US foreign policy and the birth of neo-conservatism
July 26th 2017 | Indiana | Russell Hall
Graphic by Eva Bee
When former national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski died on the 26th of May, liberals mourned his loss and praised his accomplishments. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter called him a “superb public servant”. Barack Obama offered similar praise, stating Brzezinski’s “influence spanned several decades, and I was one of several Presidents who benefited from his wisdom and counsel”.
This reaction is hardly surprising. An early opponent of the Iraq war and a critic of unilateral military intervention, Brzezinski was a hero for many on the left. In a 2012 interview with CNN, Brzezinski blasted Republican presidential candidates, stating “I literally feel embarrassed as an American when I see those people orate”.
When asked to comment on Republican claims that “America is number one, this is an American century, we should just assert our power”, Brzezinski replied: “The last three Republican presidents [said] God chose America and history commissioned America to be playing that kind of role. And that kind of rhetoric is just divorced from reality to the point of absurdity, actually to the point of danger for us.”
Photograph via The White House
But Brzezinski might not deserve our praise. The tragic fact is that his policies under Carter paved the way for the neo-conservative nightmare that has wreaked havoc across the globe. In 1976, Jimmy Carter was elected president on a promise to make human rights “the soul of our foreign policy”. It was a revolutionary statement, an acknowledgement that the Soviet Union was not the only source of evil in the world. America was as well.
In the name of freedom, America had overthrown freely elected governments in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973), provided military aid to repressive regimes guilty of genocide, and defended pro-American dictatorships when criticized by human rights groups. At the time, it looked as if America would finally move towards incorporating human rights as the cornerstone of its foreign policy.
In retrospect, Carter’s mistake was to appoint Brzezinski as his National Security Advisor. A Cold War hawk, Brzezinski saw the world as a game of chess – on one side was America, and on the other the Soviet Union. All other countries were the pawns of these two powers. If a pro-American dictatorship fell in Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, or South Vietnam, it was the work of the Soviet Union.
“According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahideen began during the 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention. […] The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: we now have the opportunity of giving the USSR its Vietnam War.”
When asked if he regretted supporting Islamic fundamentalism, Brzezinski replied: “What is more important in world history? The Taliban, or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some agitated Moslems, or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Since the end of World War II, U.S. foreign policy had been based on the idea of containment. America was propping up anti-Communist dictatorships in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, but avoided overthrowing governments that were already aligned with the Soviet Union.
Although the US did try to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro had not officially declared Cuba to be a Marxist-Leninist state until after the incident. While hardly humanitarian, the strategy of containment placed a restraint on American military power. It forced U.S. policymakers to use diplomacy instead of military threats when dealing with Communist governments.
Photograph via The National Archive
By waging war directly against established pro-Soviet governments, Brzezinski ushered in a new and more aggressive form of foreign policy known as ‘neo-conservatism’. Harry Targ, a professor of International Relations at Purdue University, defined this as the belief that the United States “has the right and responsibility to impose its wishes, its vision of government and public policy, and its institutions on the world. If people resist […] the United States should impose its domination by force.”
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 only increased the appeal of neo-conservatism. As the last remaining superpower, the United States used its military power to remake the world in its image. So far, the consequences have been deadly. Besides the lives and money lost from failed military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States’ decision to dominate the world has only increased anti-American sentiment in the modern age.
Human rights vs. hegemony
Are we being too harsh on Brzezinski’s foreign policy decisions? Could one argue that American interventionism was necessary against the threat of fascism from the USSR? Considering the implications of hegemonic stability theory and the 21st century’s resulting success as the most peaceful era in the history of humanity, that may be a valid justification.
One might also argue that, by historical standards, Brzezinski’s views were simply a reflection of what most members of Carter’s cabinet were thinking – but that would be a false conclusion. In fact, one of Brzezinski’s biggest critics was Cyrus Vance, who was Secretary of State at the time. Moreover, Carter’s campaign manager Hamilton Jordan once said: “If, after the inauguration, you find a Cyrus Vance as Secretary of State and Zbigniew Brzezinski as Head of National Security, then I would say we failed. And I’d quit.”
