Best Friends For Now

It’s been a rough year for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s most powerful ally, the United States, struck high-profile diplomatic deals first with Syria and then with Iran, their most hated foes. The threat of U.S. military intervention in both countries is now receding, and relations with Iran might even be reaching something less than outright hostility. And the House of Saud is voicing its long-simmering displeasure in public:

[…] And yet rather than challenging the Syrian and Iranian governments, some of our Western partners have refused to take much-needed action against them. The West has allowed one regime to survive and the other to continue its program for uranium enrichment, with all the consequent dangers of weaponization.

This year’s talks with Iran may dilute the West’s determination to deal with both governments. What price is “peace” though, when it is made with such regimes?

The foreign policy choices being made in some Western capitals risk the stability of the region and, potentially, the security of the whole Arab world. This means the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has no choice but to become more assertive in international affairs: more determined than ever to stand up for the genuine stability our region so desperately needs.

The anger behind this statement is almost as transparent as the insecurity it reveals. Saudi Arabia and its fellow Sunni Gulf monarchies in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates are strong American allies, but they’re not durable ones. What happens when — not if — the United States abandons them?

America’s relationships with these countries, especially with Saudi Arabia, have always been anomalous. Major U.S. allies are generally stable liberal democracies who share similar political and socio-cultural values. (This wasn’t always the case, especially during the Cold War, but it’s getting better.) Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom share a language, a common heritage, and deep cultural ties. France, Germany, the other European democracies in NATO, and Israel are bound to the United States by the turbulence of history and a shared worldview. Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines were practically rebuilt in the American image in the second half of the 20th century. More often than not, America prefers allies who resemble America.

So what does the United States share with the Gulf monarchies beyond a common Persian foe? Certainly not America’s republican ethos. All six GCC members are either absolute monarchies or cosmetically-constitutional ones. Bahrain, with their neighbors’ armed support, violently cracked down on Arab Spring protesters in 2011 while the United States looked the other way. A Saudi political activist had the temerity to argue earlier this month that the Kingdom should embrace constitutional monarchy; for this, a secret court sentenced him to 300 lashes.

Nor do the Gulf monarchs share the deep American respect for human rights. Legal protections for women’s rights, LGBT rights, and religious and ethnic minority rights are limited or non-existent. For those not fortunate enough to be born male, straight, or Muslim in most of these countries, persecution is the norm, not the exception. Five of the six are rated “Not Free” on Freedom House’s Democracy Index; Kuwait alone stands at “Partly Free.” Saudi Arabia still hasn’t even signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It’s hard to see the Saudi-American alliance continue, especially at this level of mutual commitment, once transitory geopolitical crises abate and current economic priorities shift elsewhere. (Those oceans of oil may be vast, but they’re not infinite.) It’s a familiar pattern in U.S. foreign policy since World War II. The world is littered with the ruins of American-backed dictatorships who suddenly found themselves without weaponers once the Soviet Union fell and their utility passed.

The Saudis and their neighbors understand this. You can see this fear manifest itself in the Kingdom’s own words, pledging to “go at it alone” and to bring “stability” (read: Sunni regional hegemony) to the Middle East by themselves — as if this didn’t mask their fundamental insecurity about the regime’s future.

And you can see it in the United States’ attempts to placate the restless ruling houses that ring the Persian Gulf. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced on December 7 that the United States will start selling weapons directly to the Gulf Cooperation Council:

Speaking at the Manama Dialouge international security conference here, Hagel encouraged GCC members to create a military alliance and said he’d like to better integrate the US missile defense systems with those of the GCC to enhance collective capabilities.

“We would like to expand our security cooperation with partners in the region by working in a coordinated way with the GCC, including through the sales of U.S. defense articles through the GCC as an organization,” he said. “This is a natural next step in improving U.S.-GCC collaboration, and it will enable the GCC to acquire critical military capabilities, including items for ballistic missile defense, maritime security, and counterterrorism.”

Hagel said the Pentagon “will better integrate with GCC members to enhance missile defense capabilities in the region,” adding “the United States continues to believe that a multilateral approach is the best answer for missile defense.”

The GCC’s purpose is — with apologies to Lord Ismay — to keep the Americans in, the Iranians out, and the reformers down. Successive American governments have sold weapons to the individual GCC member states, first to deter Iraq (to whom Washington once sold weapons) and now to deter Iran (to whom Washington also once sold weapons). Selling weapons to the GCC as a whole is a natural step for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

But, if past is prologue, it’s also a step that could haunt unborn generations of Americans to come.

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Tragedy and Memory

An article in The Nation today by Robert Scheer made the outstanding claim that “August 6 marks 68 years since the United States committed what is arguably the single gravest act of terrorism that the world has ever known.” The act, of course, is the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and (three days later) Nagasaki. To Scheer’s credit, he included the modifier “arguably,” which seems insufficient to capture the magnitude of the statement. Yet it is not enough.

