The reaction of Donald Trump and other administration officials to the butchering of U.S. resident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian security staff illuminates the larger absurdity of American foreign policy in the Middle East.
Whether it’s not believing it happened, accepting the Saudis’ several sanitized versions of the brutal assassination, or minimizing the transgression and soft pedaling the reaction to this barbarism, Trump, his factotums and right-wing pundits give two reasons for putting their faith in the Saudi version: the money Saudis pay U.S. companies for arms and the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia in U.S. foreign policy. In the age of fracking, few talk about Saudi oil.
Putting money above morality and a free press merely demonstrates—for what seems like the five hundredth time this year—the amoral corruption of Trumpism. Democrats, mainstream journalists and many government officials across the globe rightly see the depths of depravity in going easy on the Saudis. Perceptive commentators have noted that Trump’s frequent violent language against reporters may have made the Saudis believe that they had “permission” to use torture and murder to silence one of the regime’s strongest critics while issuing a de facto warning to other journalists questioning Saudi actions in Yemen and elsewhere. Strangely, no one has yet compared the dismemberment of Khashoggi—likely initiated while he was still alive—to the ISIS beheadings of a few years back.
But I’ve yet to see any U.S. politician or pundit push back on the assertion that Saudi Arabia holds a strategic importance in U.S. policy. That strategic importance is tied to constraining Iran, the Saudis fierce rival in the region for the hearts and minds of Moslems. Thus what most people, including Democrats, really mean by “strategic importance of Saudi Arabia” is “we’re choosing Saudi Arabia over Iran.” And what a crazy decision that is in so many ways.
Let’s start with past harm to the United States. An ally of the Unites States before the 1979 revolution, Iranian students took 52 Americans hostage a few days after that revolution started. Iran held the 52 Americans for 444 days. Although the hostages were beaten and lived in fear, every single one of them came back alive. Since then, there has been no documented case of any American dying at the hands of the Iranian military or police. It is true that Iran has supported political groups engaged in violence against America and its allies, but giving groups money and arms is far different from pulling the actual trigger. If it wasn’t, we couldn’t justify our support and military sales to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and other countries which have committed atrocities.
Compare the harm inflicted on the United States by Saudi Arabia. It is common knowledge that virtually all of the 9/11 hijackers who killed almost 3,000 Americans were Saudis who received monetary support from other Saudis. Less well-know are the many direct and indirect ties between the 9/11 perpetrators and financers and Saudi government officials. can now add Jamal Khashoggi to the toll of dead American residents attributable to Saudi Arabia.
Now let’s consider the assets of our friend the Saudis compared with our enemy the Iranians. Saudi Arabia is a desert country of 33 million with lots of oil and no other natural resources. It has no history of democracy and its educational system does not produce graduates with marketable skills. Besides oil, Iran has a wealth of natural resources, an historically strong, Western-looking middle class, and a well-educated population of 81.5 million. Iran held elections with real meaning for decades until a U.S.-supported coup d’état helped to install Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as dictator in 1953; today there are semi-free elections in Iran. Saudi Arabia occasionally has local elections to offices without any power.
While neither country offers the freedoms we are used to in the West, Iran is definitely a more open society than Saudi Arabia. The cultural history of Saudi Arabia—dominated by nomadic tribes and Islam—has little in common with the West, whereas Iran is Persia, whose civilization is one of the foundational precursors of European thought and culture. Persian/Iranian history is rich in important non-religious thinkers and writers. Other than Mohammed the Prophet and his first prominent followers, who has the Arabian Peninsula produced? Look at the Wikipedia articles titled “List of Saudi Arabian Writers” and “List of Persian Writers.” The Arabian list has 37 names; the Persian has 188, including some I recognized as literary masters: Ferdowski, Omar Kayyám, Saadi, Hafez, Leila Kasra, Muhammad Iqbal.
As usual, our foreign policy has no basis in history. Our saber-rattling for years only goaded Iran to invest more in its military and to developing nuclear weapons. Economic sanctions, however, brought Iran to the table and led to the Iran Nuclear Treaty, which the Trump Administration has unfortunately shredded. Theocrats may often have the last word in Iran, but the middle class and business classes put enormous pressure on the elected government and the religious leaders to provide a growing economy. (The Saudis, of course, don’t face that demand since the sheer wealth of the Saudi Princes enables them to put more than half the population on welfare.) So why the heck do we need to arm anybody to counter Iran, when economic threats have worked just fine? Sure, the military arms industry will suffer, but that shouldn’t matter to any government that feels a responsibility to its people and the world. A foreign policy based on bellicosity often leads to war.
But don’t expect the horrific killing of Jamal Khashoggi to change basic U.S. policy. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Prince Muhammad bin Salman, AKA MBS (as in “more BS”) step down as head of government, maybe returning in five or 10 years, maybe forever exiled from political leadership for committing the sin of not covering up his bloody tracks. But the U.S. will continue to consider the Saudis as allies and Iran as a mortal enemy, at least as long as the industrial military complex dominates our political process.