“Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” – Lord Palmerston
The cardinal mistake most people tend to make with foreign policy is thinking of nations the same way they do people. However, nations are not people and as a practical matter, you can’t treat them as such. You may have the option of only dealing with virtuous people or people you like in your day-to-day life, but a nation like the United States, with far-ranging interests, does not have that option.
We have to deal with bad actors on a regular basis because they have information, resources, access to locations or influence that we need. It would be great to just deal with stable, relatively trustworthy Westernized democracies, but THE MAJORITY OF THE GLOBE does not fit that description and it matters more than ever in our interconnected world. Hackers, terrorists, or criminals from just about anywhere on the planet can organize strikes on our country. Instability in key regions can cause massive fluctuations in the price of crucial resources like oil. Refugees and war can quickly spread from one state to an entire region.
This is the world we live in and Saudi Arabia is a bad actor in it. The nation is run by tyrannical religious fanatics. They oppress and murder their own people and they’ve helped spread a virulent strain of Islam around the world. They are not good people, although they also aren’t uniquely bad actors like North Korea or Iran. At the end of the day, they are a not-particularly-virtuous regional power in the Middle East with enormous amounts of oil and they are willing to work with the United States. Arguably, this makes them our most important ally in a volatile region — other than Israel, which is gravely limited in what it can do because of the hostility of the states surrounding it.
That’s the reality of the situation.
So, when you hear about someone like Jamal Khashoggi being killed by the Saudis, it’s not a break from the norm for them. In fact, what happened to Khashoggi undoubtedly regularly happens to Saudi citizens that get out of line, just as it happens to Chinese citizens, Russian citizens, and Cuban citizens. This is just how the world works in tyrannical regimes and contrary to the impression you’d get from the news, it’s nothing unusual.
The Turks, who are fast catching up to the Saudis on human rights abuses these days, are playing up the incident for their own reason. The liberal media cares because Khashoggi worked for the Washington Post and they see this issue as a way to potentially embarrass Trump. The real question at this point is why the rest of us should care.
If Khashoggi were an American citizen, it would be an entirely different matter, but he wasn’t. At the end of the day, the Saudis killed a Saudi citizen, likely for saying things they didn’t like about the Saudi royal family. That’s not out of the ordinary for them because they’re bad guys. Of course, they have been bad guys for a long time. In fact, if before this had happened you had considered whether the Saudis would do something like this, the answer would have been “yes,” just as it would be for a lot of shady nations around the globe that we end up being forced to work with in an imperfect world.
As Americans, should we condemn this behavior and encourage the march toward democracy, freedom of the press, and liberty? Absolutely, but the world is what it is. If you’re shocked by this and think it should create major waves in our relationship with the Saudis, you’re incredibly naïve. The Trump administration should be exactly as upset about this as it takes to best represent our interests. If we can get some kind of concessions from the Saudis by pretending that we’re outraged, that’s what we should do. Say SOMETHING, if we feel like we need to, then give the Saudis a few public lashes with a wet noodle and continue on with whatever is in our best interests behind the scenes. If that’s too Machiavellian for you and you want to live in a world without these sort of moral complications, go read Tolkien or play a video game. That may be more your speed.