By James A. Baker III
Oct. 22, 2018
In formulating and implementing United States foreign policy, there is often a tension between the promotion of America’s values and the protection of our interests. Toward the end of the Cold War, our espousal of democracy and free markets converged with our efforts to work with the Soviet leadership to achieve a peaceful conclusion of that conflict. But sometimes effective foreign policy requires balancing our principles and values with our geopolitical interests. That balancing act can demand painful compromises.
Such is the case with the death of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist. If he was murdered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on the orders of the Saudi government, the affront to American values is clear. Opposition to the killing of dissidents and support for a free and robust press are fundamental American principles.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has been an important strategic partner of the United States since President Franklin Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi state, at the close of World War II. In recent years, the United States has worked closely with Saudi Arabia on issues critical to both countries. Stabilizing global oil markets, combating terrorism and countering Iranian regional adventurism are just three. We also need to engage the Saudis in areas where we are not in 100 percent agreement, such as their debilitating war in Yemen and their conflict with Qatar.
In reacting to Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, the Trump administration should balance our values and interests. A critical first step is establishing the facts. The Saudi government should issue a comprehensive and accurate detailing of the circumstances of Mr. Khashoggi’s death. United States intelligence can do its part by gathering and assessing all materials necessary to determine what exactly happened to Mr. Khashoggi and on whose order. For example: What happened to his remains and why?
Partner or not, if it is established that the Saudi government arranged a murder, the Trump administration should provide a swift, firm and substantial response that makes it clear that the United States condemns behavior of this sort.
A good model would be the approach President George H.W. Bush took with China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
In June of 1989, after several weeks of peaceful protests in Beijing and elsewhere, Chinese soldiers attacked demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Estimates of the death toll ran into the thousands. The public reaction in the United States was one of horror followed by demands that President Bush punish China.
Mr. Bush had to strike a balanced response, just as President Trump must today. Mr. Bush wanted to safeguard the underlying geopolitical relationship between the two countries while also letting Chinese leaders know that killings couldn’t be business as usual in the future. The United States could not be viewed as a cynical paper tiger on human rights.
Two days after the massacre, Mr. Bush announced the first in a series of substantial penalties against the Chinese government that included suspension of military arms sales and a halt to all visits between American and Chinese military leaders. Further sanctions followed, including economic ones imposed by Congress and supported by the administration.
But even as Mr. Bush punished China, he strove to keep diplomatic relations between the two countries alive. While it was important that the Chinese understood he considered their behavior abhorrent and not to be ignored, he took no joy in imposing sanctions and sought ways to ease the estrangement. Mr. Bush dispatched high-level officials to China to let its leaders know that while he would not accept what they had done, he wanted to preserve the relationship.
Not being privy to intelligence reports about this matter, I cannot suggest a specific response that the White House ought to take if Saudi government responsibility is established. But it should include actions that signal clear disapproval and a message that reform, not repression, is the best route forward for Saudi Arabia. The response must also reflect a sober assessment of the substantial and abiding value of our strategic partnership with the Saudis.
Few will be pleased with the administration’s ultimate response to this crisis, particularly the hard-line realists on one side and the hard-line idealists on the other. Nevertheless, United States officials should consider how President Bush reacted to Tiananmen Square 29 years ago. This is the time for reasoned, careful actions that fully take into account both our national interests and our principles and values.
James A. Baker III, the 61st secretary of state, is a senior partner in the law firm Baker Botts, which has an affiliation with lawyers practicing in Saudi Arabia and represented members of the Saudi royal family in the aftermath of Sept. 11. Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, is a contributor to the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Center for Energy Studies.