Archive for March, 2014
Saudi Arabia Fexes Its Fanaticism – An Analysis (26 March 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – An Aggressive Anachronism
Saudi Arabia is one of a handful of Middle East anachronisms: a family-based monarchy that believes it sits at the right hand of God. The Saud clan that rules in Saudi Arabia is both insular and fanatic. It is devoted to the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, perhaps the most strict and intolerant manifestation of the religion.
Except for the religious details, there is really not much difference between the respective outlooks of a Wahhabi true believer, a hard-core Christian fundamentalist, and the Jewish extremists in Israel. Like their Christian counterparts, the Saudis are proselytizers who spend huge sums every year supporting fanatical preachers pushing their message in far-flung parts of the world. And, like their Jewish counterparts, the Saudis have an army equipped with more advanced American weapons than they know what to do with. This, if you will, mechanizes their fanaticism.
Recently, there are suggestions that this is indeed the case. In 2011 the Saudi monarchy came to the rescue of another Middle East anachronism, the Sunni Al-Khalifa family monarchy in Bahrain. The Al-Khalifa were in trouble because for decades they had been systematically discriminating against the country’s Shiite Muslim majority until, in the atmosphere of the short-lived Arab Spring, the Bahraini Shias decided to stand up and demand a bit of democracy for their homeland. When the Bahraini police, mostly imported from Pakistan, could not handle the evolving situation, the Al-Khalifa called in U.S.-armed Saudi troops to put an end to any hopes of a better, more democratic Bahrain. Even though the Saudi incursion violated the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, there was no protest from Washington.
In the meantime the Saudis have also been busy funneling money and weapons to the Sunni opposition in places like Iraq and Syria.You might not like the governments in Baghdad and Damascus, but the groups the Saudis are underwriting are often worse. Be they the suicide car-bombers of Iraq or the self-proclaimed Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria, Saudi money, both private and government funds, along with the guns they buy, have been making their way into the hands of people who seemed to have the same callous disregard of non-combatant life and limb as do, well, the guys who operate U.S. drones in Yemen.
There have been repeated protests about this sort of Saudi behavior. The Russians have complained about it in relation to Syria, and the Iraqi government has directly accused the Saudis of sponsoring terrorism in their country. Has this given any pause to the zealots in Riyadh? No, it has not, because, like the Israelis, they know that they have God on their side and, ultimately, Washington D.C., as well.
Now the Saudis have turned their bullying ways toward their neighbor Qatar. In early March the Saudi foreign minister declared that Riyadh would “blockade Qatar by land and sea” unless that country ceases its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, a mostly non-violent Muslim organization that the Saudis have illogically designated a “terrorist” group – probably because the Brotherhood proselytizes a rival interpretation of Islam and has been outlawed by the Egyptian military dictatorship, which is an ally of Saudi Arabia. They also want Qatar to close down Al Jazeera and evict several U.S.-based research organizations with offices in Doha because they have all been critical of Riyadh. Considering that most of Qatar’s fresh food comes across its only land border with Saudi Arabia, the threat must be taken seriously.
Part II – Lack of a U.S. Response
There is no indication that the United States will stand by relatively liberal Qatar any more than it supported the democracy advocates in Bahrain. As far as Washington is concerned, the oil that comes out of Saudi Arabia to America’s trading partners (not much of it comes to the U.S.) is more important than the independent broadcasting of Al Jazeera, the American research centers and, without a doubt, the ideology of democracy. And it is the Saudi monarchy that keeps the oil flowing. Thus, despite some complaining, the U.S. acquiesces in the behavior of the Saudi fanatics, just as it does with the Israelis.
This means that Washington can sanction the Russians for protecting their security interests and the Russian-speaking population in the Crimea. They can sanction the Iranians for developing nuclear energy. And, they can acquiesce in the utter destitution of 1.76 million Gazans. But you will hear no talk of sanctions due to Saudi aggression or its sponsorship of terrorism.
Part III – Strange Bedfellows
At present the Saudis and Israelis are acting in unlikely unison on a range of issues such as support for Egypt’s military dictatorship. This makes them strange bedfellows. What can they possibly have in common? Well, besides adhering to arrogant and aggressive notions of manifest destiny, they both fear democracy in the Middle East. And, believe it or not, we can make the duo into a trio by adding the United States. Why should all three governments fear democracy? It’s really very simple. What often happens when there are free and fair elections in that region of the world? One gets leaders and governments that are (1) almost by definition wary of monarchies and other forms of dictatorship, (2) anti-American, because Washington is an historic supporter of Middle East dictators, (3) pro-Muslim, but not receptive to the strict Wahhabi or Salafi versions of Islam, and (4 ) more active in their support for the Palestinian people.
