The debate over whether America's foreign policy should be guided by ideals or by amoral pragmatism has endured since the nation's founding.
One of the leading proponents of the former camp was President Woodrow Wilson, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for advocating the League of Nations – the forerunner of the United Nations – as part of his "Fourteen Points" speech calling for a world of democracy and transparency, free of the secret agreements between nations that Wilson believed led directly to World War I.
Two leading proponents of the latter camp were President Richard Nixon and his aide, Henry Kissinger, who used a secret understanding with China to isolate the Soviet Union, helping the United States win the Cold War. That the communist nation was in the middle of its Cultural Revolution, in which its government killed as many as 8 million people, was of no concern to Nixon and Kissinger.
Given the urgency of the Cold War – which for decades was viewed as an existential fight between democracy and totalitarianism – it's hard to second-guess Nixon's and Kissinger's maneuvering. But at some point, a nation that holds itself up as an exemplar of democratic values needs to draw a line on what behavior it will or will not accept from allies.
Which brings us to President Donald Trump's decision not to challenge the claims from Saudi Arabia that the brutal Oct. 2 murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was done by government agents without the knowledge of Saudi leadership – specifically Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is seen as the most powerful member of the royal family. That denial challenges the CIA's conclusion, with "high confidence," that the prince ordered the murder and a State Department official's assessment that that's "blindingly obvious."
In a bizarre, exclamation-point-filled statement released last Tuesday by the White House, Trump asserted that while he considers Khashoggi's assassination "an unacceptable and horrible crime," it was an open question whether "the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn't!" The president cited bin Salman's denials of any involvement in the murder, which was recorded by Turkish intelligence.
This gives the crown prince credibility when he deserves none. The claim that he didn't know that a government hit squad had been sent to Turkey isn't just at odds with everything that is known about how the rigidly hierarchical Saudi government works. It's also undercut by weeks of lies the Saudis told after Khashoggi's disappearance – first saying he left the consulate alive, and then saying his murder was a result of a botched, unauthorized kidnapping. As The Washington Post's Fred Hiatt wrote this week, who brings a bonesaw to a kidnapping?
Trump justified his acceptance of the Saudis' feeble cover-up by citing the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship in combating Iran and global terrorism and Riyadh's heavy purchases of U.S. weapons. In so doing, he indirectly encouraged every global government that has positive ties with Washington to brutalize its dissidents – specifically journalists – knowing that as long as their nations are of strategic value to the Trump administration, the consequences would be minor.
The president so frequently shows contempt for democratic norms – most notably by bullying the Justice Department, vilifying members of the judiciary and demonizing the media – that some people will just shrug their shoulders at this. But tolerating savagery from the Saudis is going too far. Congress must seek to impose sanctions on both bin Salman and the Saudi government. If Trump vetoes sanctions, so be it. At least one part of the government – Congress – will have stood up for American values.
– San Diego Union-Tribune