Diagram by The Economist
Mr. Jordan did not quit, but he was right. The moment Carter became president, the two men battled for influence. Unlike Brzezinski, Vance shared Carter’s belief American foreign policy should be guided by human rights. As the Carter presidency wore on, Vance grew increasingly frustrated with Brzezinski. In his 1983 memoir Hard Choices, Vance wrote:
“I supported the collegial approach with one critical reservation. Only the President and the Secretary of State were to have the responsibility for defining the Administration’s foreign policy publicly. Despite his stated acceptance of this principle, and in spite of repeated instructions from the President, Brzezinski would attempt increasingly to take on the role of policy spokesman. Eventually, as divergences grew wider between my public statements and his policy utterances, Brzezinski’s practice became a political liability, leaving the Congress and foreign governments with the impression that the Administration did not know its own mind.”
In time, Vance was marginalized and his influence began to wane. He finally resigned as Secretary of State following the failed operation to rescue American hostages in Iran, an operation he opposed but Brzezinski had supported. Near the end of his life, a reporter asked Vance how he wanted to be remembered. He answered: “I hope for being a reasonably decent, honest person who tried to do some things for the country that might have lasting effects and create a better life for a large number of people.”
Revisionist historian William Appleman Williams, in his iconoclastic book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, wrote that “the tragedy of American diplomacy is not that it is evil, but that it denies and subverts American ideas and ideals”. The same could be said about Brzezinski. As a refugee from Poland, he was a statesman for those who were still living under Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. To the rest of the world, however, he was a hypocrite. Throughout his life, Brzezinski criticized the Soviet Union for denying the citizens of Eastern Europe the right of self-determination, yet he refused to acknowledge what America did in Latin America and other third world countries.
By subverting Carter’s commitment to human rights, Brzezinski not only helped create the neo-conservative monster that haunts us to present, but also prevented America from becoming the humanitarian superpower that it has always claimed to be.
January 31st 2017 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez
Graphic by Bartu Kaleagasi
Social networks are the defining innovation of this generation. They are a tool which has given us previously unimaginable levels of connectivity, as well as the ability to easily keep up to date with global news and specific issues that we care about.
Yet, in the midst of a discussion about the so-called “fake news” circulating throughout social media, little attention has been given to another serious problem: the detrimental side effect of our dependence on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on. Unknowingly, we have created – and consequently live in – digital political bubbles.
A polarisation of ideas
As many have noted, society has never been as politically polarised as it is today. In fact, studies show that we increasingly identify with a particular political party and view the opposite party as “dangerous”.
One reason for this phenomenon is that many of our choices in life are inherently political. We are less likely to be friends with people whose politics are wildly different from ours. We are less likely to live in a neighbourhood where our neighbours have drastically different ideologies from us. Income, background, and geography are all indicators of our politics. The more similar we are with those around us, the more we isolate ourselves from different political opinions. The result? We end up viewing these similar opinions as more “normal” than the rest, hence the polarisation.
Diagram by Washington Post
However, this is not the only factor in play. Even though this sort of polarisation has always existed, it is not an omnipotent force. After all, who has not been challenged on their opinions by colleagues, classmates, or old friends? In today’s world, social welfare policies mean that we no longer only interact with people from identical backgrounds and profiles. Middle class students go to the same public schools as low income students, increasing opportunities for minorities mean our offices are ever more diverse, and while racial segregation in housing is still present, it is much lower than it used to be.
This means that we interact daily with individuals who are quite different from us, being exposed to a variety of opinions. That is what makes for awkward dinners with everyone’s Marxist friend, and why at the end of the day we know and value different political standpoints from ours.
Social networks & algorithms
The advent of social networks has changed this dynamic of political tolerance. One of our most frequent and cherished pastimes is to scroll through our social network newsfeed, and with 2.32 billion people projected to own smartphones in 2017, the separation from political clemency could broaden.
This newsfeed, and our interaction with it, is of vital importance when it comes to our worldview, and hence, our political ideology. One might think that there is nothing political about funny videos or pictures from our friend’s night out. Indeed, not everyone’s feed is full of news articles. However, most social media users can attest to the fact that in between everyday posts, we also see content of a political nature.
Diagram by Dennis Jenders
Videos of refugees begging for help on the coast of Greece frequently popped up last year. So have articles about climate change and the need for action, and the day would not be complete without an article decrying the latest Trump buffoonery. The prevalence of this content varies depending on our individual preferences. However, even the smallest interaction is registered and used by the social network’s machine learning algorithms.
Our interaction with such political content determines the frequency with which we will see similar or relevant information again in our newsfeed. Our newsfeed “knows” what we want to see based on how we interact with it – perhaps the most prominent use of artificial intelligence in current times.
For example, I – along with only 46% of the world – believe climate change is the biggest threat we face today. I am interested in our fight for cleaner energy, which is why I frequently read and share information about it on social media.
