Foreign nations committing barbaric acts against their own people is nothing new in American History. As Trump deals with Saudi Arabia he should look to how our past presidents dealt with foreign butchers and killers.
About a hundred years ago in the early stages of the Mexican Revolution, President Woodrow Wilson eyed the faction that had temporarily seized power and said that he would not recognize “a government of butchers.” Eventually, however, the US recognized one faction. In response, bandit and political leader Pancho Villa (pretty much the same job description in that country at that time) derided Wilson as “an evangelical professor of philosophy….”
About eight decades later after the Chinese government had massacred protestors at Tiananmen Square the 1992 presidential campaign was on in the US.
Challenger Bill Clinton spoke of incumbent President Bush’s ties with the “butchers of Beijing” and said that continuing to extend “most favorite nation” status to China was “unconscionable.”
That didn’t hold either.
In 1994, Mr. Clinton’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher was treated insolently by the Chinese when he tried to link trade with human rights.
When Mr. Christopher’s returned to the US he discovered that “No one (in a cabinet meeting) spoke in defense of continued linkage of China’s trade status to its human rights progress. It was as if our policy had died in my absence….”
Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown went to China later that year to get business deals and obsequiously spoke of “China’s long history is deserving of respect and even deference that she has not always received.”
President Clinton’s new approach – very different from what he proclaimed as a mere candidate – may have made sense in a globalist dollar-driven world. But normal person-to-person ethics were marginalized. One result: Chinese agents worked for the Clinton re-election in 1996.
The debate between an “idealistic” foreign policy typified by Woodrow Wilson and a “realistic” one typified by Henry Kissinger is at least a century old. Sometimes this debate is best understood not as a binary question but in the complicated mixture of American values and American interests.
That leaves us with Mr. Trump and the current issue of Saudi Arabia’s most certain killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who appears to have been interrogated and murdered in the Saudi embassy in Turkey.
It’s not surprising that the Saudi would kill a critic. That country does lots of terrible things. It doesn’t have religious freedom. Its so-called justice system includes punishments like beatings and amputations. Capital punishment applies to such crimes as apostasy and adultery. Women are quite literally second-class citizens and if we weren’t besotted with multiculturalism, the Saudis would be under American pressure on this front just as civil rights leaders here once led boycotts of apartheid South Africa.
On the other hand, the Saudis sell oil to the world, are on our side against terrorism and oppose Iran. There is a thaw in Israeli-Saudi relations caused, as so many things in the Middle East, by detestation of a common enemy, Iran.
Finally, if there ever was an uprising against the royal family whatever came after it would probably be worse. (Think: Russia in 1917 or Iran in 1979.)
Making things more difficult, if we cut off arms sales to the kingdom, we defeat one of our purposes: to keep them as well-armed as the Iranians to deter any further aggression toward them. We don’t want to go back there as we did with Kuwait in 1990.
Less edifyingly, but still a factor, as Mr. Trump recently said: “They are ordering military equipment. Everybody in the world wanted that order. Russia wanted it, China wanted it, we wanted it. We got it … I don’t want to hurt jobs. I don’t want to lose an order like that.”
The Trump administration after some initial confusion is moving slowly against the kingdom. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has dropped out of an important investment conference hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman next week and other cancelations make that showcase event a likely bust. Vice President Pence has said that if Mr. Khashoggi was murdered, it would be “an affront to the free and independent press around the world.” President Trump said it looks to him as if Mr. Khashoggi is dead and added that, if so, the consequences would have to be “very severe.”
What should we do?
We don’t know but here are some ideas:
• Identify the killers and make it impossible for them to travel to our country or to countries of our allies.
• Recognize Mr. Khashoggi as a martyr and in so doing make sure that the Saudis’ attempt to silence him backfires.
• Make travel difficult for wealthy Saudis who what to travel here.
None of this feels like a proportionate response. But something like this may minimally shake up the governing class of Saudi Arabia and make it more difficult for them to do this sort of butchery any time soon – at least so brazenly as seems the case with Jamal Khashoggi.