Why Nothing Will Change on Saudi Arabia
In my book The Arab Lobby, I documented how Saudi Arabia undermines our values and interests. No one cared then, and I don’t think they really care now. Fox media critic Howard Kurtz noted that no one would be talking about Saudi Arabia if Jamal Khashoggi had been just another dissident rather than a journalist. Now, at least, the Saudis are being scrutinized, but much of the reaction to Khashoggi’s murder has been hypocritical and will undoubtedly be fleeting.
Suddenly, we hear lots of people talking about how US foreign policy should be based on morality, human rights, and American values. Well, of course, those are important, but they have never been the overriding determinants of our relations with other countries; otherwise, we would have no ties with China, Russia, Egypt, Turkey, or many other countries that are serial violators of human rights. We periodically give lip service to our values, and occasionally slap the wrists of these countries, but realpolitik takes precedence in the end.
It is particularly amusing to hear all the criticism of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS) over his treatment of his critics when we are treating Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a hero for exposing the Saudi perfidy. This is the same man who has been purging, arresting, and murdering his opponents for years. Just three days before Khashoggi’s disappearance, The New York Times reported how Turkish riot police broke up a demonstration of aging mothers and their relatives who were protesting the disappearances and extrajudicial killings of their family members. It is particularly ironic for Erdogan to be pretending to be a champion of journalists given that he jails his Khashoggis and other activists who have criticized him on social media. He has also been trying to get the United States to extradite his rival Fethullah Gulen to face almost certain imprisonment if not execution.
Erdogan has become an increasingly extreme Islamist in an effort to become the leader of the Muslim world. His values in no way correspond to ours. Here are a few highlights of his abuses from the State Department human rights report:
Alleged torture of detainees in official custody; allegations of forced disappearance; arbitrary arrest and detention under the state of emergency of tens of thousands … for alleged ties to terrorist groups or peaceful legitimate speech; executive interference with independence of the judiciary … severe restriction of freedoms of expression and media, including imprisonment of scores of journalists, closing media outlets, and criminalization of criticism of government policies or officials; blocking websites and content; severe restriction of freedoms of assembly and association; interference with freedom of movement; and incidents of violence against LGBTI persons and other minorities.
We should have kicked Turkey out of NATO long ago, but we don’t because we need our base at Incirlik — human rights, American values, and interests be damned.
You also hear some critics clamoring for the removal of MBS as heir to the throne. Most of these same people usually preach against regime change in places with much worse tyrants such as Iran and Syria. Again, if murdering opponents disqualified a leader from doing business with the United States, we wouldn’t be talking to Putin or any of the world’s other dictators. MBS is no angel, and may be problematic because of his inexperience and impetuousness, but his reforms have been revolutionary in the context of the history of the Islamic monarchy. It is unlikely anyone else could have moved the glacial reforms of the monarchy as quickly in a positive direction. As in all cases where regime change is contemplated, realpolitik requires consideration of the alternatives. In Saudi Arabia, they would probably be worse.
Analysts with expertise on Middle East affairs, as opposed to the kibitzers spouting off, agree the Saudis must be punished in some way, but none have any plan for shifting US policy to exclude them from our regional agenda. Typical was former Secretary of State James Baker’s suggestion that the administration should take actions that “signal clear disapproval and a message that reform, not repression, is the best route forward for Saudi Arabia,” but, he added, “the response must also reflect a sober assessment of the substantial and abiding value of our strategic partnership with the Saudis.”
Let’s be honest: most of the proposed sanctions will be quickly forgotten. Does anyone really believe that we will stop selling the Saudis weapons or engaging in other commerce after this storm passes?
President Trump may be exaggerating about the total number of American jobs that would be lost by cancelling $110 billion worth of weapons sales, but it would have a negative impact on the defense industry and, by extension, the Pentagon. No doubt Saudi lobbyists will remind some of the members of Congress calling for an end to arms sales that companies in their districts are beneficiaries of those deals. The Saudis do not need and can’t use most of what we have sold them, but that has not been a deterrent in the past to these sales by presidents of both parties.
Consider Obama’s then-record $60 billion sale of arms to the Saudis in 2011. Deputy press secretary Joshua Earnest said the deal “would support more than 50,000 American jobs, engage 600 suppliers in 44 states, and provide $3.5 billion in annual economic impact to the US economy.”
And if you doubt these sales are political, Andrew Exum of the Center for New American Security explained Obama’s calculation:
Boeing had been manufacturing F-15s on its St. Louis assembly line for the past few years without a firm assurance those aircraft would ever be sold. Cancelling the deal with Saudi Arabia would have been a tremendous blow to both Boeing and the people of St. Louis. … I’m sure the congressional delegation of Missouri, for example, is enjoying a late Christmas present today.
It is also no coincidence that Obama was interested in helping the people of Missouri after losing the state in the 2008 election.
Do we need the Saudis? Not really.
Nevertheless, they can play an important role in curbing Iran’s hegemonic designs by keeping oil prices relatively low to choke the Iranian economy and by funding Tehran’s opponents. The Saudis could also help advance Middle East peace — though historically they have been more obstructive — by either pressuring the Palestinians to negotiate or, better still, signing a peace treaty with Israel to isolate them.
Now that the American public and elected officials are paying attention, perhaps the Saudis’ nefarious activities, beyond the killing of Khashoggi, will be investigated. No one should have any illusions about our Saudi policy changing dramatically, however, unless we also expose the Arabists and lobbyists who have helped them manipulate US policy and undermine our values and interests for nearly eight decades.
Mitchell Bard, Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library, has written 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews, and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.