Earlier this year, The National Interest published a lengthy article of mine arguing that President Trump seemed to be repeating a mistake that has doomed previous efforts to replace a failed, longstanding globalist strategy with a fundamentally new foreign policy much better suited to the country’s real strengths and weaknesses. And just this morning, this prediction was borne out by the Washington Post‘s editorial writers (best viewed as among the many unofficial spokespeople for globalist approaches that fill the Mainstream Media) in a piece they wrote on Mr. Trump’s approach to the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi authorized at top levels by the Saudi Arabian monarchy.
My article made the case that globalism would never be rejected unless the President made a clean, fully explained, break with the assumptions on which it was based. Instead, it pointed out, he seemed to have settled (wittingly or not) on an approach that might be called “globalism on the cheap.” That is, Mr. Trump’s actions appear to reflect a belief that most and even all of globalism’s supposed economic and security benefits can be realized, and supposed goals achieved (both entailing shaping the entire global environment in ways America allegedly needs in order to be acceptably safe and prosperous) while reducing its costs (e.g., subsidizing the defense of free-riding allies, and their economies with lopsided trade arrangements). The essay also explained that, because similar claims made by globalism critics in the past turned out to be literally too good to be true, numerous chances for genuine and urgently needed foreign policy overhaul have been lost.
That’s why the Post editorial is so revealing. It shows that, because Mr. Trump’s rejection of globalism has been so partial (in this case, when it comes to the Middle East), he’s made himself vulnerable to the kinds of attacks that have vanquished earlier critics and squandered a golden opportunity to stake out a true America First position that would have been strategically sound and politically popular. In fact, the Trump Saudi statements have enabled his critics to slam him in two powerful ways.
First, the Post edit writers have restated the common charge that the President was “craven” in letting Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman off the hook for the Khashoggi murder largely because of economic considerations like the kingdom’s purchases of U.S.-made weapons and its cooperation in keeping oil prices low. As the editorial puts it, Mr. Trump, “cares not a fig for American values….And if he can sell one or two more fighter jets, who cares if a journalist is murdered?”
Small wonder that his decision has been so unpopular even with many of his supporters in Congress. Just as bad, the President’s rationale is so narrow that it’s been easy to undercut on its own terms (e.g., by questioning the actual importance of Saudi Arabia’s imports to the U.S. economy).
But the editorial’s second line of attack is much more important, and is worth presenting in full. The President, according to the Post, is
“undermining the basic understanding that has worked to the United States’ advantage since World War II under presidents both Republican and Democratic.
“Those leaders all accepted that, with less than 5 percent of global population but more than 20 percent of the global economy, the United States, more than any other nation, depends on and benefits from predictable rules. It needs a world where business executives can go forth and come home without fear of kidnapping, where ships can ply the oceans without armed escorts, where contracts are honored and disputes fairly adjudicated. It needs a world where journalists can report and inform Americans on the true conditions on the ground.
“Previous presidents understood that the way to achieve such a world was to enlist allies who would live by the United States’ rules in return for protection — safe in knowledge that the United States would not use its preeminence to squeeze them for every last dollar. They would go along because the United States stood not just for itself but for rules that benefited everyone and for values they cherished, as well: freedom, human dignity, the rule of law. By championing good — albeit imperfectly and inconsistently — the United States did well.”
As my National Interest piece explained, this by-now-standard defense of globalism has the decisive sources of U.S. security and prosperity exactly backward. Far from depending on a placid world largely knit together by alliances and institutions dominated by like-minded countries, the real guarantors of U.S. power and wealth are America’s…power and wealth – i.e., its own assets – along with an unmistakable willingness to use them when advisable.
Further, this power and wealth have been indispensable both in instances when unilateral action has been desirable or unavoidable, and in ensuring that the specific forms taken by various cooperative (“multilateral”) ventures advance American interests – an outcome globalists wrongly take for granted.
These America First-supporting conclusions, by the way, are so valid that it’s become routine for even globalists unknowingly to acknowledge them – as did the Post’s editorialists when they (rightly) accused the President of failing “to see that Saudi Arabia is far more dependent on the United States than the reverse.”
But Mr. Trump’s own failure to recognize the real U.S.-Saudi power balance is far more frustrating for backers of new America First foreign policies. And in a Middle Eastern context, it’s manifested in much more than his views on the Saudi market for American arms exports.
For example, it’s also apparent from his conviction that keeping world and U.S. oil prices relatively low depends on Washington making nice to Riyadh – whereas the Saudis have learned that overly expensive and/or skyrocketing oil prices hurt them (badly) as well. After all, until recently, they’ve reduced American and worldwide economic growth, and therefore reduced the oil revenues on which the kingdom is completely reliant economically. More recently, because of the U.S. energy production revolution (a development vigorously – and correctly – championed by the President), the higher global oil prices rise, the more American oil and natural gas come on stream to the world market, and take market share from the Saudis and other Middle Eastern and foreign exporters.
And, as I’ve written repeatedly, the President’s partial America-First-ism is clear from his belief that it’s vital for U.S. national security to support Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries (along with Israel) in order to contain Iran’s regional ambitions.
So what would a real America First approach to the Khashoggi murder have been? Nothing less than the long overdue beginning of a U.S. strategic withdrawal from the hopelessly violent and dysfunctional Middle East based on the (equally long overdue) understanding. This decision would be described an explained in high profile presidential speeches and other declarations that, with the following points, would put the globalists on the defensive for a change: that the United States no longer needs the region’s oil nearly so desperately; that terrorist threats originating in the Middle East are best met by securing America’s own borders, rather than by battling jihadist networks all around the world; and that any Iranian threat to the U.S. homeland is eminently deter-able with U.S. nuclear forces.
P.S. For those concerned about Israel’s security (and that includes me), the Jewish state is more than capable of protecting itself through a combination of its own military strength, its own emerging alliance with the Sunnis – which will also contain any possible headaches from Palestinian radicals – and continuing military and economic assistance from Washington.
In the process, Mr. Trump should announce some painful and specific slaps at the Saudis – like expelling, say, half of their staff from their embassy in Washington and imposing painful so-called Magnitsky sanctions on the personal finances of bin Salman and others at the most senior levels of the Saudi leadership. For nothing is more central to the concept of America First than that, barring truly vital strategic interests to the contrary (the reduction of which itself is a high America First priority), no one gets away with harming American citizens or legal residents (Khashoggi’s status) unjustly.