Friday, April 3, 2015

Our Friend, the King

Kings are good transmigrators-- so skilled in fact that some have been known to get themselves reborn as democrats and "reformers" without even having to undergo any discernible change in their regime. King Hassan II of Morocco was such a soul-changer (I in fact swiped the title of this post from a book about him by a French journalist (which I confess I haven't read)). Another would be the monarch of Greece during the civil war of the 1940s, who in a single three-month period in 1947 went from demi-autocrat propped up by British imperialism to hero of democracy, who needed to be supplied with arms and money under the Truman doctrine to resist the Communist advance.

But of course, when we say "Our Friend, the King" today, there is only one person we really mean. We can only be referring to the one who reigns in Riyadh, the "regional partner" and "counter-terrorist" par excellence, scion of the House of Saud.

Individual names are not important here -- part of that transmigration business. What matters is that Saudi Arabia, despite being one of the world's great remaining despotisms, continues to enjoy the uncritical support of the United States, even as it has begun a bloody air campaign this past week in Yemen. What's more, we have all fallen into the habit of thinking this is okay. Practices we would rightly deem "fundamentalist" or "extremist" elsewhere become in Saudi Arabia's case, thanks to the kingly capacity for soul-traffic mentioned above, an innocent handful of throwbacks that do not impugn the regime's fundamental soundness. Such are the benefits of an alliance with the U.S.

If one follows American news reports on the Saudi government, I would say, the dominant view of the country's ruling class seems to be one of benign and lighthearted corruption -- a regime more crackpot that despot. Our journalists poke fun at the material excesses of the Saudi royal family and smirk at the more whimsical aspects of their personal rule, but that is about as far as they go. An article in the New York Times from this past February, for instance, focused on the Saudi government's habit of distributing cash gifts to citizens, when it feels like it. It leaves the impression of the Saudi monarchy as an arbitrary but nonetheless munificent regime-- and one, meanwhile, that is popular with its own giddy and easily-bought masses. "Not surprisingly, Saudis are very happy with their new monarch," says the Times with a wink toward the audience. 

An article from the same paper in March (with the same journalist in the byline, I note) begins by acknowledging the criticisms that human rights advocates usually lodge against the Saudi government (after all, this second piece appeared after world attention had begun to focus on the case of Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger condemned to 50 lashes a week after seeking to inspire free discussion on the internet). However, the Times article goes on to insist that critics have ignored the safeguards of clemency that exist in the Saudi legal structure. Sure, it's not the way we do things, but nonetheless "built into the system [...] are avenues for mercy." (This is a paraphrase of the judgment on the Saudi court system of one "Faisal bin Mishaal bin Saud bin Abdulaziz, the prince of Qassim Province" -- so, not exactly a disinterested witness). Saudi Arabia has, we are instructed:
"a justice system little understood outside the kingdom, one that is based on centuries of Islamic tradition and that prioritizes stability and the strict adherence to Islamic mores over individual rights and freedoms."
I'll say!

Even the usually hard-hitting PBS Frontline has little negative to say about Saudi rule. True, it will be airing a BBC documentary on Yemen later this week which, from the sound of it, is not likely to dispose the audience favorably to Saudi military involvement there; but an earlier Frontline episode on the "House of Saud" is a disappointing puff piece that makes scant mention of human rights and is mostly composed of interviews with members of the king's family and assorted entourage. Such free air time would seem to be only a royal prerogative. It's hard to imagine any other cohort of brutal dictators getting to voice their views and personal recollections unhindered for an hour on American public television, at least not without having dissidents weighing in every few minutes. Is it too cynical to think there is a double standard intruding, because the Saudis are American allies? As soon as they air some charming special on the lives and loves of The Ayatollahs, I'll eat my words.

Somehow, in this idyll we've gotten from the media of happy Saudi tent-dwellers, treated to generous windfalls at the periodic whim of their overlords ("Merrie Arabia"?), we start to lose sight of all the beheadings and floggings, as well as all the BMWs and skyscrapers, that are a part of daily life in that country. Because of our media's condescension, it tends to forget that Saudi Arabia is a modern country. Because of its curry-favoring (which seems oddly to reinforce, rather than undermine, the previous quality), we forget that Saudi rule is one of the more heinous and violent in the world. It turns out that modernity is not now, and never has been, a guard against despotism -- that it in fact oils (no pun intended) the fundamental mechanisms of the latter in significant ways. So we've got it doubly wrong: far from being the pre-modern civilization our journalists present it as, Saudi Arabia is a modern barbarity. I'm not sure what other words could be used to describe a regime that cuts off the heads of its own citizens between excursions to the Gap. 

A few examples. A Human Rights Watch dispatch from January notes that, at the time the article appeared, the Saudi government had beheaded 26 people in the previous six months -- some of them on political charges that would not be crimes at all in a liberal state, much less ones carrying such an ultimate and horrifying penalty. Says HRW:
"In October, a Saudi court sentenced a Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, to death for criticizing the government and 'breaking allegiance with the ruler.' The prosecutor had sought what the Saudis call a crucifixion sentence, the kingdom's harshest, in which the convicted person is beheaded and the decapitated body displayed in public."
As the HRW writer points out, decapitating people because of what they say and think is the sort of crime we associate with ISIS and other extremist groups. When they do it, our government justly labels it terrorism. But when it is done by Our Friend the King, then it is "based on centuries of Islamic tradition and prioritizes stability," etc. Far from being terroristic, the Saudi regime is our confrere in "counter-terrorism." Iran, we all know, is "fundamentalist" -- yet seldom is the same word applied to our oil-rich ally on the Gulf, even when it orders a woman to be lashed ten times because she got behind the wheel of a vehicle.