My interaction with Facebook posts about climate change is extensive. Facebook’s algorithm can easily pick up on this and oh-so gracefully provide me the content I want in the form of relevant articles my friends have shared. It is unlikely that Facebook will show me articles shared by my friends that it deems less relevant to my interaction patterns. An article arguing against the closing of a coal mine, for example, is less likely to appear in my newsfeed. This is not simply because I do not follow pages that are most likely to publish it. It is because it will go against the “narrative” my clicks, likes, shares and comments have told Facebook I believe in.
Here lies the problem of our digital political bubble. Our perception of what is going on in the world is less influenced by everyday conversation with people who might not agree with us, and more influenced by the content of our social media which always agrees with us.
Photograph by Dominick Reuter
Our politics suffer from this dynamic because it inevitably reinforces our perception over others. I for one could read twenty articles on climate change in the course of a month, but not a single one on the negative economic and social impacts of environmental regulation (e.g. closing a coal mine in low-income areas). Am I not living in a bubble?
Let’s take another example, the previously mentioned refugee crisis. People reading this article will most likely have seen in their newsfeed a video of refugees stranded at sea; teary, desperate individuals trying to reach Europe’s shores. Or perhaps even a video condemning anti-refugee statements. A conservative voter in the United States, however, will have had a completely different set of information presented to them. They would have followed pages, people and newspapers that you and I have not. And their friends will have posted content that would not come across our screens.
The result of this disparity is that the perception these two people have over the refugee crisis is so vastly different, that is becomes almost incomprehensible to both why the other would have such an opinion. Thus, there is a direct link between our usage of social media and the current phenomenon of political polarisation.
Moreover, social networks like Facebook offer a platform for millions of media organisations to expand their content and bring in more traffic and revenue. This gives these news outlets and companies just one key incentive: to make us click on the article or video they just shared.
Studies have shown that the most reliable stimulator in our brain – the factor that is most likely to make us click on something – is anger. A video of a cat might make us think about it for a minute or two, but the emotion that it provokes is so minimal that it will not stay with us for long.
Article from Daily Mail
A video of a racist attack in the subway, however, will make us angry, and thus will have a far more significant impact. It will compel us to read about this episode in detail; to go see whether the attacker was apprehended, or whether bystanders helped. In other words, we will care more.
Generating anger is the most compelling way to engage with users. News sites who look to generate traffic through Facebook know this. That is why websites regularly post information that they know will make their readers angry, and prompt them to click, to “see more”.
The unintended consequence of this process, however, is that it serves to accentuate political polarisation. Not only do we perceive different realities through social media, but we also regularly see content that make us more impassioned and angrier.
United in diversity
The overall argument laid out is not one against the use of social media. Social media has been, overall, significantly beneficial for everyone involved. However, it is important to understand how websites like Facebook use our behaviour on their platform to predict what it is we want from them, and what will make us stay online more often.
While this may be good for us in some ways, since it allows us to see and read more content related to topics that genuinely interest us, it also means that we live in a digital bubble, shielded from wildly different point of views or arguments. The implications of these bubbles are serious. Many of the shocking political events we experienced in 2016 can be partly linked to voters dealing with a different set of facts, and therefore wildly different perceptions.
There is, however, a simple solution to burst our digital bubbles. We must make the conscious decision to listen to and read arguments which we do not agree with. The only way to do this is by inserting different content into our social media. Here is a list of conservative podcasts, pages and people to follow, and here is one for both conservative and liberal audiences. Enjoy!
November 15th 2015 | London | Juan Schinas Alvargonzalez
Photograph by Mark J. Terrill
Anyone following the US Presidential Elections 2016 has no doubt heard the name: Donald Trump.
To the surprise of many, the real-estate mogul, TV personality, and professional controversy artist entered the Republican race in June. The media, and especially comedians across the US and the world, were all excited for what was to come.
However, as time flew by and summer continued, jokes became comments, and comments became policy. Trump’s rallies started increasing in size, his interviews became more frequent, and his endorsements started piling up. Now, he is leading the polls, with 28% percent of Republican primary voters supporting his candidacy.
Although there may be no need to worry about his national electability, the situation is somewhat concerning. The fact that a candidate who claims he will build a wall between Mexico and the US is leading the polls, followed closely by Dr. Carson who described Obamacare as “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery”, says something about today’s Republican Party. Really, what ever happened to the GOP?
The Republican Party
The answer is two-fold. The current situation the party finds itself in is a direct result of its response to Obama’s nomination and policy agenda.
