Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



The barrage of criticism leveled by the media against President Trump for his refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia's leadership for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi raises a fundamental question about U.S. foreign policy: Should American values override strategic interests in deciding foreign policy?

"Mr. Trump betrays American values," the Washington Post proclaimed (Nov.21). The New York Times asserted "Mr. Trump Stands Up for Saudi Values," (Nov. 21). The Wall Street Journal also joined the chorus with: "Trump's Crude Realpolitik." It characterized the president's defense of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman "as a raw and brutalist version of foreign policy realpolitik." The paper asserted that "from Mr. Trump's point of view, U.S. interests in the Middle East can be reduced to arms deals, oil, and Iran." It called his decision "crass." (Nov. 23)

Senator Bob Corker, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lamented: "I never thought I'd see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia." (Wash. Post, Nov. 21)

What triggered this outrage from the press?

On Nov. 20 the president issued a statement which cast doubt on a CIA finding that Crown Prince Salman knew about, and may have ordered, Jamal Khashoggi's murder in Istanbul, Mr. Trump later emphasized the large economic benefits U.S. companies derived from a close .relationship between the Saudi and U.S. governments/ He said Saudi oil production is a major factor in keeping world oil prices stable, especially as U.S. sanctions on Iran's oil exports take effect.

Saudi Arabia's strategic importance to U.S. interests in the Middle East is the key to the president's unwillingness to alienate its royal family. This point was highlighted by Secretary of Defense James Mattis: "We're not going to apologize for our human rights stance," but added, "Presidents don't often get to work with unblemished partners." Mattis insisted that America would maintain a "strategic relationship" with the Saudi government. ("Mattis: Strategic Saudi ties balance rights concerns." Wash. Post, Nov. 22)

Human rights and foreign policy

Americans have debated for a century, beginning with Woodrow Wilson's administration, whether promotion of American values abroad is more important than dealing with authoritarian regimes that deny human rights to their people. Wilson pledged to "make the world safe for democracy" as he took the nation to war in 1917. Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed Four Freedoms for the world in 1941, and John Kennedy promised in 1961 "to pay any price in the cause of freedom? It was Jimmy Carter who decided that foreign aid should be denied to any government that failed o grant human rights to its citizens. Still, Carter dealt with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other states that denied basic freedoms to their people.

If one assumes, as I do, that American values are an integral part of the our national interests, a major issue before the Trump administration is this: Does the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, if ordered by Crown Prince Mohammad, present so serious a threat to American values that any president would stop arms sales and cut diplomatic ties to the Saudi government? The president concluded that U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East outweigh those concerns. But he may hope that King Salman will soon replace his beleaguered heir-apparent.

U.S. strategic interests in Middle East

The United States and Saudi Arabia opened a working relationship in 1945 when President Roosevelt visited King ibn Saud on his return from the Yalta Summit Conference. After the Cold War began in 1948, Saudi Arabia worked with Washington to prevent Moscow from expanding its role in the Middle East. That effort was fully supported by Iran's monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, until his overthrow in 1979 by the Revolutionary Islamic Republic that remains in power. Since 1979 the Persian Gulf has been considered by successive presidents as a vital U.S. interest because it contains the world's largest oil reserves and is a bulwark against Iran's efforts to undermine Gulf governments, including Saudi Arabia. In addition, America has a vital interest in Israel's security against Arab efforts to destroy it or contain its expansionist policies.

President Trump's mistake, in my view, was his effort to justify on economic/business grounds a realistic decision to continue working with the Saudi government. He should have kept the focus on the strategic necessity for continuing his policy. We will know in a few months whether Saudi King Salman appreciates the price Mr. Trump has paid at home for supporting his crown prince despite the major protests in the media and Congress. As Mr. Trump likes to say: "We'll see."

File last modified on Wednesday, 7-NOV-2018 12:30 AM EST

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