At this point these strange bedfellows are having their way. The Arab Spring and its aspirations of a more tolerant and democratic Middle East are, with the possible exception of Tunisia, rapidly fading memories. In its place we have the fanatics: the military style in Egypt, the religious style in Saudi Arabia, and an aggressive mixture of the two in Israel.
And what about the U.S.? Well, its style is to arm fanatics and dictators and then preach democracy. In Washington, the name of the game is hypocrisy.
Who Set-Up Medea Benjamin? An Analysis (16 March 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Background
For several months prior to March 2014 the peace organization Code Pink was in communication with Egyptian diplomatic representatives in the United States. The two sides were arranging for the arrival of approximately 100 women from around the globe who would come to Egypt, travel up to the Rafah border crossing with Gaza, and (if prevented from actually crossing into the besieged territory) hold a demonstration on International Women’s Day (March 8) to show solidarity with the women of Gaza.
One of the principal organizers of this event was the well-known peace activist Medea Benjamin, winner of such awards as the Martin Luther King Peace Prize (2010), the Marjorie Kellogg National Peacemaker Award (2012), the Thomas Merton Center Peace Award (2012) and the Peace Foundation Memorial Award (2012). Benjamin is, as the Los Angeles Times put it, “One of the high profile leaders” of the American peace movement.
Here then was the situation: We had a nationally known personality traveling to Egypt for a publicly scheduled and well-advertised peace mission. The Egyptian government knew she was on her way and it is probable that the U.S. government also knew her plans.
Part II – The Set-Up
Benjamin, along with several other members of Code Pink, arrived at Cairo’s international airport about 8 p.m. on March 3. In her own words here is what happened next:
“I arrived at the airport. When I gave in my passport, I was taken aside, brought into a separate room, where I was held for seven hours without anybody ever telling me what was wrong. Then I was put into a jail cell at the airport, held overnight. And in the morning, five very scary-looking men came in and wanted to take me away. And I said, the [U.S.] embassy is coming. They were supposed to have arrived. Instead, the men dragged me out, tackled me to the ground, jumped on me, handcuffed my wrists so tight that they started bleeding, and then dislocated my shoulder, and then kept me like that grabbing my arm.”
In the meantime both the Code Pink members who had accompanied Benjamin to Egypt as well as those in the U.S. were pleading for help from the U.S. embassy in Cairo. They would continue to plead for some 13 hours. The embassy refused any assistance, telling the women that they “were on their own.”
To this day Benjamin has not received any explanation for the incident from either the Egyptians or the Americans.
When an official at the Egyptian interior ministry, Brigadier Alaa Mahmoud, was asked about the incident by CNN, he replied, “Benjamin was not detained. She was denied entry because her stated reason for visiting Egypt was to make a trip to Gaza. Authorities explained to her that the crossing was closed and consequently refused to allow her to enter the country.” He denied that she was assaulted or that force was used on her.
Mahmoud did not explain how Benjamin ended up on a plane to Turkey with a broken arm and a dislocated shoulder.
Part III – Responsibility
Here is what I surmise happened. Medea Benjamin’s horrid treatment was not a mistake. It was not the action of a few rogue border officials. It was a premeditated act on the part of the military dictatorship that now passes for a government in Egypt. Who gave the orders? No doubt this plot started in Washington when someone, probably a security officer attached to the visa department at the Egyptian embassy, recognized Benjamin’s name. He alerted someone in Cairo that a major supporter of the Palestinians and someone who had spoken up for democracy across the region was coming to Egypt. Then someone in Cairo decided to make an example of her.
The next question is: Would you do that to a high-profile American activist without running the scheme by some relevant U.S. official? I guess that depends on just how cocky the Egyptian security folks have gotten. However, considering the reaction (or lack thereof) of the U.S. embassy personnel in Cairo, it sure looks like the U.S. government was in on the plot. And, if they were, one has to ask the question why.