From the start, even the definition of terrorism is problematic. Hoffman traces the term’s origins to the French Revolution. Since then, it has described Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Ku Klux Klan, Gerry Adams and the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and countless other armed groups. Not all those labeled as terrorists fit the popular conception: for leading the armed wing of the African National Congress against apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. The State Department only lifted his designation as a terrorist after the revered statesman had already won the Nobel Peace Prize and successfully won South Africa’s first multiracial presidential election. “Terrorism means the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians, and targeted [Hiroshima and Nagasaki] were,” Scheer states. If only it were that simple.

Despite the thousands of man-hours put into the subject by political scientists and legal scholars around the world, there is no universally agreed-upon definition of terrorism. Unlike other forms of political violence like war and rebellion, what constitutes terrorism is not a fixed constant but an emotionally-charged, subjective, and imprecise term at best. Almost all scholars, however, agree on one characteristic: that it is caused by non-state actors against civilian populations. While tens of thousands of Japanese civilians died in the atomic bombings, they died in the course of a declared armed conflict between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan. Examining it under the laws of war is the more appropriate framework framework. Neither an international tribunal nor an American court has addressed the atomic bombings in this war, although a post-war Japanese court ruled the atomic bombings to be war crimes. War crimes and terrorism, however, are two different things.

Scheer also reveals a fundamental shift in Western political thought, in which “terrorism” is increasingly applied to all manner of violent actions that do not strictly (or even loosely) meet the political science definition. Culturally, it is no longer simply armed violence by non-state actors against civilian populations for political reasons, or any other semantic permutation. Terrorism has become a super-crime, elevated beyond the mere misdemeanors and felonies composing it into an existential societal burden. Only into this darkest of categories can the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki fall, according to Scheer, and we must all bear some collective guilt for it. “As a nation,” Scheer writes, wagging a finger to an audience overwhelmingly born after August 6, 1945, “we excel at obliterating reminders of our own failings.”

But context also matters. As U.S. forces drew closer to the Japanese archipelago, enemy garrisons in Peleliu, Tarawa, Luzon, and Iwo Jima only demonstrated increasing resilience. 100,000 Japanese soldiers dug into the mountainsides at Okinawa, the last stronghold before the Home Islands, and traded their lives for 60,000 American casualties. American war planners extrapolated from those losses when estimating the human cost of Operation Downfall, the codename for the planned Allied invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. Had it been executed, it would have been the largest amphibious military operation of all time, dwarfing even the Normandy landings in size, scope, and scale. 900,000 Japanese soldiers stood ready to defend their home, along with millions of civilians conscripted into the reserves and armed with often nothing more than farm implements.

The war planners’ estimates varied from branch to branch, but few foresaw fewer than 100,000 fatalities and a quarter-million casualties for the Allies in the first stage alone. Estimates that factored in the mass mobilization of the Japanese people as guerrillas and the widespread usage of airplanes, boats, and midget submarines as kamikazes (at least 10,000 planes had been prepared) had dramatically higher casualties for both the Allies and for Japan. The latter were estimated to suffer almost-unconscionable losses: between five and ten million civilian casualties were not unexpected in even the most conservative projections.

(None of this was idle speculation, either. In 1945 the War Department manufactured 500,000 Purple Heart medals in anticipation of the vast casualties Downfall would bring. That stock has yet to be depleted today, even after every battle and every war the United States has fought since 1945.)

With the country’s industrial base and population already devastated by relentless Allied air raids — more Japanese citizens died in the March 10, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo than in either Hiroshima or in Nagasaki — Downfall presented a truly existential threat to the Japanese nation. With so many millions of lives in the balance, American and Japanese alike, we can see the calculus that led Harry Truman to authorize the atomic bombing, even if we disagree with it.

None of this precludes the idea that there are dark, shameful chapters in American history. White settlers and soldiers presided over the forced relocation of Native American tribes, warring with those who resisted. A slaver aristocracy in the South plunged the United States into civil war because the nation had elected a president who thought the enslavement of four million black men, women, and children was not moral. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II by order of Franklin D. Roosevelt, forsaken by Congress and even the courts of law. The United States of America was founded on great ideals, but its people and leaders have frequently failed to live up to them.

But to single out Hiroshima above all others, to point at it and say, “Yes, this is the worst that humanity has ever done” seems hollow. What does such a sweeping statement say about the other blood-soaked chapters of World War II? Shall we compare the tens of thousands who died at Hiroshima to the quarter-million who died at the Rape of Nanking, where Japanese soldiers raped, tortured, and murdered Chinese civilians for three days, or the tens of thousands who perished in flames at Dresden? Shall we then stack those corpses against those from the forced starvation of millions of Soviet citizens by Germany on the Eastern Front, or against the Wehrmacht’s horrific multi-year sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad? Must we rank atrocities and tragedies like some sinister Olympics, duly awarding medals of shame to those whose nations have most thoroughly and efficiently brutalized their fellow human beings?

Historians will never cease debating the atom bomb’s role in ending the worst war humanity ever fought, nor should they. Future generations may find Truman’s decision to be justified and necessary, to be unwarranted and unforgivable, or perhaps even something more complex than that. We can only hope that they learn from the horrors their forefathers faced. May they never take for granted the indelible luxury that allows them to set one tragedy above another for transitory argumentative gain.