US-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik'

US-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik'
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Iran has spent the past several months demonstrating that it poses the greatest threat to American interests in the Middle East and beyond. In addition to sabotaging and seizing oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, it has left its fingerprints on virtually every conflict that concerns us: Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and even Central and South America, especially Venezuela. Working with Saudi Arabia to defeat Iran and Iranian proxies is smart policy, even if many believe that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) is a barbarian. 

In diplomatic parlance, this is called “realpolitik,” a term coined by Ludwig von Rochau in the 19th century to indicate an essentially amoral approach to foreign policy. Rather than choosing only allies that share ideals (in our case, freedom, democracy and enlightenment principles), a realpolitik approach insists that our national interests take precedence over morality. Put another way, in realpolitik, pursuing one’s national interests is the highest moral goal.  

U.S. history is steeped in the realpolitik tradition of helping less-threatening autocrats fight those who pose greater threats. We partnered with Joseph Stalin to defeat Adolf Hitler, and after that we partnered with a variety of brutal dictators to stop the spread of communism. In Iran, we backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi instead of his communist and Islamist enemies. In Egypt, we backed Hosni Mubarak and, later, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi instead of the Muslim Brotherhood.  


When Ayatollah Khomeini’s forces seemed poised to overrun Iraq in the mid-1980s, we provided information to Saddam Hussein to prevent an Iranian victory. Nobody was under the illusion that Stalin or Saddam shared our morals, but Hitler and Khomeini were worse, so we chose to work with bad actors to fight worse ones.

It should surprise no one, then, that President TrumpDonald TrumpMan sentenced to nearly four years for running scam Trump, Biden PACs Meadows says Trump's blood oxygen level was dangerously low when he had COVID-19 Trump endorses David Perdue in Georgia's governor race MORE has drawn closer to Iran’s primary Muslim rival, Saudi Arabia. However, a large chorus of voices appears determined to sabotage this strategic partnership. Naturally, the loudest voices are on the left, which is locked into an “oppose-everything-Trump” mindset and is especially eager for the U.S. to rejoin the Obama nuclear deal

Less predictable are the Republicans in Congress who oppose the U.S.-Saudi alliance. Shortly after Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey last fall, Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' Bipartisan senators earmark billion to support democracies globally Democrats see Christmas goal slipping away MORE (R-S.C.) announced that MbS has “got to go.” Looking into the TV camera, Graham said: “Saudi Arabia, if you’re listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose. … MbS has tainted your country and tainted yourself.” Since Graham knows that Saudi subjects don’t choose their rulers, his comments appeared to signal his approval for a coup.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioGOP senators introduce bill targeting Palestinian 'martyr payments' House to vote on Uyghur bill amid diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics This week: Congress poised to go into December overtime MORE (R-Fla.) opined that relations with the Saudis tarnish the U.S. and that “there isn’t enough money in the world to purchase back our credibility on human rights.”  

Responding to smug remarks by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul: Chris Cuomo firing 'a small step toward CNN regaining any credibility' GOP anger with Fauci rises Congress's goal in December: Avoid shutdown and default MORE (R-Ky.) noted last October that “it takes a lot of damn gall for Saudi Arabia — a dictatorship with 3,000 political prisoners held without trial — to lecture anyone in the U.S. on the presumption of innocence.” 

Paul is correct, but his policy recommendations are misinformed by his belief that Saudi Arabia is “the worst actor out there promoting terrorism.” That distinction belongs to Iran.

A perhaps apocryphal story from the Harry Truman era suggests a way forward. After meeting with the Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio Somoza García, Truman was assailed by his outraged advisers, who purportedly asked, “Don’t you know what a bastard he is?” Truman responded with a confident, “Yeah, but he’s our bastard.”  

Not too long ago, MbS was ostracized by so many world leaders that pundits from Al-Jazeera to The New Yorker were questioning whether he could survive the fallout from the brutal, amateurish hit on Khashoggi. But he did survive, and he wants to fight Iran. Rather than casting him aside and waiting for a more democratic leader to emerge, we should be squeezing him — making him, as Truman would say, “our bastard,” our fighter.

A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum and a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Follow on Twitter @MEForum.