Tanker ships and the strategic pipeline of Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, suffered terrorist attacks last week. Aramco has the monopoly on all Saudi Arabian oil production and is wholly owned by the Saudi government, the United States’ most powerful ally in the Middle East.
The attacks at sea and in the heart of Saudi Arabia coincide with the upcoming public release of President Trump’s Arab-Israeli peace plan, for which Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates already are signaling support. Iran or its allies are suspected of responsibility for the attacks.
As the crisis intensifies, the U.S. Senate’s Dynamic Duo of bellicosity, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), are calling for harsh new economic sanctions. Are they to be imposed against Iran? No, it would seem that the United States already has maxed out on sanctions against Iran. Rubio and Graham want to harm our ally in the conflict, Saudi Arabia. The world’s least deliberative senators seem to want all-out war against Iran while tying our principal ally’s right arm behind its back.
Rubio and Graham simultaneously want regime change in both Tehran and Riyadh. They are obsessed with the notion of punishing Saudi Arabia and its preeminent prince for the October murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a wealthy Saudi oligarch who lately had become a critic of his country’s rulers.
Khashoggi’s assassination became a textbook case of disinformation. Rubio and Graham, among other senators and virtually all of the ruling class in Washington, fell for the fakery or helped concoct it. Khashoggi has been portrayed, falsely, as a martyr for human rights, freedom of the press and democracy. He was no such thing.
I lived in Saudi Arabia for six years, I was acquainted with Khashoggi. While preening politicians talk endlessly about Khashoggi, I actually have talked with Khashoggi.
A charming person, he was an editor and television news executive, but he was never an independent journalist, because there is no independent journalism in Saudi Arabia. He was, to be succinct, an influence agent of the Saudi intelligence agencies for nearly all of his career. During the last year of his life, he had fallen on the outs with the ascendant royal faction around today’s ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The story behind the propaganda is recounted in more detail in my just-published Encounter Books Broadsides edition, Khashoggi, Dynasties, and Double Standards.
Khashoggi’s final months were devoted to producing columns for the Washington Post, criticizing his home country for its lack of liberties and Western-style democracy. But his ideological and personal loyalty by that time was to the revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood — the movement that spawned Al Qaeda and ISIS. The Post has acknowledged evidence that some of Khashoggi’s contributions to its pages had been directed by intelligence operations of Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s wealthy rival and supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. In reality, Khashoggi’s assassination, gruesome though it was, was what the U.S. and Israel in sanitized bureaucratic language call a “targeted killing” of an individual threatening their national security.
But facts are useless when confronted with Rubio and Graham’s feelings. The senators are determined to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia,” as Graham put it. Before Khashoggi’s fate had been confirmed when he went missing in Istanbul last fall, Rubio already had reached the conclusion that Saudi Arabia must be punished.
The Rubio-Graham approach to international law and order is: Change other countries’regimes first, ask questions later.
Forty years ago, Jeane Kirkpatrick criticized the Carter administration foreign policy for “lack of realism about the nature of traditional versus revolutionary autocracies and the relation of each to the American national interest.” She also cited that presidency’s twin failings of “moralism, which renders it especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy” and its “predilection for policies that violate the strategic and economic interests of the United States.”
Those same words apply precisely to the folly of Rubio and Graham. Peace between Israel and its neighbors, and prevention of catastrophic conflict between Iran and the Gulf Arabs, depend on realism about traditional autocracies (e.g., Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) versus revolutionary autocratic regimes and movements (e.g., Khomeinist Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood). Rubio and Graham’s sentimental moralizing gravely undermines U.S. strategic and economic interests as well as chances for greater security and peace in the Middle East.
Joseph P. Duggan is the author of the new Encounter Books Broadside, Khashoggi, Dynasties, and Double Standards. He heads C-Suite Strategic Counsel, an international public affairs consulting firm. From 2009-2015, he lived and worked in Saudi Arabia as speechwriter to the CEO of Aramco and editor of the Aramco five-year business plan. He also was a speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush in the White House, 1991-1992, and an aide to Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, 1981-1985, when she served as President Reagan’s permanent representative to the United Nations.