And now, as I say, we are assisting Our Friend in his war against the Houthi rebels of Yemen, even as the latter is waged on unapologetically sectarian grounds. I know little about this particular rebel contingent and am only beginning to learn why they have been singled out by the Saudis at this moment in history. I therefore couldn't hope to say where they fall on some moral hierarchy of greater and lesser evils (if arraying evils in such a way is even possible). My best guess however is that like most sectarian armed groups they are bad, but scarcely worse than many of the forces they are combatting -- thus making their conflict with the Saudis, Al-Qaeda and others a type of no-win situation that ought to be familiar to us by now, seeing that it is known to many human cultures under the generic title "war."

And all this is happening, let it be noted, at just the moment that the U.S. is completing a long-fought nuclear deal with Iran that may bring some modicum of calm between ourselves and that country (however abhorrent the Iranian regime in power remains). It may be an unwholesome marriage, but as Paul said in a different context, it is "better to marry than to burn." So with peace within the reach of one hand, we are meanwhile using the other to help one of Iran's regional rivals drop bombs on the latter's allies in Yemen. Am I the only one who is starting to think that it would be too generous, rather than too cynical, to accuse the United States of engaging in a strategic hegemonic conspiracy?

If you disagree, please pause to consider for a moment all the different sectarian fires in which we have presently lodged a depleted-uranium-tipped iron. In the midst of supporting Iran-backed Shiite death squads in Iraq as they fight the Sunni genocidaires of ISIS, we are also helping to guide the missiles and bombs of the Saudis (Sunni) into the homes of Shiite minorities (Zaydi to be precise) in Yemen-- which meanwhile has given the local al-Qaeda affiliate (also Sunni) the opportunity to free as many as a hundred of its shock troops from prison and return them to battle. In other words: "This is the horse and the hound and the horn/ That tossed the dog that worried the cat/ That chased the rat that ate the cheese/ That lay in the house that Jack built." Except that the house here was built by cynicism, oil, and American power, not Jack (unless we're talking about the Union Jack-- then we might be on to something); and it is currently in the process of burning to the ground.

Why are we helping to write this latest chapter of Revelation? The New York Times quotes an American official who has an answer for us: "If you ask why we’re backing this, beyond the fact that the Saudis are allies and have been allies for a long time, the answer you’re going to get from most people — if they were being honest — is that we weren’t going to be able to stop it."

Given the number of innocent people who have already been killed by Saudi warplanes, these might strike you as less than sufficient reasons for climbing on board. (Especially when they are coming from the world's most powerful government which is meanwhile the one force in the world that more than any other has kept the Saudi government from collapsing these past few decades under its many adversaries in the region, and thus has some leverage). Human Rights Watch tells us that Saudi bombs this week (guided by American intelligence / with the aid of American "logistical support") hit a refugee camp in Yemen and killed 29 people-- 11 of them children. One of the last headlines I saw last night before drifting off to sleep was the following one -- difficult to shake from my mind -- reported by Amnesty International: "Yemen: At least six civilians burn to death in further airstrikes overnight."

Yes, but "we weren’t going to be able to stop it." True statement or not, I don't see how we get from simply not being able to prevent an allied government from burning people alive -- in a conflict with shamelessly sectarian/ethnic overtones -- to actively helping them to do so. (Funny how our country which is forever declaring that it would be a shameful abdication of duty not to periodically overthrow governments and drop explosives on sovereign nations, in the name of "democracy" of course -- can't muster the strength or will to restrain itself from actively supporting one of its corrupt dependencies when it initiates a destabilizing air war abroad.)

But our burnings of civilians, and those of our friends, are counter-terrorism, or they are "democratic realism," or something. They may force us to compromise with imperfection, but only in the service of eventually promoting democracy and human rights. You can see how by these means we quickly reach a very pleasing little tautology, in which whatever advances "American interests" is also in the service of democracy, by definition. The possibility that we behave undemocratically does not arise, because it is rendered unthinkable.


In his Cold War classic Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene permits himself some rather unsubtle satire in his depiction of the relationship between the American diplomats in Cuba and the cronies of the pre-Castro right-wing dictator (Batista in real life, but given a different name in the novel). In one scene of mutual back-stratching among these two packs of erect primates, we learn that: "The American Consul-General, called on by Dr. Braun, began to speak. He spoke of the spiritual links between the democracies -- he seemed to number Cuba among the democracies. Trade was important because without trade there would be no spiritual links, or was it perhaps the other way round[...]"

Is it our spiritual links with Saudi Arabia that keep the oil flowing? Or perhaps it's the reverse. Either way, Saudi Arabia seems to have joined from its inception the honorary democracies in America's pantheon-- democracies in spirit, democracies by right of transmigration. There it stands alongside such illustrious names as Somoza, Trujillo, Batista, Suharto -- and on and on.

Saddest of all in this is not our government's predictable meanness in what Chomsky and Herman have called the "political economy of human rights." It's that the rest of us go on bowing and scraping alongside it, when we have every reason to know better.

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