Matters of Principle

21 July 2022

Matters of Principle

The Saudi elbow bump.

By Robert Kilconner

 “Look, you got a family that is worth $100 billion, which crushes democracy, which treats women as third-class citizens, which murders and imprisons its opponents…”  Mr Sanders description of Saudi Arabia pulled no punches. Until recently Biden would have been there too, distancing the Saudis, the murderers of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist. But now he has moved on. It’s elbow bumps with Mohammed bin Salman as the President tours the Middle East.

So what has changed? That is obvious; a shortage of oil due to the Ukrainian war means that the West needs Saudi Arabia to turn on the taps. Objecting to its internal structure has become too expensive in economic terms. Scruples like any other commodity have a price and when that price is not affordable the scruples have to go.

It was ever thus. As Churchill said on the eve of the German invasion of Russia:

“If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.”

There are times when you just have to swallow your scruples in pursuit of a greater good. Should Biden let the American economy falter with much suffering from his people in order to support civilised standards in another country? Clearly not.

There is something oddly out of date about interfering in other countries’ internal affairs. In the days of Empire we believed that we had a right and indeed a duty to do it and the missionaries were often in the first wave of arrivals from the UK. Did  we succeed in spreading civilisation and, where we did so, was it a good thing? People may disagree over that but now that the age of imperialism is over it is a little presumptuous to pretend that we and our allies still have the power to shape what are now independent countries.

There are plenty of regimes in the world which are offensive to the rather comfortable Liberal Democrats who inhabit Europe and the States. It is a good thing that we should seek to get them to change their ways but turning them into pariahs goes well beyond that. “If you do not change we will have nothing to do with you” may be fine when we do not need anything from them but when that is not the case it becomes a very empty threat.

And nowadays we always do want something from other states. If they burn coal in their power stations it affects the climate across the world. If they experiment with germs they could cause a pandemic. A nuclear attack on their neighbours leave third-party countries uninhabitable. There is an urgent need for cooperation and restraint in dealing with these issues. Where does that leave our mission to civilise those who do not come up to our standards?

Rather piecemeal, I suppose. Where we feel we can exert pressure for good we should probably do so. Where there are other interests at stake they may have to take priority. The job of the politician is to find his way through this maze where sometimes principles are king and sometimes they need to give away to practicality. Biden’s approach to Saudi Arabia is a good example of this. All outrage when he could afford it, with a reversal of that approach when he cannot. It is not pretty. It is not principled; but it is real life.

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