Foreign Policy as Moral Preening

Why we must take the world as it is, not as we dream it to be.

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi regime insider and columnist, in Istanbul continues to dominate the news cycle as the president and Congress consider their response. Despite the dog-bites-man nature of the story–– autocrats and tyrants across the globe regularly eliminate political enemies without such intense outrage from the West–– our media and politicians have conducted an orgy of moral preening, thunderous denunciations, and various proposed punishments of Saudi heir to the throne Mohammed bin Salman.

Once again, the cheap idealism and hypocrisy of the self-righteous West illustrates the dangers that come from a foreign policy based on illusion rather than on the tragic reality of human nature and action.

Much of this outrage results from the fact that Khashoggi worked as a columnist for the Washington Post and possessed a green card. Ignoring the distinction between journalists who supposedly report facts, and an editorial page columnist who gives opinions, both progressive and conservative media have turned Khashoggi into a martyr of the Fourth Estate, an intrepid seeker of facts and watchdog of the public weal.

Only a few commentators have reported on the real nature of Khashoggi’s “analyses.” Khashoggi was an Islamist press agent for Osama bin Laden and the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother-ship of modern jihadism, and a critic of the Saudi regime not for its human rights offenses, but for bin Salman’s war against the Iranian supported jihadists in Yemen, his hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood, his break with Qatar for supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, and his desire for closer ties with the U.S. Khashoggi was a “dissident” alright, but one who opposed the reformist policies of the regime that align with the interests of the U.S., and who wooed gullible Westerners with sweet-talk of Islamists “reform.”

The media’s elevation of Khashoggi, of course, also serves their anti-Trump agenda, ever on the watch for anything that can be turned against the president. Having created the caricature of Trump as an “autocrat” in the making who has a soft spot for fellow autocrats, the media have elevated the killing of Khashoggi, and the ongoing investigation of its circumstances, into 247 flogging the president and parsing his every word for signs of indulgence of bin Salman’s actions, or asserting dark conspiracies about “hit lists” coming from the White House.

The other goal of the media, as well as democracy promoters of both parties, is to freshen up the old “moderate Muslim” and “religion of peace” canards, the anti-empirical idea that jihadists are “heretics” and madmen who have “hijacked” Islam for their own nefarious ends. Khashoggi was considered one of those “reformers” necessary for eliminating the Middle Eastern despots and thugs whose corrupt regimes were driving ordinary Muslims into the arms of jihadists. That’s why the Post went after FrontPage and other conservative sites for publicizing the inconvenient truth that the Post was giving a pulpit for an Islamist to pursue his aims no matter how contrary to this country’s interests and those of one of its critical regional allies.

Yet even Republican politicians have waxed hysterical about punishing Saudi Arabia no matter how injurious such actions would be to our foreign policy. Congressman Peter King has claimed that Saudi Arabia is “the most immoral government that we’ve ever had to deal with,” a bit of hyperbole easy to explode with a catalogue of much worse tyrants and oppressors, staring with Joseph Stalin and Mao, the two worst mass murderers in history, whom “we had to deal with.” So too with other Congressmen who are demanding sanctions and cancelling arms sales. Either they are terminal idealists, foreign policy ignoramuses, or moral exhibitionists.

What’s more troubling, however, is how the reaction to Khashoggi’s murder reflects the received wisdom and fossilized dogmas of moralizing internationalism, the old Wilsonian idea that American power must be used for asserting our “values” and transforming the rest of the world into Western clones. We’ve been indulging that pipe dream for a century now, and its track record is dismal. It is based on a fundamental failure of imagination, the inability to see clearly the profound differences that define the world’s peoples and motivate their actions. As a result, we assume that because all human beings are capable of embracing liberal democracy and its cargo of human rights, equality, and political freedom, it follows that all peoples want those goods and prize them above all others.

