Before most Americans could even pronounce the name “Houthi,” much less tell you who they were, Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham were on a dais chastising President Obama for his unwillingness to bomb them into the ground.
Mere hours after the Saudis (armed with $90 billion in U.S. weaponry and more on the way) began pounding Shia Houthi rebel targets in Yemen, the two senators were lamenting that Washington had not been let in on the operation.
“The fact that the Arab coalition no longer trusts us, or feels they need to inform us as what they’re about to do, is chilling,” Graham said on March 26. “They no longer have confidence in the United States of America,” McCain enjoined. “The Saudis did the right thing.”
This has been a common refrain from the senior senators, who have become as predictable as the tides when it comes to blaming the president for “leading from behind,” or not showing the appropriate obeisance to certain foreign allies—whether Israel on the Iran nuclear deal or Ukraine in their struggle against Russia.
But that Obama should be admonished for a perceived laggardness in the Sunni Gulf states’ swift intervention in Yemen, in what has been called a battle for sectarian dominance in the region, shows how little these men think of the American public. After 14 years of fighting Sunni insurgencies with no end in sight (Iraq and Afghanistan, al-Qaeda everywhere, now ISIS), the idea the U.S. could be shamed into joining a coalition of countries espousing highly questionable motives and human rights records, in an intervention no one can rightly explain, should raise a few red flags.
And one question—what do we get out of it?
There are, of course, two prevailing boilerplate explanations for why the U.S. should intervene more strenuously: 1) Yemen is boiling over in a proxy war in which the bad guys are power-hungry Iranians seeking to establish Persian-led Shi’a hegemony across the region, and/or 2) Washington must support “pillars” of stability like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, else the Middle East will go up in flames. Both claims have been deemed exaggerated and oversimplified in varying degrees by national security experts who see the events in Yemen as nothing more than a civil war that could turn into a sectarian blow-out across the region if airstrikes continue and Iranian proxies get further enmeshed in the situation.
The Saudi government has just hired two top Republican political spin doctors for tens of thousands of dollars to ensure that the above narratives stick, however, and to make sure that U.S. elected officials react in a matter consistent with the Saudi point of view on Yemen and the Gulf states’ desire to see President Bashar al-Assad deposed in Syria.
While U.S. lawmakers and the constellation of Washington think tanks can always be persuaded, the American people are far from convinced that Saudi Arabia, a monarchy that beheads people for blasphemy, covers women from head to toe, keeps its people largely unemployed and poverty stricken, and exports the kind of terror-inspiring Wahhabism that makes suicide bombers out of boys, really has American best interests at heart.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has done a stellar job at maintaining the fiction that even while it is everything that America is not, the kingdom is worthy of unconditional support. The same goes for places like Egypt and like Bahrain, which itself has largely escaped U.S. censure in its violent (Saudi-assisted) crackdown on the country’s oppressed Shi’a majority.
Aside from regional “stability,” the sword of Damocles ostensibly hanging over Washington until now has been oil (though the U.S. imports less oil from Saudi Arabia now than it does from Latin American countries and Canada), and U.S-global economic concerns linked to Saudi investments in the U.S. and the preservation of dollar as the world reserve currency. Those cringeworthy kisses and hand-holding with the man in the flowing robes weren’t for nothing.
After all these years of this ill-fitting alliance, the U.S. has demanded little in return. The Saudis allowed access to installations and air space after 9/11, and the CIA has a drone base there. U.S. forces work closely with the Saudi military, but more permanent U.S. assets are parked in other Gulf States, like the Navy’s 5th fleet in Bahrain.
Meanwhile, Washington continues to demur on the possible Saudi connection to 9/11, and has been tepid in its criticism of Saudi support of Sunni extremists in Syria and Iraq, including ISIS. All this makes the McCain-Graham insistence that Washington “prove” its loyalty so mendacious. Who should prove what to whom?
Conservative columnist Trudy Rubin raised these contradictions in an April 11 column about Riaf Badawi, the Saudi Arabian blogger whose case went viral after he was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for advocating free speech in the kingdom. He got 50 of those lashes before an international outcry forced the government to postpone the rest, yet he still languishes in a 10-year jail term and is in danger of being retried on apostasy charges, punishable by death (likely a public beheading, of which there have been 54 already in 2015).
“[Badawi] was trying to encourage the kind of peaceful debate that is essential if Arab nations are ever to emerge from the backwardness that fueled the failed Arab Spring,” wrote Rubin.
When asked why the Saudis would display a level and kind of intolerance similar to the Islamic State, “Saudi officials insist they won’t tolerate any interference with their ‘independent judiciary,’” she continued. “This is a thin cover story designed to stifle debate about the impact of Saudi religious ideology at home and abroad.”
Badawi’s wife, who fled with their young children to Canada, has spoken publicly for his release. Saudi Arabia has responded by “warning” Canada not to interfere. The Saudis have been even tougher on Sweden, recently cowing the country’s officials into walking back criticism made by their own foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom.
