Except we actually have tried this transactional approach to the Middle East in recent years. Washington ignored its own redlines in Syria. It similarly shrugged at the carnage in Libya and Yemen. And our leaders ignored Iran’s campaign of mayhem. Surprise! The Middle East is messier now than it used to be.
If that doesn’t convince you that a transactional foreign policy is a bad idea, try this on for size: This is basically Trump’s foreign policy. And that won’t sit well with most Democrats these days. Ditto for many Republicans.
Graeme Wood: What the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi portends
Resolved: We can’t give up on American exceptionalism. Saudi Arabia is where we need to take our stand.
Maybe what we need is some good, old-fashioned regime change. Lindsey Graham seemed to threaten as much when he looked at the TV camera last week and said,“Saudi Arabia, if you’re listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose, but MbS has tainted your country and tainted himself.”
But should America tell other countries who their leaders should be? It wouldn’t be difficult to find a few hundred pundits who contend that President George W. Bush, when he unseated Saddam Hussein, inadvertently set Iraq on fire. In fact, they argue, that’s how we got into this mess in the first place. (Really, it couldn’t have been the radical ideologies, rogue states, and deep-seated anti-Americanism that characterized the region for decades.)
Those same pundits would also argue that Bush’s democracy agenda was wrongheaded. After all, we can’t go around imposing democracy on countries that haven’t built up the institutions to support them. As one Brookings Institution scholar noted, it’s a “delusion.” And that doesn’t even begin to address what has been described as the racist or colonialist underpinnings of such ventures.
Fine. Let’s scratch regime change and democracy promotion in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps we should just cut off arms sales. Plenty of smart people are calling for that right now. Yes, the Saudis have agreed to buy $100 billion in American weapons, and that could translate to more jobs and prosperity. But money isn’t everything. We can tough it out. Just like we could probably tough out surging oil prices if the Saudis decide to curtail production in response to tougher American policies.
Let’s admit it. This sounds scary, too. In fact, all of it does.
Implementing effective policies in the Middle East is complicated. If nothing else, that’s now clear. We may never get justice for Jamal Khashoggi. But we would be lucky if this incident yielded a little more humility and a little less cocksure certainty among the pundit classes. Analysts who are enamored of their own wisdom and who routinely sneer at challengers in condescension have suddenly discovered that their tweets haven’t aged well. Sanctions are not always bad, engagement is not always good, and transactional policy cuts both ways.
Is this a teachable moment for Washington’s Middle East experts? One can only hope.