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Here’s today’s quiz.
Name the country. It is ruled by one man. It bombs people in a neighboring country. It assassinates its opponents even if they are in other countries. It is a major oil producer.
The country is (a) Russia or (b) Saudi Arabia.
The correct answer is both. They violate American values, proclaimed as the foundation of U.S. policy. But we oppose one and support the other because it suits our interests.
The hard truth is that the national interest at any moment can get priority over national values.
To some critics, the U.S. should oppose both regimes. Russia seeks to replace Ukraine’s democracy with its own rule. Saudi Arabia violated human rights in the bloody murder of Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken opponent.
The U.S. worries that the Saudis will come under the influence of Russia or China, America’s world rivals, or of both. That’s one reason why President Joe Biden just visited Saudi Arabia, a country he had earlier condemned for the Khashoggi killing.
Besides, while Russia builds links with Iran, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia share deep concerns about that country’s nuclear weapons development. On his trip, Biden was applying that old adage: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
That can mean that yesterday’s human rights sins are ignored today. Doing that can be walking a difficult tightrope for an American president.
The situation recalls a comment by Everett Dirksen, a late GOP Senate leader. His remark has come down to us as, “I am a man of principle, and one of my basic principles is flexibility.” That sounds like the rule Biden applied in meeting the Saudi Prince cited by U.S. intelligence to be behind Khashoggi’s murder.
The choice between idealism that reflects traditional national values and realism that does what’s necessary to meet current national interests has existed throughout American history. More than most countries, the choice either way has major effects.
That’s because the American ideals give the country a special place in history. The first modern democracy, the U.S. serves as a model for other countries striving to create governments under popular control. The American Bill of Rights sets goals for other countries to try to reach.
This special character of the U.S. has been the hallmark of American influence and leadership in the world. While people abroad may grumble at American economic power, many respect the values that the U.S. tries to promote in the world.
Current goals and changing national politics may require the U.S. to compromise its commitment to traditional values. Going too far, as Biden may have, might lead to political controversy, rash mistakes and harm to America’s leadership role in the world.
What might have Biden done differently to better project U.S. values, while still advancing American interests?
He could have held an unannounced, pre-meeting Zoom call to remind Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the American view of his involvement in Khashoggi’s killing rather than looking like he was hounded into raising the matter by the time they met. He could then have revealed that call on the eve of the meeting, looking both more sincere and better focused on the business at hand.
He could have met the prince in a neutral location instead of appearing to seek his help on the Saudi’s turf. That could avoid looking like the U.S. appeases Saudi Arabia.
He could have had a working meeting in Israel instead of wasting time at the formula arrival scene that was promptly compared unfavorably with Trump’s treatment by his Israeli cronies. That could avoid looking like the U.S. appeases Israel.
He could have told the Palestinians that the U.S. favors a two-state solution, but they need to find unity themselves or they’ll melt into history. U.S. aid would be tied to an election timetable, because democracy is a key value for us.
Too often the choice between values and interests may seem like an either-or proposition. The U.S. risks allowing its policy objectives to obscure its values as it seeks to curry favor with other countries. The U.S. may compromise too readily and seem to act as if our dependence on them is greater than their reliance on American power and markets.
Perhaps the president who seemed best to understand the need for balance was George Washington. He was neither a schemer nor a dreamer. He is remembered as a practical president. He dealt firmly with Britain, the former colonial master, and with France, the former ally, always defending America’s hard-won values.
Even better, he was open about his reasoning and his aims and accepted bitter criticism rather than trying to please everybody. His obvious self-confidence as an American who was both principled and practical in safeguarding values and advancing the national interest itself enhanced America’s standing.