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The Saudi-American Rupture

The American-Saudi alliance is in danger of collapsing.

The Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is by far the largest threat to both Saudi and American interests in the Middle East now, yet the Obama administration is buddying up with Vladimir Putin on Syria and allowing itself to be suckered by the Iranian regime’s new president Hassan Rouhani.

Never mind the fact that Rouhani obviously isn’t a moderate and is powerless to negotiate sovereign issues in any case. The White House is so desperate to cut a deal with America’s enemies that the president will go along on even a farcical ride. As a result, the Saudi government is threatening to drastically “scale back” the relationship.

 “I’ve worked in this field for a long time,” says Brooking Institution expert Mike Doran in London’s Telegraph, “and I’ve studied the history. I know of no analogous period. I’ve never seen so many disagreements on so many key fronts all at once. And I’ve never seen such a willingness on the part of the Saudis to publicly express their frustration. Iran is the number one issue — the only issue for Saudi policy makers. When you add up the whole Middle Eastern map — Syria, Iraq, Iran — it looks to the Saudis as if the US is throwing Sunni allies under the bus by trying to cut a deal with Iran and its allies.”

Foreign Policy 101 dictates that you reward your friends and punish your enemies. Attempts to get cute and reverse the traditional formula always lead to disaster. Yet Barack Obama thinks if he stiffs his friends, his enemies will become a little less hostile. That’s not how it works, but the Saudis have figured out what Obama is doing and are acting accordingly. 

“They [the Americans] are going to be upset—and we can live with that,” said Mustafa Alani, a Saudi foreign policy analyst. "We are learning from our enemies now how to treat the United States.”

Before proceeding, let’s be clear about a couple of things. The Saudi regime is in a dimension beyond distasteful. It’s an absolute monarchy wedded to absolute theocracy. It’s worse than merely medieval. Human rights don’t exist. The regime—and, frankly, the culture—offends every moral and political sensibility I have in my being. I’d love to live in a world where junking our “friendship” with Riyadh would be the right call.

But the United States and Saudi Arabia are—or at least were until recently—on the same page geopolitically. For decades we have provided the Saudis with security in exchange for oil and stability, and we’ve backed them and the rest of the Gulf Arabs against our mutual enemies, Iran’s Islamic Republic regime and its allies.

The alliance isn’t deep. It’s transactional. It’s not at all like the American alliance with countries like Britain, Israel, Canada, and Japan. It’s based on interests alone, and that makes it temporary. If the Iranian regime were to be overthrown and replaced with even a half-assed democracy, chances are good that Washington would tilt toward Tehran and away from Riyadh. We could make the same deal with a democratic Iran that we currently have with the Gulf Arabs, only it would not be distasteful. It would be perfectly logical, and we wouldn’t have to compromise our values. I wouldn’t have to plug my nose when typing the word “ally” in same sentence as “Iran” if Iran were democratic.

But in the imperfect world we live in right now, Saudi Arabia is an interests-based ally of the United States. Or at least it was until the Obama administration all but surrendered to the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis.

So the Saudis are alarmed. They’re right to be. Maybe threatening to downgrade relations will give Washington a reality check. That’s the idea, anyway.

Either way, if the Saudis want to get real, it’s time for them to suck it up and normalize relations with Israel for the same reason they forged an alliance with the United States. The Israelis and the Gulf Arabs have the exact same geopolitical interests right now. They have the exact same list of enemies. Who cares if Riyadh and Jerusalem can’t stand each other personally? Riyadh and Washington can’t stand each other personally either. That hasn’t stopped us from working together when our interests coincide.

Of course, an alliance with Israel would be a little more awkward (to say the least) while the Palestinians are still stateless, but so what? The Jordanian government worked it out and is in far better shape as a result.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has always been stupid and pointless, and at this late date it’s ludicrous. It’s a festering holdover from a previous era, and it makes progress difficult or impossible for just about everyone. If Sunni Arab governments make a peaceful and reasonable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority, something might actually happen.

It’s logical, isn’t it? Israel poses no threat whatsoever to Gulf Arabs and never has. Israel poses no threat to any Arab country that doesn’t act with belligerence first. The Jordanians figured that out a long time ago. So did the Egyptian government even if Egypt’s population remains as clueless as ever. The Tunisians figured it out. The Moroccans get along with Israel just fine under the table.

The open secret right now is that the Gulf Arabs have also figured it out even as they’re loath to admit it in public. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is not-so secretly working with all the Arab states in the Gulf region right now based on shared (anti-Iranian) interests.

Don’t be surprised. All the existing Sunni Arab governments moved on from the Arab-Israeli conflict decades ago. Aside from the Palestinian Authority during the Second Intifada, only the Iranian regime and its network of allies and proxies—Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, and Hamas—have fought Israel at any time during the last thirty years or so. The only exception occurred when Saddam Hussein launched a couple of SCUD missiles at Tel Aviv during the first Persian Gulf War in an attempt to fracture the Arab-Western alliance against him.

The majority of Arab citizens would surely think my analysis is nonsense on stilts, but aside from the (non-Sunni) regime in Damascus, Arab governments are behaving precisely in line with it. They learned quite a while ago that it’s time to set the ridiculous Palestinian conflict aside and deal with real threats for a change. They’ve tried to turn it into a frozen conflict instead of resolving it, but still. At least they haven’t been poking it with a stick.

Washington is adrift at the moment, but we change administrations more often than the Middle East does, and we change policies even faster. We’ll be on the same page sooner or later.

Post-script: Don’t forget. I have books. And I have two more coming out next year. The first is a novel unlike anything I've written before, and the other is a collection of dispatches from the Middle East.

I get a royalty check every month that includes money from every single copy that sells, so please, help me pay my mortgage, fatten your bookshelf, and order some for your friends!

Why Muslims Should Love Secularism

Hussein Ibish argues in an interesting piece in NOW Lebanon that Muslims should love secularism. I’m not entirely convinced of everything he writes here--little or none of it applies to bin Ladenists, for instance--but I  know he’s right about most of it and I’ve had similar thoughts and observations myself.

Muslims should love secularism. But very few of them do, largely because they misunderstand what it stands for and would mean for them.

Secularism as an English term – in contrast to the French concept of laïcité – simply means the neutrality of the state on matters of faith. This bears almost no resemblance to the way in which most Arabs understand the term, whether translated as ‘almaniyya, ilmanniyya, or even dunyawiyya.

Secularism has become strongly associated in the Arab and broader Muslim worlds with atheism, iconoclasm, and anti-religious attitudes and policies. And in the process, one of the most important pillars of building tolerant, inclusive, and genuinely free Muslim-majority societies has been grotesquely misrepresented and stigmatized.

The first of these experiences was the overtly anti-religious attitude of the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, which was presented as "modernization" and "secularism."

The second is the objectionable and noxious French concept of laïcité, which also tends to be more anti-religious than neutral. This association has been particularly exacerbated by "secular" laïcité laws in France and elsewhere that oppressively prevent Muslim women from covering their hair in public spaces such as schools.

The third, and perhaps most damning of all, has been the misappropriation, abuse, and discrediting of "secularism" by regimes that placed Arab nationalism at the center of their authoritarian ideology. Socialist, communist, and fascist Arab regimes oppressed, abused, and waged wars against their own peoples and each other in the name of, among other things, "secularism."

Read the whole thing in NOW Lebanon.

When Assad Apologists Attack

It’s hard to find even much black humor in the Syrian civil war, but I laughed out loud a couple of times during this screamfest on Lebanese television between one of Bashar al-Assad’s mafioso and a bemused spokesman for the Free Syrian Army.

I don’t want to ruin it by quoting the good parts, so just watch it.

Quote of the Day

This guy is a laugh riot.

“Personally, I don't see any obstacles to being nominated to run in the next presidential elections,” Assad told Syria's Al Mayadeen TV when asked if he thought it was suitable to hold the election, as scheduled, in 2014.

This was in a Reuters piece which says in its headline that Assad "mulls re-election."

Reminds me of a Syrian joke I heard in Beirut, which I believe was imported from the Soviet Union. It goes like this:

Syria holds an election. An advisor to the president Hafez al-Assad—who, of course, runs unopposed—says, “Mr. President. Great news! You won 99.9 percent of the vote!”

Assad growls under his breath.

His advisor, perplexed, says, “But Mr. President. Only 0.1 percent of the people voted against you. What more do you want?”

“Their names,” Assad says.

Spying on the French

Not for the first time, France is upset with the United States. The French government, earnestly desiring an explanation—meaning, a humiliation—summoned the American ambassador at the same time as US Secretary of State John Kerry touched down in Paris. And the US ambassador will have to perform the usual diplomatic acrobatics to avoid explaining why the US is spying on much of France.

Colombia’s Peace Paralysis

The never-ending negotiations to pacify Colombia’s 50-year-old guerrilla war have bogged down, and both the government and the insurgents have turned to more bellicose actions to get the upper hand in the peace talks. But neither side wants to pay the political price for breaking off the negotiations on which many Colombians have placed their hopes for a settlement that would end the horrors of a conflict that has killed 220,000 people, many of them unarmed civilians.

Will Israel Accept Syrian Refugees?

Israel is the only country in the Eastern Mediterranean that isn’t involved in the Syrian refugee crisis. It doesn’t even occur to Syrians to seek refuge in what is supposed to be an enemy state.

But what if that changed?

The Israeli Druze community is now pressuring the government to accept Syrian Druze refugees.

It’s an interesting idea. The Druze are Arabs, but they’re not Muslims. Not really. They belong to a closed minority spin-off sect that is largely secular in orientation and doesn’t accept converts. Most tenets of their religion are secret, and as minorities they have a unique take on regional politics.

The Druze don’t have the numbers to build a state of their own. Their community is split between Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. In each place they ally themselves with whoever is in power in order to keep themselves safe.

In Israel, they’re loyal Zionists. In Syria, they’ve been on side with Bashar al-Assad. On the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, they divide their loyalty between Israel and Syria. They’re partly loyally to Israel because they live under Israeli jurisdiction, but they’re also partly loyal to Syria in case the Israelis ever give the Golan Heights back. In Lebanon, under the leadership of Walid Jumblatt, they’re constantly shifting with the ever-changing political landscape.

They rarely, if ever, cause trouble for whoever’s in charge. And they’re more keenly aware than anyone else of which horse to bet on during power struggles. They have to be or they will not survive.

So if Syria’s Druze do end up seeking Israeli protection, it will only be because the power dynamics in the Eastern Mediterranean are in the process of a permanent shift. Leaders in Israel’s Druze community seem to believe that’s an actual possibility or they wouldn’t even be talking about it.

Kyiv’s Raiders and Monsters

If you’d like to understand the wrenching changes Ukraine’s capital city is currently undergoing, watch for a forthcoming book by Professor Roman Cybriwsky, provisionally titled City of Domes and Demons: Kyiv, Ukraine in Difficult Transition after Socialism. Cybriwsky is an urbanist and former chair of Temple University’s Department of Geography and Urban Studies, former director of Asian Studies, and former associate dean at Temple’s Japan Campus. He has written extensively about New York, Tokyo, Jakarta, Philadelphia, and Phnom Penh and obviously knows his cities.

The Ominous Return of Putin's Media Enforcer

The recent return of Vladimir Putin’s longtime éminence grise, Vladislav Surkov, to the Kremlin was widely discussed in the media. Much less noticed was the appointment of Mikhail Lesin, Putin’s former information minister, as the new head of Gazprom-Media, Russia’s largest—and de facto state-run—media group, which incorporates several broadcast, print, and online outlets. Lesin’s return to a senior position is no less symbolic than that of Surkov—and says a lot about the Kremlin’s plans for Russia’s few remaining uncensored media.

Asylum Seekers on Hunger Strike in Berlin

BERLIN — Sometimes I tell people I had trouble getting my visa for Germany, but it’s not really true. I rolled up to the Ausländerbehörde (foreigner’s registration office) here carrying a bunch of homemade cookies, and emerged triumphant shortly thereafter. 

Had I been seeking asylum, however, I might have starved by now.

That’s what 28 refugees are doing in front of the Brandenburg Gate right now. When I went to see them on Monday, on the sixth straight day of their hunger strike, I was shocked to learn that not a single representative of any German political party had come to see them. 

Germany’s new coalition might still be getting organized, but as the protest leader pointed out, it’s not as if the government is shut down, American-style. Institutions are functioning as usual, forms are still being filed, and asylum applications are presumably being rejected. “They don’t want to look,” he said, referring to the politicians. “This is the reality.”

Major Setback for Silvio Berlusconi

Italy’s Spaghetti Westerns were inspired by Hollywood, so it was weirdly fitting that Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, having just successfully faced a political high noon of his own, was in Washington Thursday for President Obama’s final shootout.  

Earlier this month, Letta had surprised seasoned observers by facing down Silvio Berlusconi and saving his grand coalition government from collapse, thus averting yet another political crisis in Italy that would have caused serious repercussions throughout the eurozone. Sound familiar so far?

Berlusconi had ordered ministers from hisParty of Freedom, or PDL, to quit the Cabinet, with the intention of forcing down the Letta government. But the leader of the center-left Democratic Party stood his ground, called for a confidence vote, and won it handsomely—with the help of more than 20 PDL members who defied Berlusconi and voted with the government. A humiliated Berlusconi abandoned his attempt to bring down Letta’s administration, and now faces a vote in the Italian Senate on whether he should be banned from public office following his final sentencing for tax frauds.

Former Chinese Leader Hu Jintao Indicted

On October 10th, Spain’s top criminal court indicted former Chinese leader Hu Jintao “as part of an investigation into whether the Chinese government tortured and repressed the people of Tibet as part of an attempted genocide,” in the words of one news report. Hu presided over a bloody crackdown in 1989 while serving as Communist Party secretary of the region, and his tenure as president of the country was also marked by harsh rule there. His predecessor, Jiang Zemin, has already been charged by the same court with related crimes.

The Russia Left Behind

I have not yet been to Russia, but when my friend Sean LaFreniere and I drove into a remote part of Ukraine from a remote part of Poland and hit roads so deteriorated they looked and felt like they’d been shredded to ribbons by air strikes, Sean said “we’re in Russia!” He insists that this place—outer Western Ukraine on the road to the town of Sambir—is exactly like the long dark stretch of road between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

I wrote about that journey in my book, Where the West Ends. And now Ellen Barry has written what reads like a haunting companion piece about the actual stretch of road between Moscow and St. Petersburg for The New York Times Magazine.

Her piece is extraordinary, as are her photos.

At the edges of Russia’s two great cities, another Russia begins.

This will not be apparent at next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, nor is it visible from the German-engineered high-speed train. It is along the highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg — a narrow 430-mile stretch of road that is a 12-hour trip by car — that one sees the great stretches of Russia so neglected by the state that they seem drawn backward in time.

As the state’s hand recedes from the hinterlands, people are struggling with choices that belong to past centuries: to heat their homes with a wood stove, which must be fed by hand every three hours, or burn diesel fuel, which costs half a month’s salary? When the road has so deteriorated that ambulances cannot reach their home, is it safe to stay? When their home can’t be sold, can they leave?

Clad in rubber slippers, his forearms sprinkled with tattoos, Mr. Naperkovsky is the kind of plain-spoken man’s man whom Russians would call a “muzhik.” He had something he wanted to pass on to Mr. Putin, who has led Russia during 13 years of political stability and economic expansion.

“The people on the top do not know what is happening down here,” he said. “They have their own world. They eat differently, they sleep on different sheets, they drive different cars. They don’t know what is going on here. If I needed one word to describe it, I would say it is a swamp, a stagnant swamp. As it was, so it is. Nothing is changing.”

Driving the highway, the M10, today, one finds beauty and decay. There are places where wild boars roam abandoned villages, gorging themselves on the fruit of orchards planted by men.

There are spots on this highway where it seems time has stopped. A former prison guard is spending his savings building wooden roadside chapels, explaining that “many souls” weigh on his conscience. A rescue worker from the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl is waiting, 27 years later, for the apartment the Soviets promised him as a reward. Women sit on the shoulder, selling tea to travelers from a row of samovars. Above them, pillars of steam vanish into the sky, just as they did in 1746, the year construction on the road began.

This part of Russia should not be the back of beyond. It’s the single stretch of road between the country’s two largest cities. The road from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Deadhorse on the Arctic Ocean is in better condition than this. (I know, I’ve driven it.)

It’s not just the roads in rural Russia that have fallen apart. The society itself seems to have slipped back into the 18th century.

What struck me most about Ukraine is how it looks like the West, but it’s not. It’s like an alternate universe version of the West, what our civilization might have looked like had history gone another direction. Russia and Ukraine actually went that direction.

Is China Turning Up the Heat on Taiwan?

“Increasing mutual political trust across the Taiwan Straits and jointly building up political foundations are crucial for ensuring the peaceful development of relations,”said Chinese leader Xi Jinping to the Taiwanese envoy Vincent Siew on October 6th, according to remarks paraphrased by Beijing’s official Xinhua News Agency. “Looking further ahead, the issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”

Pope Francis Woos an Alienated Flock

Pope Francis proved himself to be an original even before he gave away his Harley Davidson over the weekend, which not a lot of men I know would do. In June some 35,000 motorcyclists roared into Rome to celebrate the bike’s 110th birthday, gave the pope one of them, and now Francis has offered his gift to auction: proceeds going to a hostel and soup kitchen hard by Rome’s Termini Station. “It hurts my heart when I see a priest with the latest model car,” said the pope, who prefers to greet his admirers in a Fiat.

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