Even at the height of recent American interventionism, one bit of realism prevailed: as bad as the government of Saudi Arabia is, whatever would replace it would likely be worse. Fifteen of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens and Riyadh has a proven track record of funding Wahhabism. Regime change in Iraq proceeded with far more tenuous connections to the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, yet destabilizing, much less toppling, the House of Saud was almost universally regarded as a fool’s errand.
Such was the dilemma President Trump faced in weighing a response to the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a crime for which the Saudi regime itself bears culpability. That our options were limited, however, does not mean the president chose wisely. Trump on Tuesday pleaded with us to think of the defense contractors—“Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon”—before punishing the government of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in an exclamation point-laden statement that bizarrely juxtaposed “Standing with Saudi Arabia” with “America First.”
Trump has deservedly elicited widespread criticism for his treatment of the Khashoggi killing in a statement that appeared designed to preempt a U.S. intelligence assessment. He repeats the claim Khashoggi was part of the Muslim Brotherhood without really taking a position one way or the other and seemingly shrugs at the question of whether the crown prince had advance knowledge of the columnist’s torture and dismemberment. (“[M]aybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”)
But the apologia for the Saudi and United Arab Emirates war in Yemen, backed by our own government, should not escape reproach. Trump opens with some whataboutism and saber-rattling against Iran before lavishing praise on Saudi Arabia.
“Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave,” Trump said in the statement. “They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has agreed to spend billions of dollars in leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism.”
“I’m pretty sure this statement is Saudi Arabia First, not America First,” tweeted Sen. Rand Paul, echoing sentiments the Kentucky Republican expressed at the TAC foreign policy conference. “I’m also pretty sure John Bolton wrote it.”
Trump has some sound instincts on foreign policy, even if there is a shortage of people in official Washington who are willing to help implement them, but these are not evident in his handling of Iran, Saudi Arabia or Yemen. Here his cautiousness about regime change and skepticism of troublesome allies routinely fail him. Trump’s response is a caricature of realism and an abandonment of restraint.
A great humanitarian crisis is unfolding in Yemen, one that would likely not be possible without the United States’ support for the Saudis. The one lesson we appear to have learned from Iraq is that when creating failed states abroad, it is politically advisable to keep American boots on the ground to a minimum.
TAC editor-at-large Daniel McCarthy wisely asked of our choosing sides between Iran and Saudi Arabia, “[D]oes the cause of liberal democracy really require supporting one pack of blood-splattered theocrats over another?”
The answer is obviously no. A cessation of U.S. support for the Saudis in Yemen, advocated by a coalition that stretches from Sen. Mike Lee on the Right to Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Left, would do more to end the hostilities than any action Saudi Arabia would undertake “gladly” or otherwise.
Unfortunately, the House recently shut down debate on a war powers resolution—absurdly tucked into the “Manage our Wolves Act” to make it easier for leadership to scuttle—designed to terminate our involvement in this catastrophe. Yemeni children should be at least as deserving of our compassion as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.
An America First administration should unambiguously side with a legal resident of the United States against a foreign government. Such an administration should also strive to keep America out of other countries’ wars.
Journalists in particular are rightly outraged by the tone and substance of Trump’s statement on Khashoggi. Let’s not forget to direct some of that outrage toward what he said—and what our government does—about Yemen too.
W. James Antle III is editor of The American Conservative.