All I know is that we have to find some way to censure M.B.S. for this — without seeming to attack the whole Saudi people and destabilize the country. And we have to make sure that the social/religious reform process in Saudi Arabia proceeds — whoever is in charge there. Because that is a vital U.S. interest.
— Tom Friedman, “America’s Dilemma: Censuring M.B.S. and Not Halting Saudi Reforms” New York Times, October 17, 2018
The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do. – Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008)
Upon learning of Cardinal Richelieu’s death, Pope Urban VIII is alleged to have said, “If there is a God, then Cardinal de Richelieu will have much to answer for. If not … well, he had a successful life.”– Henry Kissinger, “Diplomacy” (1994)
Order should not have priority over freedom. But the affirmation of freedom should be elevated from a mood to a strategy. – Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)
I’m a realist. Not a neo-realist, but a realist. There’s a difference. I learned my craft from the two guys quoted immediately above – Sam Huntington and Henry Kissinger. Neither man was a peach. Huntington was a curmudgeon and Kissinger sold his soul for wealth and power, not just once but at least four times over. I wouldn’t want either man in my pack, but I’m grateful that I had both men as teachers. I think they’re largely correct about … everything.
It’s that last quote of Kissinger’s that I think is so important in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder and the crystallization of common knowledge regarding the Saudi regime in general and MBS in particular. “Order should not have priority over freedom. But the affirmation of freedom should be elevated from a mood to a strategy.“
Huntington is dead and Kissinger can’t speak in public without an angry mob shouting him down, so I’m going to speak for both of them.
Any realist worth his or her salt should be appalled at the foreign policy of BOTH Trump and Team Elite toward Saudi Arabia.
The foreign policy failure, from a realist perspective, of both Trump and Team Elite (who I’ll personify with Tom Friedman) has exactly the same root – they believe that they can be friends with Saudi leaders. They believe that it matters whether or not they are friends with Saudi leaders. They believe that Saudi Arabia can be advanced (Trump’s language) or reformed (Friedman’s language) because of this direct personal support, and that advancement/reform is impossible without it.
For Trump, it’s working with the Saudi regime on some cockamamie “rogue killers” notion to get Jared’s good friend MBS off the hook from direct culpability, so that we can “get back to doing business with our great friends in Saudi Arabia”. For Friedman, it’s finding some way to “censure” MBS, his former interview buddy and confidante, so that we can “make sure that the social/religious reform process in Saudi Arabia proceeds”. For BOTH, there is this notion that it matters whether or not the Saudi political leadership has credibility and a winning narrative in the West. For BOTH, there is this notion that US-Saudi relations can move forward in a mutually beneficial fashion if and only if there’s a smiley-face button that everyone can wear.
In truth, of course, King Salman and Crown Prince MBS and the Saudi royal family are not our “friends”. They will never be our “friends”. There is no smiley-face narrative to be created here. Not now. Not ever.
And that’s fine.
Here’s the realist truth for Donald Trump: friendship is not necessary, and is in fact counterproductive, to your mercantile goals in Saudi Arabia. You will not get a better “deal” because you are “friendly” with the Saudi regime.
Here’s the realist truth for Tom Friedman: friendship is not necessary, and is in fact counterproductive, to your liberalization goals in Saudi Arabia. You will not get more “reform” because you are “friendly” with the Saudi regime.
The greatest self-delusion of powerful and extremely wealthy men like Trump and Friedman (yes, Friedman), is that they can personally make a difference in grand historic events. That international relations are some Great Game in which they are uniquely able to shape outcomes. That if only they can sit down and look that other extremely wealthy and powerful man straight in the eye, then they can, in the immortal words of George W. Bush vis-a-vis Putin, “get a sense of his soul” and negotiate a treaty, work out a trade deal, push for reforms, denuclearize a war zone … accomplish anything, really.
What a crock.
I’ll close this note with one last Kissinger quote.
Side by side with the limitless possibilities opened up by the new technologies, reflection about international order must include the internal dangers of societies driven by mass consensus, deprived of the context and foresight needed on terms compatible with their historical character. As diplomacy is transformed into gestures geared toward passions, the search for equilibrium risks giving way to a testing of limits. …
Because information is so accessible and communication instantaneous, there is a diminution of focus on its significance, or even on the definition of what is significant. This dynamic may encourage policymakers to wait for an issue to arise rather than anticipate it, and to regard moments of decision as a series of isolated events rather than part of a historical continuum. When this happens, manipulation of information replaces reflection as the principal policy tool.
– Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)
If this quote doesn’t ring true to you … if it doesn’t scare the bejeesus out of you as Trump looks for those darn rogue killers … well, you’re just not paying attention.