Small World: Our first president’s last words

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Our present president is not especially celebrated as a widely read or scholarly leader. Coming to his defense, I would imagine that he is familiar, however, with the advice George Washington bequeathed to his 40 or so successors in the presidency. “Avoid,” he advised them, “entangling alliances.” The first president also had some cogent words about staying out of debt and preserving unity.

But let’s concentrate for the present on those foreign entanglements that can easily trip up our sometimes maladroit republic. Like right now, for example.  Even as you read these words of warning, Mr. Trump and his Secretary of State are trying to straighten up the mess we find ourselves tangled in with Saudi Arabia. Like a Gulliver character, we as a superpower are all balled up and tied down by a country far smaller than ours.

Small in size but very, very big in terms of national wealth. Small in terms of power projection but very, very big in terms of ambition. Determined to play a commanding role on the world stage but lacking the reserves of talent necessary to do so. Riyadh was the first foreign capital Mr. Trunp visited as our new president. Flying en route, he may have noticed the shade of George Washington sitting on a cloud and shaking his fist as he flew over the desert to be greeted by symbols of mind-boggling riches including a massive order for advanced weaponry.

A rich monarchy and an aspiring democracy. A match such as every parent wishes for his off-spring — except our founding father who warned…but we’ve been over that ground. Let’s move to the shocking bit that has been on on the front page for weeks: Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist working part-time for the Washington Post, is said by the Turkish government to have been murdered and carved up in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. And worse — despite Saudi wealth above and below ground, the world — governments, media, everybody — seems ready to believe that the Saudi government — specifically the crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (or WBS) – is the guilty party.

If it can be proved that he or his people did the dirty deed, President Trump has said they will be punished. Severely. Then, after a telephone call from the Kingdom, he suggested the killers might have been “rogue” gunmen.

Now turn the page: what do we expect the Saudi regime to do in response, if “punished”? Beg forgiveness?  Ha! Manipulating the market, they could send the price of oil spiraling upwards towards $200 a barrel (it’s now at around $80). Out the window would go hopes that the Saudis with their billions would help us fund an Israel-Palestine peace agreement. Out the window would also go hopes that the Saudis would bring the terrible war in Yemen to an end. Would they sell off some of their massive holdings of U.S. bonds or private investments? Cancel arms sales? End support for Jordan, Bahrain, Egypt — our friends — except on their terms? Let’s face it — George Washington was spot on. Entangling alliance can be fatal. The Saudis, if they summoned up courage, could do us real and lasting harm. Just before mid-term elections, too.

So what is to be done? Nothing fast or precipitate. Slowly, ever so subtly, our reaction must be invisible to the public in order to avoid a panic that could make the crisis worse.

More important is what we do — or don’t do — over the longer term. I say we should begin to detach ourselves from the destructive turmoil of the Middle East. We have earned nothing but trouble in those parts since we began to mess around with its insidious politics and tensions at the end of World War II. We don’t need their oil; we don’t need the sales of arms there. We don’t need their cash. Let them sort out their own problems and assume responsibility for their own evolving future.

Call it Neo-isolationism. So be it. That’s what Father George prescribed and that’s the medicine we should ingest.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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