seen Donald Trump repeatedly stand up to foreign dictatorships, and rightly so. But the House of Saud hasn't been among them. Both in the Khashoggi case, and in many other instances, the Trump Administration's strategy in the Middle East has been to unquestioningly embrace the House of Saud. The rationale for this is not merely the jobs cited above. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an Oct 18 statement to reporters,
I think it's important for us all to remember, too, we have a long, since 1932, a long strategic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They continue to be an important counterterrorism partner. They have custody of the two holy sites. They're an important strategic alliance of the United States. We need to be mindful of that as well.
This “important strategic alliance” with our “important counterterrorism partner” is problematic. Cozying up to dictators is a double-edged sword under the best of circumstances. There are advantages in terms of intelligence, resources, military bases, and so on, but at the cost of creating resentment against the United States that induces recruits to join our enemies. The (possibly exaggerated) CIA role in the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953, and the US’s subsequent support for the Shah is still a sticking point between us and the Iranians—forty years after the Shah’s downfall. Arguably, we had the excuse that we were in the midst of the Cold War and we did what we had to do in the context of the larger struggle against the Soviet Union. We should never apologize for that. But we should recognize that it came with consequences.
There was some logic to allying with the Shah’s Iran in 1953 against a higher priority enemy. But there is no logic to allying with MBS’s Saudi Arabia in 2018: Saudi Arabia is the higher priority enemy. As I wrote in my review of Saudi Arabia Uncovered,
The Saudi regime is not content merely to subject its own citizens to the terrors of Islamism. It exports them. The ties between Saudi-funded Islamic charities and terror groups are well-known and reviewed in the documentary (which also notes there is no evidence that senior Saudi officials were complicit in them). However, thoughtful observers consider that the kingdom’s embrace of the Wahhabi form of Islam—the country has spent $70 billion promoting it worldwide—is even more insidious than direct support of terror. In the words of former CIA officer Emile Nakhleh, “The ideology of ISIS is not much different from the ideology that Wahhabi Salafi Islam in Saudi Arabia adheres to. Unless the Saudis deal with this issue, we are going to constantly fight yesterday’s war and even if we defeat ISIS, there’ll be another terrorist organization, perhaps with a different name, as long as they have this ideology that emanates from Saudi Arabia.”
Or as Dr. Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy put it,
For over 50 years the Saudis have also financed and helped spread the establishment of Muslim Brotherhood legacy thinkers and groups in the West. The Wahhabis and the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] share both a hate of Western liberal democracies and a dream of wanting to establish Islamic states and the caliphate. Their essential difference lies in that Wahhabis are simply corporate, top-down, “elitist” Islamists, while the Brotherhood are grassroots, populist Islamists. Both their interpretations of Islam are supremacist and theocratic.
I don't mean to single out President Trump here. President Obama’s policy of unquestionably embracing Iran—another exporter of jihad—was just as bad, for the same reasons.
Another argument I tend to hear, especially from libertarians, is that the US should not take any action at all with regard to Khashoggi. He was not a US citizen, his murder took place in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which is technically Saudi sovereign territory. It's an internal matter in which the US has no vested interest.
There is some merit to this, but I part company with my libertarian friends when they frame it as part of an overall policy of disengagement from the Middle East. My disagreement with them stems from a fundamentally different view of the cause of Islamic terror. They see it as a reaction to past injustices that the Western powers committed against the Muslim world, such as the previously mentioned overthrow of Mossadegh. And while I agree that these injustices feature prominently in jihadist recruitment propaganda, the real origin of Islamic terror is not to be found in anything the West has done, but rather in Islam itself. The terrorists will come for us regardless of our level of engagement in the Middle East, and we need to be proactive in addressing that problem. Princeton historian Bernard Lewis called it the "Clash of Civilizations," which I discussed in more detail in "Fighting for God," one of the tributes to Professor Lewis that I posted in the wake of his passing earlier this year.
So if neither disengagement, nor a knee jerk response to the atrocity of the week, nor Obama's stint as Iran's bitch, nor Trump’s strategy of hopping to the tune of the "beautiful" Saudi sword dance is the right policy in the War on Islamic Terror, then what is? There are many lessons from the Cold War we can draw on to formulate one. I’ll address that in my next installment.
Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on Amazon.com