The President’s healthcare bill, his stimulus package, and his general liberal stances and charisma, have cast an unbearable burden over the relationship between his administration and the GOP.
As Mitch McConnell, Republican majority leader of the Senate said: after Obama’s nomination, “the GOP’s top political priority should be to deny Mr Obama a second term”.
That statement best summarises the party’s stance today. Rather than focusing on a genuine conservative agenda, the Republicans have adopted an anti-Obama agenda, causing a political gridlock that has crippled Congress throughout the Obama years.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives had tried to delay and defund Obamacare by strong-arming the Democratic-led Senate and Obama administration on the federal budget. With neither side backing down, the government was unable to agree on a budget in time and was forced to shut down for 16 days.
The GOP was, in a way, pressured to follow this strategy by the Tea Party movement. Having emerged in the aftermath of Obama’s plan to give financial aid to bankrupt homeowners (a sin in Republican ideology), the Tea Party movement quickly spread and became a loud minority within the Republican Party.
Its followers divided the GOP by pushing mainstream politicians (usually dubbed “the establishment”) and members of congress further to the right, or rather, more anti-Obama, by threatening to challenge their seats in congress (which 40 congressmen lost in 2010).
Trump and Carson
It is in this context that Trump appeared. By calling politicians “losers” and “all talk but no action”, he touched the minds of many disillusioned citizens, especially Republicans who saw their party as incompetent.
The Republican Party had spent the good part of these last 8 years picturing Obama as a dangerous president whose policies would ruin the entire country. Their depiction of an evil Obama administration made Republican voters see their party as incapable of standing up to fight this “danger”, especially when Obama continued pushing his policy agenda despite the gridlock in Congress.
Trump and Carson, seen as “outsiders” of the political spectrum, carry a simple, yet powerful message: “I will get the job done”. Their campaigns have proven to be entertaining, and it seems unlikely they will receive the nomination, but their success says a lot about today’s Republican Party.
As Bill Maher said when addressing Republican commentators, “this is the Frankenstein monster that was created with the Tea Party, this is your worst nightmare”.
Diagram by Fox News
This diversion, however, follows a long-term trend within the party and its policies. Indeed, the GOP has greatly diverted from what it was, or what it could have been, in the last decades. Many commentators, including conservatives in the US, have argued that legendary Republican figures like Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower would have no place in today’s GOP.
The Republican Party’s most prominent politicians have lost touch with the party’s supposed core values, and in doing so, they have been losing many voters.
Most Republican congressmen are climate change deniers, consistently doubting the proven facts and unanimous scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is a man-made phenomenon.
Last February, Sen. James Inhofe even threw a snowball in Senate to prove that since there is still snow, the planet is clearly not becoming warmer. This issue is one where the Republican Party diverted, and made a huge mistake by doing so.
Had the Republican Party stuck to the message that we must take care of our environment and react when it is in danger, instead of spreading misinformation, they would have more credible amongst voters today.
The Republican Party, at its core, believes in “small government”: the idea that the federal government has no business intervening in your private life.
This libertarian concept has many positive aspects, and is even used by some advocates of marijuana legalisation. Yet, the GOP consistently criticises and attacks this stance, claiming that marijuana is as dangerous to society as any other illegal drug.
Republicans have enacted and supported harsh laws against its use, putting thousands of people behind bars. In fact, 55% of federal and 21% of state prisoners found guilty of drug offences are incarcerated due to marijuana, and some are even sentenced to life in prison.
Diagram by Kegler Brown
This, along with other drug policies, have increased the amount of prisoners in the US to a point where it is now the largest prison population in the world and second highest per capita.
Some republicans like Rand Paul have rightly pointed out the hypocrisy behind the Republican Party’s support for such policies regarding drugs, since they have greatly expanded the intervention and cost of federal government.
The average cost of incarceration for federal inmates in 2014 was $30,619 – money that could be much better spent elsewhere.
Separation of church and state
The GOP has always been the conservative party which believes in traditional values. However, it has also been the constitutional party.
Republican politicians have argued that the Constitution should be followed as narrowly as possible, and that by following the Constitution the country would avoid dangerous and harmful policies.
Yet, the Party has diverted from this clear and (somewhat) reasonable stance, by consistently ignoring the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.
Photograph by Bartu Kaleagasi
This amendment, established in the 18th century, clearly states that the US government is never allowed to identify with one religion.
Despite this fact, The Republican Party has time and time again proclaimed that the US is a Christian country, and that government must abide by traditional Christian values.