After all, when an American embassy gets a call from a U.S. citizen who has just been assaulted and harmed to the point that they need hospitalization, the standard policy is to render assistance. If necessary an embassy representative is dispatched to the scene to ensure such assistance. To deny such aid is so counter to policy that any embassy employee doing so is putting their job in jeopardy. Unless, of course, someone higher up has explicitly changed the rules. That is unlikely to have been done on the spur of the moment by someone at the embassy in Cairo. Such a negation of policy would have had to come from someone relatively high up in the Department of State or perhaps the White House.
There is actually precedence for this flip-flopping of the rules, and it is found at the U.S. embassy in the country of Israel. As the American activist Rachel Corrie and others have found to their dismay, in Israel the denial of assistance to U.S. citizens in trouble is the rule, not the exception. That might now be the case in Egypt too.
Part IV – Conclusion
As a matter of training and policy American diplomatic personnel are not supposed to cooperate with the hired thugs of Egyptian dictators or the military murderers of various regimes ranging from South and Central America to the Eastern Mediterranean. They are not supposed to conspire in the denial of the rights of American citizens just because they, or their bosses, disapprove of the political positions and actions of those citizens. To do so is to utterly trash the U.S. Constitution.
But we know that in practice our diplomats are quite capable of doing just this. And, while you will never get the bureaucrats to admit it, I am pretty sure that there are government officials both in Washington and the U.S. embassy in Cairo who conspired with the thugs now employed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to drag the U.S. flag through the mire by turning their backs on Medea Benjamin. There should be consequences for such treason.
Disturbing Democracy – An Analysis (7 March 2014) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Disturbing Democracy
In the past couple of years a disturbing political phenomenon has arisen. To put it simply, groups espousing democracy have caused their countries to politically self-destruct by violently turning against the results of free and fair elections. Apparently, they act this way because the elections did not go their way and/or the elected officials adopted policies they oppose. They do so even when there is a possibility that changes in policy, and even changes in constitutions, can be had peacefully through legal means.
Admittedly this is happening in states both new to democratic politics and deeply divided along ideological lines. A tradition of compromise and sensitivity to minority rights are not yet manifest.
Part II – The Egyptian Example
As I have explained in a previous analysis, this is what happened in Egypt in 2012-2013. In this episode, the country’s democracy movement, led on by such groups such as Tamaroud, turned against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Morsi because of its Islamist orientation.They boycotted the government’s constitutional convention, claiming that their demands were not being met, allied themselves with authoritarian forces, and went back into the streets to bring the government down.
These ersatz democracy advocates believed that the Morsi government was going to create a “dictatorship of the majority,” that is, an Islamist majority. They were frightened that their minority rights, be they in reference to religion, lifestyle, or gender, would not be protected. This was a palpable fear rather than an assured fact. Thus, the real question for them should have been whether the constitution the Morsi government was creating was open to amendment by democratic actions over a reasonable period of time.There was some debate over this but no definitive evidence that this would not be the case. Nonetheless, instead of allowing Morsi to serve out his term of office and test out the proposition that political evolution was possible within the newly won democratic environment, the “liberals” showed no patience. They simply abandoned the democratic road. There was something strange about this, for given their ability to bring massive numbers of people into the streets to demonstrate against Morsi, one would think that, come the next election, their chances to exact meaningful compromises from the Morsi forces was very good. Worse yet, they conspired with the starkly undemocratic military officer corps to overthrow the government. In this they succeeded and now find themselves under a brutal military dictatorship.
Part III – The Ukrainian Example
Now we have the situation in Ukraine. Like Egypt, the Ukraine is deeply divided, this time between those who identify with western Europe and those who identify with Russia. Driven by both economics and anti-Russian sentiments, the former group wants to join the European Union, and some go so far as to call for Ukraine to become part of NATO – a really provocative move given Russian sensitivities. The latter group for its part is mostly made up of large numbers of ethnic Russians.
In 2004 Ukraine experienced its “Orange Revolution,” in which a campaign of non-violent popular protest overturned a presidential election tainted by widespread vote rigging. Under the circumstances, this action was both appropriate and necessary. In the reelection that then took place, Viktor Yushchenko, a Western-oriented leader, won the presidency. However, for the next four years political power within Ukraine’s parliament shifted back and forth between the various ideological blocs.
