More Realpolitik, Please

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 16, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters )
Trump is right: We should not break with Saudi Arabia. But we should demand a higher price for our support.

As a card-carrying neoconservative, I am usually a critic of realpolitik. But in judging the Trump administration’s current response to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, I find myself thinking that more realpolitik would lead to better policy.

Here’s what I mean. The president has made two statements, both of which refuse to break with Saudi Arabia or its crown prince: his formal White House statement and his comments to reporters when about to get into Marine One and depart the White House. Both constitute a kind of realpolitik. The formal statement begins this way: “The world is a very dangerous place!” In both statements, the president notes the advantages that accrue to the United States from our relationship with the Saudis, principally the arms sales to the kingdom, its investments in the United States, its help in keeping oil prices down, and its assistance against terrorism and against Iran more generally. As to Iran, the president said:

We also need a counterbalance. And Israel needs help also. If we abandon Saudi Arabia, it would be a terrible mistake.

The problem with this analysis is not that it is wrong, but that it posits only two options: abandoning Saudi Arabia or embracing it. A tougher realpolitik approach would promote a third option: Use this moment to push the Saudis to do some things we think they need to do that would benefit both the kingdom and the United States. The list is easy to conjure: Patch up their dispute with Canada. More important, patch up their dispute with Qatar and get the Gulf Cooperation Council working again. Rationalize their own government by appointing empowered ministers instead of having the crown prince in charge of all domestic, economic, defense, and foreign-policy aspects of their government. And take some steps on human rights.

The president was asked about the last point as he got onto Marine One: “Are you basically telling us, Mr. President, that human rights are too expensive?” Trump replied “No, I’m not saying that at all.” But there is no evidence that the United States is pressing the Saudis on that issue.

Now compare the putative master of realpolitik, Richard Nixon. After the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989, Nixon — then a private citizen — wrote to the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in April 1990. (The Nixon Foundation website has the letter.) In it, Nixon took a tough-minded pose, writing, “I have always believed that a nation’s policy must not be affected by soft-headed friendship, but only by hard-headed reality.” He reaffirmed his belief that U.S.–China relations were of “great benefit to both our countries strategically.”

And he had “hard-headed” advice for Deng:

It is imperative that steps be taken now to return China to its rightful place as a civilized member of the world community. It would be a tragedy if China continues to be seen as a repressive throwback to a dark age of the past.

What steps? Release the physicist and dissident Fang Lizhi. Second, “provide amnesty for those who demonstrated peacefully . . . particularly students.” Third, take some steps providing reassurance about the future of Hong Kong.

Two months later, in June 1990, Fang Lizhi and his family were allowed to leave China, and a group of dissidents was released. Perhaps Nixon’s advice, couched not as humanitarian pressure but cold political realism, had an effect.

That is what seems to me missing from recent administration policy on Saudi Arabia. Nixon did not presume that the choices were all or nothing, to embrace China or to break with it. Similarly, if the Trump administration view is that we should not break with Saudi Arabia (a view I share), then the next step is not to embrace Saudi Arabia but rather do what Nixon did: Specify to the Saudis what they need to do so that they will not be seen as “a repressive throwback to a dark age of the past.” Send the Saudi foreign minister to fix things with Canada. Figure out a way to release the blogger Raif Badawi and the female Saudi protesters who appear to have been badly abused since their arrests. Reunite the Gulf Cooperation Council.

In his public statements, the president did not do that. Neither did Secretary of State Pompeo in his remarks. Echoing the president, the secretary said:

It’s a mean, nasty world out there, the Middle East in particular. There are important American interests, to keep the American people safe, to protect Americans. . . . It is the President’s obligation — indeed, the State Department’s duty as well — to ensure that we adopt policies that further America’s national security.

Hard to argue with that, but the rest of a realpolitik policy is missing: how we will use this moment to press the Saudis to do some things we need them to do, in our national interest. (The exception is Trump’s approach to Yemen. Since the Khashoggi killing, the Trump administration has taken a far tougher public stance demanding steps aimed at ending the war there, and it has stopped U.S. aerial refueling of Saudi jets.)

Now, neither the president nor the secretary is obliged to lay out American demands in public if doing so will undermine our ability to achieve those goals. Nixon’s letter to Deng was private and unknown for years. We must hope that the Trump administration is trying in private to exact a price for the public support it is giving the U.S.–Saudi relationship. The pure realpolitik approach is not the one I favor, because I believe the moral element in U.S. foreign policy is critical to its success and to our international standing. But if the administration has decided on a realist approach, go all the way with it: Demand a price in Saudi actions for the support we give. That would be, to use Nixon’s words, “hard-headed.”

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.


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