They have argued against the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion, criticised the idea that a Muslim could be president, and consistently cited the bible and their Christian values as an argument against marriage equality.
Another deviation relates again to the idea of “small government”.
Instead of sticking to the message that the American people are better off if the government does not interfere in their lives, the GOP has supported the NSA in the national debate regarding their mass surveillance program.
As Rand Paul said, “Republicans don’t like big government until they like big government”.
Photograph by Dado Ruvic
According to most Republicans, it is not right for the government to expand in order to provide entitlements to the American people, yet it is right to expand in order to provide greater powers to the NSA and other intelligence agencies, allowing them to spy even on their own citizens without needing approval from a judicial entity.
In any democracy, in order for the national debate to progress, all sides must indulge in rational discussions, arguments, and policies. It is not enough for Democrats to laugh at a possible Trump nomination or look at current Republican policies and feel relief.
If the country is to go forward, a real debate must happen during these elections. This is unlikely to happen when one of the largest parties cares more about appealing to a loud minority within its voters than about representing its core values. Doing so simply alienates the majority of Americans and reduces the potential for national debate.
As to us Europeans, we are left watching and enjoying the race. However, we should not get too comfortable either, since we all know what happened the last time America elected a questionable President.
On Jan. 26 2015, former schoolteacher Moussa al-Zahrani likely spent much of his morning alone in his jail cell. If he had not already stirred by sunrise, he would have been awoken by prison guards – though he was almost certainly restless due to what awaited him. At that point, he was served his final breakfast and, if he was exceptionally lucky, was slipped a sedative to relax him.
Al-Zahrani had been convicted of sexually assaulting children in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Middle Eastern ally apart from Israel. Despite protests from human rights organizations asserting that a great deal of the evidence against al-Zahrani had been falsified, his execution by beheading was only a matter of minutes away.
Following morning prayers, al-Zahrani was quickly taken from his cell in the city of Jeddah, handcuffed and blindfolded, to his ultimate resting place in an effort to beat the stifling desert heat. In Jeddah, the location is a central square in town, though it lacks the notoriety of Riyadh’s Deera Square, better known by the surrounding citizens by its more ghoulish sobriquet “Chop Chop Square”.
When he arrived at the town square, a crowd undoubtedly gathered. English writer John R. Bradley wrote in his book “Saudi Arabia Exposed: Inside A Kingdom In Crisis” that in this particular area, “executions are the only form public entertainment…apart from football matches”.
He would then be led to the earthy patch in the center of the square. According to Muhmmad Saad al-Beshi, a prolific executioner notorious for allowing his seven children to clean his sword following an execution, it is at this point that the prisoner will acquiesce to the events occurring around him due to a combination of exhaustion and fear.
After all of the preparation has occurred without disturbance, as it did for al-Zahrani, death arrives swiftly for the condemned. “The head, upon detachment, appears to pop off the body, as with a doll that has been squeezed too hard”, wrote Janine Di Giovanni in Newsweek.
For many, however, the celebration of their death does not end once their head has been removed. A loudspeaker announces the crime for which the deceased has been executed, at which point people begin to applaud.
This macabre practice is nearly identical to the handiwork of the brutal Islamic State. However, Saudi Arabia, as one of the United State’s premier sources for crude oil and a widely cited asset against the war on terror, remains one of America’s closest allies. So close, in fact, that President Barack Obama deplaned the day after al-Zahrani’s execution.
Our so-called “allies”
Long before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but especially since their occurrence, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has been one of the more complex around the world. Osama bin Laden and 15 of 19 hijackers responsible for the attacks were Saudi nationals, initiating an enormous amount of American backlash against Saudi Arabia.
A 2002 report on terrorist financing conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations, an American non-profit think tank that has had more than a dozen Secretaries of State and numerous other high-level politicians on its board, found that “individuals and charities based in Saudi Arabia have been the most important source of funds for al-Qaeda. And for years, Saudi officials have turned a blind eye to this problem”.
Animosity toward the Saudi Arabians over this issue has persisted even to present day, as recent reports by CNN have been championing new allegations that members of the Saudi royal family supported al-Qaeda. In a sworn statement, Zacarias Moussaoui, the man frequently described as the 20th 9/11 hijacker, claimed he was tasked by Bin Laden with creating a digital database of al-Qaeda’s donors. According to Moussaoui, individuals such as Prince Turki al-Faisal Al Saud, the former director-general of Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and ambassador to the United States, appeared on that list.