In 2008, the global financial crisis caused a severe downturn in the Ukrainian economy. That situation no doubt influenced the outcome of the 2010 elections, which brought the Russian-oriented Viktor Yanukovych to power. Yanukovych proceeded to negotiate an extension of Russia’s lease on the naval base at Sevastopol in return for favorable prices on imported natural gas. All efforts to join NATO were abandoned.
Yanukovych adopted other policies orienting Ukraine toward Russia. He may have felt ideologically comfortable in doing so, but he also had good economic reasons for his actions. Ukraine needed financial support, and the West, in the form of the European Union, was offering an economic package with many neoliberal economic strings attached. So Yanukovych decided to go with the Russians, who offered to buy $15 billion worth of Ukrainain bonds and again reduce gas prices. Yanukovych for sure is no angel, and unless he is watched carefully he may well play fast and loose with democratic rules. However, his decision to negotiate a deal with Russia, announced in November of 2013, was legal and economically prudent.
Before the end of November, the Western-oriented opposition, the ones who allegedly were most supportive of keeping things within democratic parameters, put hundreds of thousands people in the streets of Kiev. The demonstrations were started by students supporting a turn toward the West, but they were soon joined by right-wing nationalist groups whose rhetoric and actions have unsavory fascist overtones. The protestors were soon taking over government buildings – behavior which spread to regional cities by early in 2014. Soon the risk of civil war was real.
I have seen no evidence of a formal alliance between the democratic protestors and those of fascist leaning. On the other hand, I have seen no evidence that the democrats sought to distance themselves from the fascist right. They seem to have informally been brought together by the common objective of destroying the Yanukovych administration.
In the face of the growing protests, Yanukovych agreed to a compromise agreement with opposition leaders that would have paved the way for a new “national unity government,” a reduction in presidential powers, and early new elections. It was at this point that the protest movement made a truly fatal mistake. The opposition forces in the streets refused the negotiated compromise and stormed the presidential palace, forcing Yanukovych to flee the country. The opposition also took control of the parliament and issued an arrest warrant for him as well. As in Egypt, the forces of democracy had aided and abetted in staging a coup.
All of this predictably aroused Russian concerns not only for their naval facilities and personnel in the strategic Crimean Peninsula, but also for the fate of the Ukraine’s ethnic Russian population. It has also
opened the door to ethnic inspired separatism that could well pull the Ukraine apart. Recent events in the Crimea and eastern regions of Ukraine are just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible.
Part IV – The U.S. Response
The United States, the self-proclaimed head of the “international community” and (at least in its own eyes) a democratic model for the world, has not reacted to these events in an inspiring fashion. In the case of Egypt, the Obama administration refused to call the overthrow of the democratically elected president a “military coup,” even though that was the case. Avoiding the obvious meant that there would be no automatic cutoff of the bulk of American aid to Egypt. For its part, Congress made no move to deprive the new military regime of the statutory aide doled out to the Egyptian army each year. In fact, the U.S. has had an all-too-muted response to the demise of democracy in Egypt.
When it comes to the Ukraine, there is some evidence that neoconservative holdovers in the State Department encouraged the Ukrainian opposition in its defiance of the elected government. Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, who repeatedly showed up at Kiev demonstrations to hand out cookies to both demonstrators and police, was caught discussing, on an open telephone line, who should be the new leader of the country. Her favorite candidate turned out to be a 39-year-old Ukrainian adherent to neoliberal economics, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was willing to “cut subsidies and social payments” along the lines of an IMF aid plan. These are just the sort of policies that would guarantee that Yatsenyuk would never win an honest election.
Part V – Conclusion
The behavior of the Egyptians and Ukrainians may not be all that surprising. Neither people comes out of a democratic political culture. Nonetheless, there is something particularly disturbing when those who present themselves as champions of democracy betray their own alleged principles and violently refuse to accept free and fair electoral results. It is the old scenario where you will play the game only if you win, otherwise you fly into a rage and upset the whole board. The situation gets even worse when one realizes that representatives of the U.S. government might be encouraging such anti-democratic behavior.
Liberal democracy (with a strong, tempering dose of social democracy) may be the best, or perhaps the least worst (it depends on how you look at it), form of government there is. However, to create it and keep it requires tolerance and willingness to make reasonable compromises. It also precludes making deals with authoritarian forces whose ambitions are dangerous to democracy itself. Will others learn from the mistakes of Egyptian and Ukrainian democracy advocates? Somehow I doubt it.