Not a week goes by — sometimes not a day — that President Trump isn’t praised by many Americans and damned by many others. It’s true on issue after issue. Usually, BoomerCafé executive editor and co-founder Greg Dobbs is on the side of the critics. But in this Boomer Opinion piece, Dobbs, a longtime foreign correspondent, believes that while the president might not even understand why, the path he is going down with Saudi Arabia is in America’s interest.
It’s called Realpolitik.
Given his tiresome and limited vocabulary, I’d be surprised if Donald Trump could accurately define it. Or maybe even spell it. But when it comes to Saudi Arabia, the president is right to practice it. Whether he actually understands the word or not.
Because realpolitik for the United States means politics that are practical. Politics that are practical, beneficial, and sometimes essential for our nation, whether or not we recognize them as moral.
Granted, Trump might not recognize “moral” if it spit in his face. In fact, he didn’t even mention the sadistic strangulation of the Saudi-born Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi until the fifth paragraph of his eight paragraph statement this past week.
The statement said, Trump is sticking with Saudi Arabia (and its evidently murderous crown prince), though it’s for all the wrong reasons which, from everything he has said in the past, are mainly economic— weapons sales and oil. “Very simply” he wrote (or someone wrote for him, since all the sentences come to grammatical conclusions), “it is called America First.”
But no, realpolitik doesn’t mean “America First” because from its results so far, Trump’s “America First” policy isn’t practical for our country, let alone beneficial. To the contrary, it already has hurt us around the globe — from relationships that are damaged with vital allies in Europe to an economy (including a stock market) damaged by our arbitrary and unnecessary trade war with China.
However, Realpolitik does mean politics that are in America’s national interest. And sadly, sticking with the Saudis rather than sending them into the eager hands of impatient and ascendant superpowers like China and Russia is in America’s national interest.
It isn’t the first time we’ve had alliances with iron-fisted autocrats and looked the other way. Probably the very best example is our decades-long relationship with Saudi Arabia’s longtime rival Iran, where I spent the better part of three years covering its transition to become the ignoble Islamic Republic.
We had a cozy relationship with Iran’s pre-Islamic despot the Shah, which translates to “King of Kings.” He was a bad man. And we knew it. He had a secret police force called Savak, whose sole charge was to stifle opposition to the Shah’s control. I met hardly anyone in Iran who didn’t have a neighbor, or a friend, or a relative who hadn’t lost a job, or a limb, or even a life, to Savak.
So he was a bad man. But he was our bad man. Not only because he bought massive amounts of weapons from us and sold massive amounts of oil to us — ironically, the same justifications Trump uses now with the Saudis — but because under his jurisdiction, Iran became almost an arm of our military, and our intelligence. For example, when the Shah fell, we lost our best listening posts along the northern edge of his country, which would give us the earliest warnings of any kind of missile launch from the Soviet Union.
And look what replaced him. The Islamic Republic of Iran. Which not only cost us some of our best defensive tools during the Cold War, but which exported violent anti-Western revolution to other parts of the Middle East. At no small cost to American aims in the region.
At the time, it had seemed to many Americans including me that morally, our nation should not defend a despotic dictator. But in the vacuum left in his wake, equally despotic ayatollahs filled the void. We’ve lived with the consequences every day since. It falls into the category of “Be careful what you wish for.”
I’d argue the same about Saudi Arabia. Believe me, I do not ignore the oil-rich kingdom’s monstrous moral failings. With my own eyes I’ve seen its “religious police” — their power diminished only a short time ago — roughly drag citizens into the streets because they ignored one of the five daily “calls to prayer.” With my own eyes I’ve watched a thief collapse like jello when he saw that his hands would be amputated for his crime. And most egregiously, I believe our own intelligence — even if the president appears to ignore it — that none less than the Saudi crown prince himself ordered the murder of journalist Khashoggi. To say nothing of the Saudis’ decades-long schizophrenic role in anti-Western terrorism.
So yes, indisputably, Saudi Arabia is an immoral nation. But it is our immoral nation. It has become a fundamental military ally, a diplomatic ally, an economic ally, and frankly, less covertly every day, a partner of Israel, our closest ally and the only democracy in the Middle East. Without Saudi Arabia, we couldn’t have executed the first Gulf War, to evict Saddam Hussein’s forces from their occupation of Iraq. Likewise, for better or for worse and I’d say worse, without indispensable help from Saudi Arabia, we could not have fought the Iraq War. And arguably, as inhumane as is its conduct in the war in Yemen, without it, Iran would win a foothold on the Saudi peninsula and have a new platform on the planet from which to export terrorism.
We live in a world of hard choices and sometimes, no good options. Sometimes, we have to swallow hard and accept the lesser of two evils. Certainly there are moves we could and should make to censure and possibly penalize Saudi Arabia, far beyond the president’s pathetic “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” defense of the crown prince’s involvement in Khashoggi’s murder. But there is a timeworn expression I heard whenever I went to the Middle East: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is only a marriage of convenience. Although the president deceitfully overstates the Saudis’ impact on the American economy, from the standpoint of our national security they help us as much as we help them.
As malevolent as their moral behavior is, if we ask for a divorce, there are other suitors waiting in the wings. I swallow hard myself when I say this but what we don’t want to do — and admittedly it is a very fine line — is push them so hard that we create another vacuum. Someone else would fill it, and with an ally like Saudi Arabia, they would shape a world worse than the one we’ve got.
That is the practical definition of realpolitik.
Greg’s latest book is available at Amazon.com.