These differences, moreover, have been stubborn and bloody in the Muslim Middle East. From the first Gulf War through the Arab Spring and our continuing interventions in the region, we have failed to figure out that Western liberal democracy and its cargo of natural rights, political freedom, equality of women, and tolerance for religious practice are alien to traditional Islam. Worse, they are seen by millions of faithful Muslims to be offensive weapons against the umma, the world-wide community of Muslims, and the stalking horses of disbelief and hedonism––“Westoxification,” as the Iranians put it, the corruption of the faith by its oldest enemy and rival.

No surprise, then, that over the last two decades we have spent about two trillion dollars and thousands of lives attempting to impose liberal democracy on the Muslim Middle East, and we have failed. ISIS and the carnage in Syria are a consequence of those efforts, as are the presence of Iran and Russia in a region we once dominated. But despite that failure, we continue to preach our ideals to the rest of the world, using diplomatic bromides to compensate for the futility of our efforts. The current spate of sermonizing about Mohammed bin Salman reflects our habit of lecturing the rest of the world about behavior considered normal or unexceptional in other nations, no matter how much it offends our beliefs.

It is obvious, for example, outside the rich West that violence is a time-honored tool of political power. That’s why the murder of Khashoggi is typical apart from its remarkable clumsiness. And it took place in Turkey, ruled by an illiberal Islamist regime that regularly imprisons journalists and murders dissidents. Yet Erdogan has received a fraction of the outrage currently inundating bin Salman. Could it be that those unfortunate Turkish journalists didn’t possess a green card and weren’t employed by the Post, and so don’t show up on our moral radar? Given the extent of violence inflicted on dissidents and journalists around the world, not to mention the murder and mayhem inflicted on Christians, one wonders what makes this particular death so worthy of condemnation.

Such selective outrage is unseemly and hypocritical, and does not go unnoticed by the world. Many wonder, for example, why Saddam Hussein deserved to be driven from power and his country occupied, when we did nothing about the genocide in Sudan or Rwanda, and continue to do very little about the Christian Nigerians and Syrians being murdered and enslaved even as we caterwaul about an Islamist apologist for terror. Or why Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown by a NATO operation based on some rhetorical bluster, while Syria’s Assad has slaughtered half-a-million and suffered a few airstrikes. Or why Iran, for forty years a declared bloodstained enemy of the United States, as well as being a brutal theocracy and the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror, did not summon the same levels as outrage as those against bin Salman back when Barack Obama was facilitating the regime’s acquisition of nuclear weapons even as the blood hadn’t dried on the mullahs’ hands.

We know the answer. For all our democracy promotion and moralizing internationalism, we have no choice but to guide our foreign policy by our perceived interests and national security. That means we have to choose where we use our power, no matter how grisly the toll of the slaughter that we must pass by. Nor, as some claim, is it in our interests to rebuild and transform a fourteen-century-old traditional religious culture proud of its storied history of conquest and occupation. It’s one thing to consider rebuilding and democratizing Europe after World War II, when it lay in ruins. Europe still had the civilizational infrastructure from Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem to work with.

But it indulges a dangerous illusion to intervene in Muslim countries whose faith is inimical to the West, and who brook no accommodation with infidels other than submission to Allah; and to try and build democracy at the same time that one is battling a vicious jihadist enemy that scorns our rules of engagement and conventions defending non-combatants. As the Khashoggi incident shows, perhaps we have become cynical about our professed “values” given how we have failed to recreate them abroad. Perhaps that’s why we substitute moral bluster, and indulge blatant hypocrisy about who deserves our outrage and who can be ignored.

But foreign policy depends on a sober and rational calculation of our interests. Right now, Saudi Arabia is serving those interests against Iran and its jihadist proxy, and in support of our critical ally Israel. Those interests are more important than empty, self-righteous proclamations of our “values,” or punishment of an ally because, like most of the allies in our history, he rules by the traditions of his own culture no matter how distasteful or contrary to our principles and beliefs. Until we can conquer and remake the world in our own image, we have no other choice but to take the world as it is, not as we dream it to be.

Photo: April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy