USA: Why No One Believes American Rhetoric About Democracy

A presidential visit to Saudi Arabia feels sadly inevitable. 

By Ben Rhodes | The Atlantic

American foreign policy often highlights the gap between the values-based story that the United States tells about itself and the reality of how a superpower pursues its interests. The size of that gap will be impossible to straddle when President Joe Biden travels to Saudi Arabia to repair his relationship with the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Biden is by no means the first American president who has struggled to reconcile a declared commitment to human rights with a more utilitarian definition of American interests. George W. Bush enlisted Saudi Arabia as an ally in the War on Terror even though 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, the wellspring of the Wahhabism that helped create the conditions for the attacks.           

Barack Obama offered tentative support for a Saudi-led intervention in Yemen to avoid a rupture in the relationship, a decision that many Obama officials – myself included – regretted as the war devolved into a humanitarian catastrophe. Donald Trump, unburdened by the pretense of supporting human rights, embraced the kingdom so thoroughly that it was hard to tell where Riyadh’s policies ended and Washington’s began.             

Having served in the White House, I understand the factors that likely informed Biden’s decision. Because gas prices are punishing American consumers, any chance of increasing oil production may seem worth pursuing, particularly amid a midterm election campaign stacked against Democrats. As the war in Ukraine grinds on, the U.S. wants to guard against the Saudi government falling into the autocratic arms of Russia and China. And with Arab Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain embracing the Abraham Accords, the U.S. has both a domestic political and a geopolitical interest in adding momentum to the process of normalization between Israel and Arab autocrats.

For these reasons, promises to make the kingdom a “pariah” while “putting human rights at the center of American foreign policy” have been set aside. One might even mount arguments that this short-term compromise could serve long-term democratic objectives — whether salvaging a Democratic administration at home, supporting a fight for democracy in Ukraine, or defending the creaky liberal international order. In this way, one can rationalize a visit to the Saudi royal court as an embrace of realism that does not compromise American ideals.

VISITING MBS IS WRONG. As George Orwell once said, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” And while we contort ourselves to embrace the Saudi leadership in the name of shared interests, recent history should show us that those interests are not aligned. Most profoundly, the dual existential threats of our time — the collapse of democracy and the onset of climate change — require a more radical reassessment of the trade-offs that America makes and why we make them, not a reset with a fossil-fuel-rich dictator.

This accepted presumption of “shared interests” is worth testing. In fact, a review of Saudi policy since MBS’s ascent in 2015 reveals how out of step the kingdom’s policies have been with stated U.S. interests such as nuclear nonproliferation, political stability, and the survival of democratic civil society across the Middle East and North Africa.

Let’s start with nuclear weapons. Saudi leadership encouraged President Trump to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which had verifiably rolled back Iran’s nuclear program and placed it under international monitoring through a deal negotiated by many of President Biden’s closest advisers – I was part of that effort. Negotiations to reenter the deal have stalled, in part because of U.S. efforts to win over the Gulf states and Israel by pursuing a “longer and stronger” deal and a refusal to remove sanctions imposed by Trump after he pulled out of the JCPOA. These sanctions have utterly failed to constrain Iran’s nuclear program or its malign activities in the region. Paradoxically, a Saudi-led regional consensus on escalating confrontation with Iran has now led to an outcome in which Iran has acquired enough of a stockpile for a nuclear weapon while maintaining its regional aggression.

Beyond that, a series of Saudi policies stemming from MBS’s fixations — Iran and political Islam — have been consistently contrary to stated American priorities. A 43-month blockade of Qatar fueled tensions within the Gulf Cooperation Council while achieving nothing. A bizarre effort to exert leverage on Lebanese politics by holding its prime minister hostage exacerbated Lebanon’s political dysfunction. Support for the Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar weakened a government backed by the United States and the United Nations. A preference for military rule over democratic change has shut the door on Egyptian civil society and made the Gulf a primary port of call for Sudanese military leaders threatening a democratic transition.

Then there is Yemen. Since the Saudi-led invasion of that country, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, including thousands in the kind of indiscriminate air strikes that draw swift Western condemnation when they occur in Ukraine. Consider, for a moment, how that undermines our criticism of Russia’s war outside Europe. Millions of Yemenis live on the precipice of malnourishment and famine. The objective of dislodging the Houthis has failed. The obvious moral and strategic catastrophe of the war was evident enough that Congress passed a resolution in 2019 requiring the U.S. to end any participation in it. Trump, despite his rhetoric about “ending endless wars”, VETOED THE RESOLUTION. 

I have no doubt that Biden wants to put a stop to the suffering in Yemen and that U.S. diplomats are working in earnest to pursue this objective. Indeed, the war in Yemen is something of a microcosm for the strange asymmetry in the U.S.-Saudi relationship under successive administrations, including the Obama administration: Saudi Arabia could not carry out its military operations absent U.S. support, and yet the U.S. appeals to Saudi leadership to take our concerns into account more than the other way around. If a war is misguided and immoral, why participate in it at all? 

One issue on which the U.S. and Saudi Arabia do appear to be moving toward consensus is the Abraham Accords. The U.S. has long sought the normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. That effort is essential to assuring Israel’s rightful place in the community of nations, and it could help promote peaceful collaboration and economic development in the Middle East. Close Saudi partners such as the UAE and Bahrain would likely not have joined the accords without MBS’s blessing. Clearly, Israel and Saudi Arabia have come to see Iran as a mutual antagonist. That will be the backdrop to Biden’s efforts to continue to pull existing Saudi support for the accords out into the open.

Yet the triumphalism around the Abraham Accords must be accompanied by an honest assessment of the agreement’s shortcomings. FIRST: The Palestinians have been left out of the deal. By any measure, the expressed U.S. goal of a two-state solution has been both set back and set aside, leaving unanswered the question of whether there is any pathway to Palestinian self-determination, or whether the U.S. even cares. What, then, was the point of decades of U.S. diplomacy in pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian resolution? And what, now, is the future for the Palestinians? 

The second issue unaddressed by the accords is democracy itself. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is an extreme manifestation of a much broader crackdown on dissent within the kingdom, and increased threats to journalists and activists across the Middle East and beyond. Who will speak for them, even as we have ample evidence that new spyware tools have been brought to bear against them in recent years? When the Biden visit is inevitably presented as advancing normalization between Israel and Gulf monarchs, we cannot ignore the uncomfortable reality that the accords have become a get-out-of-jail-free card for the brutal subjugation of democratic dissent. How does that fit within a global struggle between democracy and autocracy? 

AUTOCRACY DEPENDS UPON CYNICISM AND APATHY: CYNICISM, which suggests that there’s no real difference between types of government, and APATHY, which suggests that nothing can change. MBS’s determination to secure a visit from a U.S. president who once called him a pariah is rooted in a keen understanding of that reality.

By all means, the United States should engage Saudi Arabia, just as we engage all sorts of governments around the world. We don’t get to pick who runs other countries, and when we try to, it usually doesn’t turn out well. But we do get to choose the level, terms, and venues for that engagement — which, in this case, clearly reflect MBS’s preferences.

BLAMING THIS GRIM SET OF CIRCUMSTANCES ON JOE BIDEN IS TOO EASY. Since the Khashoggi murder, Saudi Arabia has been under a cloud. To overcome that isolation, the kingdom has poured enormous amounts of money into reputation-laundering events, including a Justin Bieber concert and a new golf league. A Biden-MBS handshake in Riyadh is worth far more. Global businesses, entertainers, athletes, and political figures won’t have to feel ambivalent about associating themselves with the Saudi leadership. The influence loop between lucrative Gulf business opportunities and American punditry about the vital contributions of the Saudis and Emiratis to the global order can return to their pre-Khashoggi pace. The rehabilitation of MBS will be complete.

Meanwhile, American rhetoric about democracy will be tagged by the cynics as hypocrisy focused on America’s geopolitical adversaries, and its commitment to combat climate change as subordinate to our search for cheaper fossil fuels. MBS is in many ways a product of the American-led order of the past several decades. Our prioritization of profit over other values. Our insatiable addiction to fossil fuels, and that industry’s obstruction of congressional action to break it. Our definition of national security as tied to the familiarity of autocracy over the uncertainty of democratic change. Until our politics reflects a more profound change in our priorities and our mindset, a presidential visit to Saudi Arabia will feel sadly inevitable, no matter who holds the office.

At the time, the response to Khashoggi’s murder seemed like a sea change. But in retrospect, MBS’s violation of the existing order appears to have been getting caught more than it was the underlying crime, and Trump’s violation was saying the quiet part out loud. Until the United States truly makes democracy and climate change our overriding priorities, the U.S.-Saudi relationship may indeed be rooted in “shared interests”. THAT IS WHAT HAS TO CHANGE. 

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 07/15/2022 at 12:56 pm

    Ukraine’s New Rockets Are Wreaking Havoc On Russia’s Army

    The American-supplied HIMARS is wiping out arms dumps and command posts

    The Economist

    “RUSSIAN FORWARD AMMUNITION DUMPS ARE QUITE POSSIBLY THE MOST UNSAFE PLACES IN ANY WAR ZONE,” explained an American army handbook published in 2016. Munitions were not stored safely, it noted, and many dated from the Soviet era, close to their expiry dates, creating “a tinderbox ready to explode”. “Priority targeting of these areas will cause a serious logistics strain on the Russian system,” it concluded. UKRAINIAN GENERALS ARE NOW PUTTING THAT THEORY TO THE TEST.

    ON JULY 11TH A RUSSIAN AMMUNITION DEPOT IN NOVA KAKHOVKA IN SOUTHERN UKRAINE EXPLODED IN SPECTACULAR FASHION. Satellite images showed that the entire facility vanished overnight. It is thought to be the latest victim of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), which America began sending to Ukraine in late June.

    America has provided eight launchers and on July 8th said it would send four more. Each one carries a pod of six GPS-guided missiles accurate up to 84km or so — nearly three times the range of the howitzers sent earlier. American officials had been wary of providing more of these weapons until it was clear that Ukraine would use them effectively. Although they look superficially similar to Soviet-era rocket launchers, which rain down warheads over a large area, they are much more precise and need to be used judiciously to conserve ammunition.

    SO FAR, UKRAINE APPEARS TO BE PASSING THAT TEST. The Nova Kakhovka facility was thought to have been the 19th such depot to have gone up in flames since June 27th, according to a tally by Kyle Glen, an open-source analyst. A 20th followed in Luhansk city on July 12th. A strike on a command post in Kherson province on July 10th is said to have killed many senior officers, including the major-general in charge of the 22nd army corps.

    HIMARS strikes appear to have occurred all along the front lines, from Luhansk in the east to Kherson in the south. Kirill Mikhailov of the Conflict Intelligence Team, an open-source research group, says the first battery of four launchers was deployed on the left bank of the Dnieper River and has been used against targets in Kharkiv, Zaporizhia and Donbas. More recently, another has been deployed to the right bank and appears to be preparing the ground for a counter-offensive around Kherson province.

    Ukrainian commanders are cock-a-hoop. They say HIMARS is tilting the war back in their favour after the recent loss of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, cities in Luhansk. A colonel in charge of its deployment says that the weapon is proving effective against a range of targets, from command posts to barracks, while remaining almost immune to return fire thanks to its ability to “shoot and scoot” quickly. Ukraine appears to be using Soviet-era rockets to confuse and overwhelm Russian air-defence systems, before launching the new GPS-guided rounds.

    The colonel says that dozens more launchers would be needed to enable a serious counter-offensive. He also acknowledges that HIMARS may grow less effective as Russia adapts, for instance by disguising key targets. But the fact that Russia’s army did not take such precautions despite weeks of notice that HIMARS was coming points to a structural problem.

    America’s army tends to disperse and conceal its ammunition dumps across a number of smaller sites. Russia’s army, which relies heavily on trains to move munitions and human muscle to load them onto trucks, has instead created big depots close to railheads — often by taking over civilian industrial distribution centres. That was fine until HIMARS turned up. Dispersing those depots would require a huge amount of new equipment or manpower. Moving them farther away from the front lines would also strain the army’s limited fleet of trucks: Doubling the distance more than doubles the number of trucks required, or more than halves throughput.

    Even if Russia were to move its supply chain painstakingly out of HIMARS range, the respite might be only temporary. America, wary of escalation, sent the launchers on condition that Ukraine would not use them against targets on Russian soil. As a further precaution, it did not provide the longest-range munition: The Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) of 300km range.

    IF IT WERE TO DO SO, EVERY SQUARE INCH OF RUSSIAN-OCCUPIED TERRITORY WOULD BECOME WELL WITHIN RANGE OF UKRAINIAN FIREPOWER. This includes Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, as well as the Kerch bridge connecting it to Russia, ships in Crimean ports and many other juicy targets. ■

  • Clyde Duncan  On 07/15/2022 at 9:13 pm

    What Joe Biden Should Know About Jamal Khashoggi

    Hanan Elatr Khashoggi describes her husband not as a happy warrior against MBS, but as a homesick patriot looking for ways to come in from the cold.

    By Graeme Wood | The Atlantic

    “I know that there are many who disagree with my decision to travel to Saudi Arabia,” President Joe Biden wrote last week in an op-ed in The Washington Post. Among those disagreeing is the publisher of The Washington Post, who denounced Biden for “going … on bended knee” (surely he meant “meeting on bended knee,” unless Biden is flying to Jeddah from Tel Aviv on a magic carpet) to “SHAKE THE BLOODY HAND” of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. According to U.S. intelligence, MBS probably ordered the murder and dismemberment of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi — a crime for which Khashoggi’s former colleagues understandably decline to forgive him.


    “HE WOULD FORGIVE HIM”, Khashoggi’s widow, Hanan Elatr Khashoggi, told me last month. I ASKED HER TO SAY THAT AGAIN. Forgive his own murderer — the guy whose goons chopped him up into little pieces? She thought it over and continued, sobbing: “FORGIVENESS IN OUR RELIGION IS SOMETHING GREAT.”

    She said she was not sure she could forgive MBS, and in any case no Saudi official has asked her to do so. But she said her husband was merciful, and would not want his legacy to be permanent isolation from his country. “If he wanted revenge against the crown prince, that would cause problems for the entire Saudi Kingdom. And he wouldn’t want this.”

    Since Khashoggi’s murder, perhaps his most prominent champion has been his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, a Turkish activist who has written for The Washington Post and worked with overseas critics of MBS. Khashoggi went to the consulate in Istanbul, never to emerge, because he needed paperwork from the Saudi government that would let him marry Cengiz.

    But Khashoggi, like many Saudis, practiced polygamy, and he left a widow in the Virginia suburbs. Hanan does not recognize her husband’s views in the words of some of the activists who knew him. And she has politics of her own. When I asked MBS about Khashoggi, he told me that he had never even read an article by Khashoggi, that Khashoggi was a nobody, not even in the “top 1,000” dissidents he would kill — and he’d have done a better job, if he had. His widow said that strange denial sounded plausible. “Believe me, I am from the Middle East,” she said. “The leaders do not read.” For the murder itself, she blames “people around the crown prince,” who acted on his behalf and remain unpunished.

    The killing of Khashoggi has overshadowed every other issue in Biden’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. But Hanan’s story, and the version of her husband she insists is right, has disappeared from his legacy. An Egyptian by birth, Hanan trained as a journalist but worked for 23 years as an Emirates airlines flight attendant. She knew Jamal socially in Dubai in the 2010s, then married him in Northern Virginia months before his death in 2018. Her apparent willingness to forgive MBS would seem implausible or suspicious — maybe even evidence of her having been paid off or threatened — except that she constantly defends, in her husband’s name, Islamists imprisoned by MBS and identified by his supporters as the most dangerous men in the country.

    Earlier this week, Hanan said in a statement, she met with senior Biden officials to “thank” Biden for going to Saudi Arabia and “express what Jamal wanted most in this world: The release of all political prisoners being held in Saudi Arabia.”

    In our conversations, she mentioned two prisoners in particular: the economist and blogger Essam al-Zamil and the preacher Salman al-Awda, both of whom are charged with membership in the Muslim Brotherhood. [Saudi Arabia considers the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group, and membership in it is a capital offense.]

    Hanan’s disappearance from Khashoggi’s story has frustrated and embittered her. “There is a lot about Jamal that is not being said,” she told me. The Khashoggi of the popular imagination is a sort of gadfly journalist whose politics and inclinations fit conveniently with those of an activist class that have worked against the Saudi monarchy, and sometimes in favor of rapprochement with Iran, for years. “I call it ‘Jamal Inc.,’” she told me, disgusted. Hanan describes her husband not as a happy warrior against MBS, but as a homesick patriot looking for ways to come in from the cold.

    Some inconsistencies between the Jamal of legend and the real Jamal are simply a matter of record. Khashoggi was not a Saudi Seymour Hersh or David Halberstam: Real journalism was always forbidden when he wrote for Saudi papers in the 1980s and ’90s. Even his columns for The Washington Post were marred by reports that he’d drafted them with the help of Qatar, a rival of Saudi Arabia. [Hanan denies that her husband worked for Qatar.] He was never really independent. He worked for the Saudi government at various times — as an intermediary to his childhood friend Osama bin Laden, and later as an aide to Prince Turki Al Faisal, the country’s longtime spymaster.

    But Hanan’s deepest displeasure is at her husband’s legacy as a dissident against his country. She insists that although he criticized MBS, he hated to be called a “dissident” or an enemy of the crown prince. Khashoggi told me the same, weeks before his death. Toward the end of his life, she said, “he cried every night”, because he was being portrayed as a pest, when his private wish was to reconcile with his king and go home. “He was being pulled by two sides,” she said. “One side bullied him to give up and support a dictator, like any in the region. The other side bullied him to be a dissident.”

    The tension led him to contemplate suicide. “When Anthony Bourdain killed himself, Jamal kept talking about it. I told him he was making me scared to leave him alone,” she said. His physical health deteriorated, too. “He became very weak and started limping.” During his life, she said, he never cashed in on his fame as an opponent of MBS — many groups would have paid him — so the couple lived humbly in Northern Virginia, crammed into a small apartment and hunting for deals at the local Harris Teeter supermarket. She continues to live modestly, waitressing at a Lebanese restaurant and working other hospitality jobs.

    Khashoggi’s politics are widely believed to be those of a secular democrat, and therefore inconsistent with the quasi-theocratic monarchy of Saudi Arabia. The Washington think tank Democracy for the Arab World Now calls Khashoggi its founder. That too is misleading, Hanan says. The Jamal she remembers was passionate about freedom, and wanted more of it for Saudis, but he supported monarchy and practiced a conservative and traditional Islam. She said she had no idea he intended to take another wife — but she acknowledged that Khashoggi “believed in polygamy” and she told me that as a Muslim, she would “accept this”. She has never met Cengiz and says she does not wish to.

    Many government-connected Saudis have alleged to me, without proof, that Jamal was himself a member in good standing of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was not always clear whether they were suggesting membership as a reason to kill him, or just evidence of seedy behavior. Hanan denies that he was a member in good standing. Jamal was a Brother years ago, and shared certain Islamist inclinations with bin Laden. During his final years of exile, Jamal sometimes made, on principle, ambiguous statements about his alleged membership in the group. “It is my right to be [a Muslim Brother], or a leftist, or anything,” he told an American audience shortly before his death. “It is within my privilege.”

    The Saudis have been betting that someday, eventually, their relationship with the United States will cease to be defined by Khashoggi’s death, and that the legacy of Khashoggi himself will be forgotten entirely in the final triumph of American interests over American values. Right now that bet looks likely to pay out, though it has taken a while to do so. Many in Washington knew Khashoggi. Indeed, everyone who knew anything about Saudi Arabia seems to have known him.

    Many who knew him well differ about what he would have wanted. Many who didn’t know him at all, or don’t know anything about Saudi Arabia, have equally strong views. And it is far from obvious whether Biden’s visit makes meaning of his death by betraying his legacy or, if Biden can persuade MBS to ease up on domestic oppression. We’ll see what he gets for that handshake, bloody or not.

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