Number one: ick. Number two: allies.
Writing in Forbes, Mark Adomanis makes a simple argument that American foreign policy is inconsistent. On one hand, Congress believes that Russia should be punished for its abuse of human rights, and passes the Magnitsky Act. On the other hand, the Saudis torture people and then crucify them, and are rewarded with many billions of dollars of our most sensitive military technology. He concludes that we have a choice to make, between a foreign policy based on human rights and one based on naked self-interest, and that we have not actually chosen:
But what we have now is a completely incoherent mishmash of both schools, a “selective Wilsonianism” in which the United States uses values against its strategic adversaries while studiously ignoring the far more grievous human rights violations of its close allies and partners in the Middle East. .... [If the U.S.] keeps the Magnitsky bill on the books it should take similar legislative action against the Saudis, the Bahrainis, the Qataris, the Kuwaitis, and all of the other repressive and dictatorial governments with which it is allied.Adomanis glosses over some important side questions. For one thing, our overall foreign policy is the awkward product of both the executive and legislative branches, which -- to put it mildly -- do not always share a vision. For another, politics is the art of the possible, not of the ideal. The strain of do-gooderism in American foreign policy has never been thorough or consistent, but it has made a vast contribution to the common good. Other nations resent our frequent displays of hubris, but when the chips are down they also chide us if we fail to "display leadership" by toppling some dictator.
Still, Adomanis has his ginger on something worth saying. For many decades, it has been our custom to make alliances with despotic regimes in order to build barriers against larger enemies. Although FDR's famous remark about Somoza -- "He's a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch" -- is spurious, it reflects a foreign-policy truism. Along with Somoza, we have allied ourselves with the Shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos, the Duvaliers, Hailie Selassie, Manuel Noriega and Saddam Hussein. (Here's a list of some others.) Sons of bitches all, but our sons of bitches.
America's special relationship with the Saudis is among the most outrageous of these alliances. Saudi Arabia's official form of Islam, Wahabism, played a major role in the emergence Al Qaeda and similar movements. The most destructive terrorist attack in American history was committed by a team of Saudi Arabian citizens, backed by a Saudi billionaire. To this day, there are questions legitimate questions about just how much responsibility Saudi institutions and officials may share for the 9/11 attacks -- and the US government has joined its Saudi allies in trying to shut down the people pressing for answers.
It is worth remembering that the House of Saud has only ruled over a united kingdom since 1932, and that for most of the history of that kingdom, American government and business interests have been a major player on the peninsula. They've never really existed without us, and our development over the same period would have been very different without them. Simply put, we want their oil. We sell them our guns (and planes and rockets and God knows what else) so that nobody can come and take the oil from them. It is national self-interest at its most naked -- and symbiotic. They are our sons of bitches, and we have become theirs.
But come on. Russia, for all its abuses (and they are many) has abolished the death penalty. On the list of nations that execute people, Saudi Arabia comes third, after those human rights giants China and Iran. The Saudis torture people -- including, in the case at hand, minors -- then cut off their heads. Or shoot them or crucify them.
A country, like a man, is often known by the company it keeps. Maybe we should rethink this particular friendship.