, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Important though it is, the most important question surrounding the possibility that Saudi Arabia’s monarchy has killed Jamal Khashoggi is not whether the United States responds or how it responds if the kingdom did murder the dissident journalist – who happens to be a legal resident of the United States.

Instead, the most important question is really two-fold. First, do the many U.S. foreign policy traditionalists calling for severe punishment understand how such a move could undercut the decades-long approach toward the Saudis that they themselves have strongly supported? Second, and even more intriguing, do these globalists understand that the Khashoggi affair is simply the latest in a long string of signs that it’s well past time for the United States to adopt a genuine America First approach and leave the hot, dysfunctional mess that is the entire Muslim Middle East?

Given the prominence of maintaining good relations with the Saudis in the strategies of American globalists across the the board, it’s nothing less than jaw-dropping to see how many of them – liberal and conservative alike – are calling for strong counter-measures if Khashoggi is in fact dead at Saudi hands. Here’s a representative example from no less than former CIA chief John Brennan – who’s gone on Never Trump rampage in part because he views Trump’s foreign policy views as anathema. My astonishment, however, is justified even if much of the outrage is no more than outrage-signaling – posturing assumed to be safe because the Trump administration will eventually not upset the felafel cart.

After all, since World War II, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Persian Gulf region has been valued as a prime source of the oil desperately needed for the world economy to function acceptably in peacetime, and crucial to prevailing over ruthless global enemies in hot and cold wars alike. Once the Soviet threat disappeared, the region’s oil retained all of its perceived importance, and the critical mass of the foreign policy establishment gravitated toward seeing first Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and then Iran’s theocracy as the prime threat to the world’s unimpeded access. Crucially, not even evidence of (unofficial?) Saudi support for the Islamic extremists of Al Qaeda who launched the September 11 attacks ever truly threatened the U.S.-Saudi connection. 

Indeed, in recent years, even far left-of-center American politicians joined widespread calls for Washington to create a Middle Eastern-dominated coalition to handle most of the fight against ISIS (a successor group to Al Qaeda). And one of the anchors of this arrangement was expected to be none other than Saudi Arabia.

As I’ve argued for years now, none of the arguments for a close, if informal, U.S.-Saudi alliance holds any more water. North America possesses all the fossil fuels needed by the United States, and thanks to the shale/fracking-led energy technology revolution, the Persian Gulf’s role as key global oil supplier is greatly diminished as well. The terrorist threats likely to keep emanating from the region are best dealt with through much stronger U.S. border controls, not repeated American military interventions or fantasies about the Muslim Middle East’s decrepit (and highly compromised) regimes becoming a strong, reliable bulwark against jihadism.

And those claiming that Israel’s security warrants continuing America’s Middle East policy status quo need to remember that Israel and Saudi Arabia (and most other Sunni monarchies) have now created a tacit alliance to counter Shi’ite Iran. Moreover, Washington can always keep selling or simply giving the Israelis all the weapons they need.

The situation has changed so much that the most compelling argument against steps like cutting off or suspending U.S. arms sales to the Saudis has been advanced by President Trump: a boatload of revenue and jobs would be lost by the American economy, and the Saudis could always turn to alternate suppliers (like the Chinese and, more credibly – because their military equipment is still better – the Russians). In addition, don’t forget this irony: Consistent with its anti-Iran goals, Israel and its own impressive defense-related technologies could also partly fill the vacuum left by a U.S. withdrawal from the Saudi market.

At the same time, there’s no shortage of countries living in dangerous neighborhoods that would remain or could become massive buyers of American weapons. And as pointed out here, the Saudi military has relied on so much U.S. equipment for so long that changing its complexion would be as complicated as it would be expensive. Not to mention the years it would take for a regime that faces imminent threats to complete this task.

As a result, even if Khashoggi miraculously reappears one day, or even if he doesn’t but the Saudis are innocent, here’s hoping that the uproar over his disappearance triggers some major rethinking of America’s Middle East policy. After all, to paraphrase a famous recent remark about governing, a policy firestorm is a terrible thing to waste.