Wallstrom had spoken out against Badawi’s flogging and called Saudi Arabia a dictatorship. The House of Saud responded by scrapping a major arms deal with the country, barring her from talking about democracy and women’s rights at a speech of the Arab League in Cairo, recalling its ambassador to Stockholm, announcing it would no longer issue business visas to Swedes or renew the visas for Swedish citizens already there, and blocking the recent transfer of Swedish monkeys to a Riyadh zoo.
One would think Washington was in a much better position to pressure the Saudis on this point, but as foreign policy analysts (especially of the old Cold War ilk) are wont to say, “it’s complicated.” It’s especially complicated by the amount of money and the number of top-drawer lobbying firms Saudi Arabia employs to do its bidding in U.S. centers of power.
Therefore it’s not surprising that the Obama administration has been criticized for its lackluster appeals to the kingdom on its human rights record. When the White House failed to mention Badawi during the elite-studded Washington pilgrimage to King Abdullah’s funeral in January, Obama insisted that “a balance” is required.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf was less nuanced: “I don’t think we’re in the business of demanding things.”
When U.S. Senators weighed in urging the Saudis to desist in the flogging, it was six Democrats and two Republicans (Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk) who signed a letter. Graham and McCain, who was forced to fire a top fundraiser during his 2008 campaign for president because his firm collected $15 million in lobbying work from the Saudis, were absent.
The fact is, Badawi was espousing the same arguments against the Saudis’ harsh interpretation of Islam that McCain and Graham have made in justifying the expensive, endless U.S. war on radical jihadism overseas. Many Americans are waking up to the fact that there is little difference between the two, and that Washington looks hypocritical when it coddles one purveyor of Wahhabism while sending U.S. troops into harm’s way to spill blood over another.
“This is an old story, that the U.S. puts aside human rights when it does not coincide with its own strategic interests,” Phyllis Bennis, activist and Middle East commentator for the liberal Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), tells TAC
“The disempowerment of women, the truly abysmal version of a so-called justice system that includes flogging bloggers and beheading people, the government’s definition of ‘terrorism’ which includes advocacy of atheism – this is the so-called stabilizing instrument of U.S. foreign policy in the region we are supposed to be supporting in this moment of instability?”
At least 90 people were publicly executed in Saudi Arabia in 2014. According to Sevag Kechichian, the Saudis have been defiant in the face of criticism, insisting such beheadings occur only after the strictest fair trial standards are upheld. Kechichian points out, however, that “suspicion, it seems, is enough for a judge to order putting an end to someone’s life.” Half of the announced executions in 2014 – and so far in 2015 – are for non-lethal offenses, he said. The vast majority are drug related, including mere possession. Meanwhile, religious minorities, including Christians, are routinely persecuted by the country’s religious police.
Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, a convert who wrote The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and Its Role In Terrorism (2002) and founded the Center for Islamic Pluralism, says “Wahabbism is entrenched” in the kingdom and that reforms are in motion, but “it’s going to be slow.”
Unlike Bennis, Schwartz believes there is good reason to push back against Iranian influence in Yemen, and believes Obama could be more active in supporting the Gulf states against Assad’s crackdown on the Sunni opposition in Syria. However, “the U.S. should be more active is supporting reforms in Saudi Arabia,” he tells TAC. “That should be key to our policy in the Middle East. I am in favor of more active criticism of Saudi Arabia. I am also realist about how societies change.”
Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of Saudi nationals are under the age of 30 and three-quarters of all unemployed are 20-somethings. Millions of Saudis are living on less than $530 a month, even while, thanks to the monarchy’s spoils, Saudi Arabia has one of the highest concentrations of wealth on the planet. There is a pressure cooker here, one that also includes a restive Shi’a minority, and a radicalized segment of the population that sees the House of Saud as aberration.
Afshin Shahi writes that with its aggression in Yemen, new King Salman and the country’s elites are either ignoring these domestic struggles or using foreign policy “as an effective tool to control internal dynamics. “(The) ‘external enemy’ can be used to generate unifying nationalism or to legitimize a security state,” he says. “It’s an especially useful tactic for authoritarian regimes.”
But as one Reuters analysis warned on April 10, this strategy may have unintended consequences, as “nationalist fervor is sweeping the conservative Sunni Muslim kingdom, bringing with it a sharp sectarian edge.” The Saudis may call it a war against Tehran’s influence, but it appears to be translating into a religious war that abides no territorial boundaries.
So far, Pakistan has sensed that, too, refusing a Saudi request to send any troops with Riyadh and Egypt for a potential ground war in Yemen.
It’s hard to think this is what McCain and Graham truly want, but maybe they’ve been in league with Saudi interests against Iran for so long that putting American forces in the middle of an 1,300-year-old sectarian schism that Americans can’t even begin to untangle, doesn’t strike them as ill-conceived. For McCain, who has raved more than once, “thank God for Saudi Arabia and (former intelligence chief and ambassador) Prince Bandar, ” that point may be long lost.
It may be music to the kingdom’s ears, but for America’s sake, its lawmakers should reconsider their blessings before blundering into the next war.
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.