President Kennedy, in discussing U.S. policy towards Latin America, reportedly described three types of regimes: democracy, dictatorship, and communist. He explained that the U.S. prefers the first, but is willing to accept the second in order to avoid the third.
Nearly two decades later, Jeane Kirkpatrick, one of the architects of President Reagan’s foreign policy, distinguished between traditional authoritarian governments on the one hand, and revolutionary autocracies and totalitarian regimes on the other. Like Kennedy, she considered the former clearly preferable to the latter, in part because they “are more compatible with U.S. interests.” (Kirkpatrick was a leading neo-conservative, which gives the lie to the stereotype of neo-conservatives as mindless promoters of democracy above all other interests). Kirkpatrick criticized the Carter administration for failing to recognize this reality in its approach to Nicaragua and Iran.
The pragmatism of Kennedy and Kirkpatrick has guided U.S. post World War II foreign policy for 70 years. The only major exceptions were the Carter and Obama years.
Yet the Washington Post, in a hissy fit of an editorial, advances the absurd claim that President Trump, by not scuttling relations with the current Saudi regime over the slaying of one regime opponent, has “undermin[ed] the basic understanding that has worked to the United States’ advantage since World War II under presidents both Republican and Democratic.” Because Trump hasn’t insisted on accountability for those who planned and committed the murder of the Post’s man Jamal Khashoggi, the editors warn that “U.S. standing in the world — and, therefore, U.S. influence and prosperity — will dwindle.”
The Post thus ignores 70 years of history. During this span, we have backed ruthless dictators and turned a blind eye to their worst excesses in exchange for their support in various forms. Saudi Arabia is a paradigm case. The Post itself has shown that the murder of Khashoggi is just an usually gruesome continuation of Saudi practices by past governments, including those Khashoggi served as a mouthpiece.
This approach has rarely backfired. It’s true that the Iranian regime dines off of the fact that the U.S. supported the Shah. However, Iran is almost unique in this regard (Cuba is the other major example). Moreover, the mullahs real quarrel with America isn’t our support for the Shah. It’s the incompatibility between our way of life and the ideology they espouse (so too with Castro’s Cuba).
Trump, then, is not “destroy[ing] the American brand” through its approach to the murder of Khashoggi. He’s basically just applying the pragmatic approach that has animated U.S. policy throughout his lifetime. Michael Doran and Tony Badran provide a good defense of that pragmatism in a New York Times op-ed.
The Post editorial conflates two prongs of Trump’s foreign policy — his pragmatic approach to friendly dictatorships and his aggressive approach to our non-dictatorship allies. As we have seen, the former approach is consistent with our post-World War II tradition.
The latter, fussing with our allies, is something of a departure. The Post isn’t wrong when it says that “previous presidents understood that the way to [best advance U.S. interests in an orderly] 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.” (Emphasis added)
Nor is the Post wrong when it notes that Trump seems to be adopting a somewhat different understanding. I assume it’s referring mainly, but not exclusively, to trade policy.
But whatever one thinks of Trump’s trade policy towards the EU, Mexico, Japan, it has nothing meaningful to do with our policy towards Saudi Arabia in the Khashoggi affair. The Post conflates the two hoping to enhance its grievance over the fate of its former op-ed writer.
Yes, both policies can lumped together, superficially, under the slogan “America First.” But our Saudi Arabia policy is an unexceptional example of traditional realism. Trump’s trade policy, for better or for worse, breaks with tradition to some degree.
One can easily support Trump’s handling of the Khashoggi matter and still question aspects of both his trade policy and his overall approach towards our democratic allies. The Post’s desire to merge the two issues is as cynical as it is unpersuasive.