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What Are the Fault Lines in Today’s Foreign Policy?

President Trump speaks with Saudi King Salman (at right) in Riyadh in May. (Photo: Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters)

One of the more striking features of the Trump era has been the decline of the notion of a bipartisan foreign policy consensus. Even at the height of the Cold War, there were pronounced differences between the foreign policy priorities of Republican hardliners and Democratic doves. Yet there was a critical mass of hawkish internationalists in both parties who tended to see eye to eye, and this informal coalition persisted into the 1990s and 2000s, exemplified by the globetrotting and deal-making of Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman. For the most part, mainstream Republicans and Democrats were united around a U.S. grand strategy of deep engagement, leaving a small number of marginalized critics on the right and left to object to its cost, its hubris, or, on the fringe of the fringe, its evils.

Something has changed since 2016, though I acknowledge that the change I have in mind could be more of degree than kind. I recently observed that our current foreign policy debates bear a faint resemblance to those we saw at the dawn of the republic, when Federalists saw Revolutionary France as the gravest threat to American liberty while Democratic-Republicans were more wary of Imperial Britain. This debate was fierce, and prompted serious discussion of, for example, the secession of New England. We’re not there yet. What is true, however, is that for many cosmopolitan liberals, it is obvious that a revisionist Russia represents a more serious, immediate, and pressing threat to U.S. interests than a China that has a big stake in the existing global order while nationalist conservatives, and I count myself among them, are more inclined to prioritize the challenge posed by a rising China over that of a Russia in relative decline

I bring this up in part because while I focused my earlier remarks on partisan perceptions of China and Russia, the recent contretemps over Saudi Arabia offers further evidence of the dynamic I had in mind. The disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has, for good reason, prompted a reassessment of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, and there are many questions about Khashoggi that have yet to be answered. What I’ve noticed, however, is that President Trump’s caution about severing ties with Saudi Arabia — his unwillingness to believe the worst about the Saudis, and his insistence that we shouldn’t unravel our security relationship with Riyadh lightly — has encouraged some thinkers on the left to declare that opposition to the Saudi alliance should be a cornerstone of a progressive foreign policy.

To be clear, it is not just left-of-center foreign policy professionals who are urging a rethinking of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. This has been a longstanding concern of critics of authoritarian rule of the Arab world, including those on the right who’ve justifiably [expressed] concern about Riyadh’s export of Salafi jihadism throughout the Islamic world. At the same time, it’s worth keeping in mind that, as Graeme Wood notes, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “has implemented many reforms—including the end of official support for Saudi Arabia’s least popular export, jihadi Salafism—that the West has long been demanding.” That MbS is an authoritarian ruler is beyond dispute, and I sympathize with all those who argue that we ought to be wary of backing his government to the hilt.

However, it is also worth noting that our chief source of information about Khashoggi’s disappearance has been the Turkish government. Though a NATO ally, Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken an increasingly authoritarian turn. Erdogan’s grand strategic design has been to partner with Qatar to back Islamist regimes in Egypt (overthrown) and Syria (never got off the ground), and one of his main opponents has been the Saudi government. One could say that having overplayed his hand, Erdogan is in no position to run afoul of the Saudis, which suggests that he is being completely above board. Or it could be that he is opportunistically using this moment of confusion to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. I’m not entirely sure. What I do know is that our existing perceptions of Turkey and Saudi Arabia are shaping our reactions to Khashoggi’s disappearance, and there may well be a partisan dimension to it in the weeks and months to come.

One critic of the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, Evan Hill, blames both the Obama and Trump administrations for their role in perpetuating what he calls the “strongman pathologies” that gave rise to the Arab Spring in the first place in a piece published in Slate. And at BuzzFeed, he argues that progressives ought to make ending America’s special relationship with Saudi Arabia central to their foreign policy agenda. “Ending the special relationship with Saudi Arabia is exactly the kind of foreign policy fight progressives should embrace, and it would fit clearly into a vision of a more democratic, egalitarian, and just world,” writes Hill. “Opponents would be forced to take the side of a regime that almost assuredly just committed the state-sanctioned murder of a journalist and US resident, in addition to its myriad other abuses.”

Hill goes on to argue that because of the fracking revolution, the U.S. no longer depends on Saudi oil (true in a narrow sense, but oil is a fungible commodity, and many of our allies certainly depend on it), and that progressives who care about climate change should reject oil regardless. More convincingly, he makes the case that Saudi has if anything sowed instability in the region through its role in Yemen and in financing military adventurism by other states in the region. He makes a good case, though those of us who are attuned to the threat posed by Iran might hesitate to fully embrace it.

What I wonder is whether the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia will come to represent yet another partisan dividing line, with Trump-aligned Republicans for a strong partnership (out of a sense that MbS is a modernizing monarch willing to do business with Israel and to counter Iranian power, and a recognition that Saudi Arabia is a major consumer of U.S. military hardware) and progressive Democrats in favor of a divorce, on the grounds that the Saudi government is a reactionary force. Things might turn out otherwise. For one, President Trump has promised “severe punishment” if it does indeed turn out that the Saudis were behind Khashoggi’s disappearance, so perhaps the anti-Saudi turn will prove a rare instance of bipartisan agreement. Somehow I doubt it.

Quick things on themes I hope to revisit: Dave Levitan argues that geoengineering is inevitable, Lyman Stone on the relationship between high rent and family formation. Chris Elmendorf has released a new working paper on how state governments might address local-government barriers to housing supply (a subject I’ve touched on before, though far more tentatively). James Palmer calls for Democrats to take Chinese human rights abuses more seriously (in a larger piece that I find much to disagree and agree with). Janan Ganesh, one of my favorite columnists, puzzles over why many established Americans are so interested and invested in their ethnic roots. Eric Gordy is deeply skeptical about the idea of a land swap between Serbia and Kosovo while I’m more sympathetic to Charles Kupchan’s take, namely that it’s a really bad idea that is better than the likely alternatives.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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