Lesser Evils

Why We’re Stuck With Saudi Arabia

Obama couldn’t get to Paris, but somehow he managed a late schedule change to go see the new Saudi king. Can this ever change? Not likely.

01.28.15 10:45 AM ET

So who wants to take a stab at explaining why Barack Obama couldn’t adjust his schedule to attend a massive march in Paris dedicated to the values of the Enlightenment, but somehow did manage to find a way to make exactly such a schedule change to pay his respects to a regime that is one of the most implacable foes of Enlightenment to be found on our morally creaky little planet?

For the trip he did make, to Saudi Arabia yesterday, he not only managed a schedule change but miraculously enough, the last-minute schedules of roughly 30 very important people—James Baker, Condi Rice, Susan Rice, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, John Brennan, John McCain—who accompanied the president to Riyadh, were also changed.

Now to be sure, I wrote that Obama should not have gone to Paris for security reasons. But I did say he should have sent his whole Cabinet. It’s apparently not so much that that couldn’t have been put together as it is that no one bothered to think of it. But when a Saudi king dies, by God, the White House pulls out all the stops and thinks of everything.

It was just a bit stomach-turning, wasn’t it, to watch Obama drop everything and go genuflect to these superannuated reactionaries who refuse to shake his wife’s hand. Ditto the experience of hearing his rather flaccid rationale for evidently not raising with his new highness, King Salman, either human rights generally or the case of blogger Raif Badawi specifically, which I wrote about two weeks ago. Such discussion, the president told Fareed Zakaria, “makes some of our allies uncomfortable. It makes them frustrated. And you know, some of them listen and some don’t.” It’s pretty clear which category the Saudis fall in.

It’s an awful regime. And lots of Americans, especially people on the left, say we should have nothing to do with it. But the world of foreign-policy making, especially in the Middle East, doesn’t leave much room for choices based on morality. There are two sides in the Middle East when you get right down to it. One side is Iran, Russia, Syria, and Hezbollah (and also, although in a different way, the Muslim Brotherhood). The other consists of various Sunni regimes and movements, some really radical and some merely run-of-the-mill radical, led by Saudi Arabia. And there’s no way not to choose.

People think the Saudi relationship is all about oil, and of course, that’s the historical basis of it all. Oil is still a big factor, but these days our dependence on Saudi oil has lessened while the crises that demand our attention have increased. If the United States absents itself from the region, it simply leaves a vacuum that will be filled by far more malign actors than us.

So we have to choose. And we’re certainly not going to choose Iran. Or… are we? I confess to wondering why Obama seems so set on getting this nuclear deal with Iran. I’m confused about what it’s supposed to accomplish. To ensure that Iran will use nuclear power only for peaceful purposes? You don’t have to be an Obama-hater to be skeptical of that idea. To bring Iran into the family of respectable nations? It’s going to need a lot more than this deal for that to happen. The best explanation is that the negotiations are essentially defensive—that is, if we weren’t negotiating with the Iranians, they’d just go off and develop the capacity without any global input or oversight, and eventually they’d have a nice little arsenal on their hands; and someday they’d even smuggle one or two warheads over to Lebanon. Hezbollah and Israel staring each other down with nuclear weapons on their backs is pretty much the single last thing the world needs. So Obama and his people feel that a deal is the best chance for peace in our time.

All right, that makes sense. But in the meantime, Obama’s determination to consummate this deal has already been costly. It’s basically the reason the administration vacillated for so long on helping the Syrian rebels, and why it still gets all contorted on the question of whether Bashar al-Assad’s ouster is or is not U.S. policy. The Syria policy has cost the United States huge amounts of trust and good will among the kinds of people in the region we want to have good will with.

Beyond a deal that’s essentially defensive in nature, does Obama really aim more generally to tilt away from Saudi Arabia and toward Iran? Given that we’ve been allies with the Saudis for 70-plus years and that Iran has been calling us the Great Satan for 35, that seems a nearly impossible maneuver to pull off. Especially at a time when we’re asking Saudi Arabia to play a key, maybe the key, role in the fight (which one presumes is going to last for quite a while) against the Islamic State—providing the facilities for the training of the moderate Syrian rebel fighters.

There’s one more upcoming wildcard here, as my colleague Eleanor Clift reported recently. The next few months may see the release of the famously redacted 28 pages of the 9/11 commission report. What’s apparently in those pages is evidence that will show how the Saudi government or elements within it provided a “network of support” for the 9/11 hijackers. If those pages are as iron-clad and shocking as some people who’ve seen them say they are, then Iran is probably going to start looking pretty good to most Americans by comparison.

So… talk about lesser-evilism. It’s not every day I find myself on the same page as Max Boot, but he made a decent analogy yesterday when he wrote that choosing between the Saudis and the Iranians is like choosing between Hitler and Stalin in the 1930s. Boot says Iran is still Hitler, and we need to choose Stalin. I agree. Obama hauling 30 dignitaries over to Riyadh seems to indicate that he does, too, at least until the June deadline for the Iran talks.

All the choices are bad—but we have to make them and hope for the best. Isolationists and moralists, whether on the right or the left, are fantasizing about a world that doesn’t exist. Choosing among competing extremisms is going to be our reality for a good 20 years, seemingly. That may seem immoral. But trying to pretend they aren’t there, and ceding the ground to others—that’s the real immoral choice.