Max Rodenbeck, writing for the New York Review of Books in 2004, concluded that the American public and political system had a mental image of Saudi Arabia as a sort of “oily heart of darkness, the wellspring of a bleak, hostile value system that is the very antithesis of our own. America’s seventy-year alliance with the kingdom has been reappraised as a ghastly mistake, a selling of the soul, a gas-addicted dalliance with death”.
The relationship became so strained that, according to the Washington Post, a stunning proposal was made by the RAND Corporation, a prestigious think tank financed by the United States government, to the Defense Policy Board, an arm of the Department of Defense. In the proposal, it was suggested the United States should consider “taking [the] Saudi out of Arabia” by forcibly seizing the oil fields and delegating control of the holy cities of Medina and Mecca to a multinational committee of moderate Muslims.
“Saudi Arabia supports our enemies and attacks our allies”, argued Laurent Murawiec, the presenter of this idea and a protégé of Richard Perle’s, an advocate of war with Iraq who chaired the Policy Board. “The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot soldier, from ideologist to cheerleaders”. He went on to describe them as “the kernel of evil, the prime mover, the most dangerous opponent” in the Middle East.
Sentiments of intense hostility were just as prevalent in Saudi Arabia. A survey taken by the Saudi intelligence service of “educated Saudis between the ages of 25 and 41” taken during Oct. 2001 found that “95 percent” of those surveyed supported the actions taken by Bin Laden.
Even the Saudi Minister of the Interior, Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, repeatedly insisted that the Saudi hijackers from 9/11 were merely dupes in a Zionist plot to incite hatred against Saudi Arabia.
On Oct. 2, 2002, with tensions at an all-time high, President George W. Bush and Congress agreed on the joint resolution authorizing the Iraq War. It was under that context that a young, fresh-faced man who was a few months away from announcing his first campaign for the United States Senate stepped to the podium in front of the first high-profile anti-Iraq War rally in Chicago.
“Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hopes, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.”
The fiery conviction with which Barack Obama delivered these remarks serve only as a reminder of the naïve idealism that marked his earlier political career, a relic that President Obama likely no longer remembers as he is forced to deal with the complexity of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Balancing barbarism with stability
After the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Jan. 23, 2015, it was announced that President Obama would be visiting the country to pay his respects to the leader he praised, mentioning specifically “the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond”.
To the United States, Saudi Arabia is a key ally. So key, in fact, that the Obama administration has taken great lengths to assure the Saudi leadership that they are working together. Obama acquiesced to Saudi interests in regards to Egypt’s post-revolution political shift and the two are currently working together on combating the Islamic State as the group pushes toward the Saudi Arabian border.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have also worked together recently to plunge the price of oil, thereby tanking the weak oil-based economies of Russia and Iran. The move boosts both countries’ economies and severely weakens two of their biggest foes. It is a move of economic clout, showcasing just how powerful the U.S.-Saudi friendship is on the global stage.
It is for this reason that issues of human rights in Saudi Arabia have been set firmly on the back burner by the United States. In the wake of the Islamic State’s rise and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the Saudi kingdom has received a great deal of scrutiny for their harsh and brutal retribution against criminals and political dissidents. Blogger Raef Badawi, for the crime of insulting Islam, was sentenced to 10 years in jail, fined $267,000 and ordered to receive 1,000 public lashes.
A recent article in the Washington Post compared the legal punishments doled about by Saudi Arabia with those administered by the Islamic State. The results were shockingly identical. For simple theft, both will amputate the hands and feet of the thief. For adultery while married, the punishment is death by stoning. For blasphemy, acts of homosexuality, treason or murder, the sentence is death, typically by beheading.
Both the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia are governed by strict interpretations of Shariah, the legal code of Islam based on the Quran. The obvious major distinction, however, is that Saudi Arabia is a close economic and political partner. It is for this reason that the Saudis do not have the president blasting them for what he said were “barbaric” punishments when the Islamic State performed them.
Before making this latest trip to Saudi Arabia, President Obama acknowledged it’s human rights record and, far from the idyllic rhetoric from 2002, asserted that America would have to overlook it for the sake of politics.
“Sometimes we need to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns we have in terms of counterterrorism or dealing with regional stability,” he told CNN.
The idea is not new, but the increasingly complex relationship between America and Saudi Arabia, as well as the willful ignorance toward their human rights policy only serves to drive home the fact that modern political strategy does not allow for idealism or helping people. It merely permits or, in some instances, limits those in power to striving to protect national interests and nothing more.