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.

More Thoughts on Drones

William Saletan posted an interesting defense of President Obama’s drone warfare program this morning that’s worth reading. His argument — that drone warfare is a far less lethal option than the others available to the United States — received some ferocious criticism, including a hyperbolic comparison to torture by Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald also posted, however, an intriguing piece by Chris Hayes on what Hayes called the “no-alternative fallacy”:

What, people ask, is the alternative to small war, if not big war? And the answer no one ever seems to even consider is: no war. If the existence of people out in the world who are actively working to kill Americans means we are still at war, then it seems to me we will be at war forever, and will surrender control over whether that is the state we do in fact want to be in. There’s another alternative: we can be a nation that declares its war over, that declares itself at peace and goes about rigorously and energetically using intelligence and diplomacy and well-resourced police work to protect us from future attacks.

Two things strike me about Hayes’ argument. First, what he describes as a combination of intelligence, diplomacy, and law enforcement is virtually indistinguishable from what we’ve been doing all along to combat al-Qaeda, excluding the military’s soon-to-be-concluded counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan itself. Since the CIA has its own drone fleet, I’m not sure what exactly would change under Hayes’ plan. But in fairness, it’d be unfair to judge his position without further exposition of it on his part.

The second thing, and for me the most important, is that Hayes is essentially articulating the position that Greenwald has tried to argue all along — once we strip away the bellicosity and belligerence Greenwald exhibits towards any liberals who disagree with him, that is. Saletan noted this drone warfare critics are trying to make in a separate discussion on Twitter:

@AdrianChen IMO lots of people think or act as though they’re criticizing drones, when really they’re against war. Makes for clearer debate.

This explains why some commentators — Greenwald foremost among them — don’t understand why most liberals aren’t railing against Obama’s drone wars in Yemen and Pakistan like they railed against the Iraq War. I was 13 when the United States invaded Iraq. I wrote enthusiastic stories in my middle school English class that year calling George W. Bush a warmonger and comparing him to the Dark Lord Sauron (I was really into Lord of the Rings back then). Yet I am still able to distinguish between ongoing military operations against al-Qaeda and its affiliates and an unnecessary, unjustified war started under false pretenses. For others, this distinction is either less obvious or less important.

Nothing to Fear

Earlier today, a North Korean diplomat at a United Nations conference on nuclear disarmament threatened South Korea with “final destruction,” drawing sharp rebukes from the ambassadors present. Last week, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon — the third such test in seven years — and received universal international condemnation, including from its largest ally, the People’s Republic of China. Such behavior would be unacceptable from any other country, and yet from North Korea it is almost expected. Why?

The easiest explanations for North Korea’s behavior, to which uninformed commentators spring first, fall within two broad categories. The first is that North Korea is simply evil. George W. Bush most notably described North Korea as a member of the “Axis of Evil,” and not undeservedly so. North Korea is a carceral state ruled by a totalitarian regime in which virtually all human rights and civil liberties are suppressed, in which thousands die during the country’s periodic famines, and in which 200,000 political prisoners languish in concentration camps. Christopher Hitchens, who visited North Korea in 2010, even called it “a nation of racist dwarves” — the famines had resulted in such widespread malnutrition that the average North Korean stood six inches shorter than his or her South Korean counterpart. While the North Korean regime is one of the most horrific and brutal in human history, descriptors like “evil” don’t shed further light on its international posturing.

While describing North Korea as evil is simply unhelpful, describing its leadership as “crazy” — the other common reaction by the commentariat — is flat-out false. Mental illness in dictators is notoriously unreliable, and is often rejected outright by historians when assessing the motives of Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein, “bad doesn’t equal mad.” Furthermore, dismissing them as madmen ignores the complexity and strategy underlying their actions, even if those actions are unconscionable.

Calling dictators crazy reflects a broader cultural misunderstanding of their power structures. That style of amoral leadership is anathema to most preconceived notions of government and the state. Central to liberal democracy is the idea that the state derives its legitimacy from the will of the people. Over the past three centuries, this concept has evolved from an Anglo-American eccentricity into the dominant political ideology on the planet. In 2013, it is an idea to which even authoritarian regimes in China and Russia must pay lip service, albeit through rigged elections, oft-ignored constitutions, and inconsistent protections of human rights and civil liberties.

Not so in Pyongyang, where the Kim dynasty and its inner circle have fashioned the entire North Korean society along two intertwined illusions: first, that invasion and conquest by the United States and other Western powers is perpetually imminent, and second, that Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather before him, is the only thing standing between the ravenous imperialist hordes and the valiant North Korean people. This worldview, propagated by a steady and relentless domestic propaganda campaign, forms the ideological basis for Kim Jong-un’s rule.

To maintain that authoritarian status quo, Kim Jong-un must feed the illusions upon which it rests. To that end, he has taken a highly-aggressive stance towards South Korea and the United States to both justify his regime’s existence and to consecrate his nascent leadership of it. To demonstrate boldness despite Kim Jong-il’s failing health, North Korea launched an artillery bombardment of South Korean territory in 2010 in their most brazen attack by the North since 1953. To demonstrate strength as tensions rise across East Asia over the last six months, North Korea tested nuclear weapons last week — the ultimate symbol of scientific and military might. To demonstrate resolve by an untested Kim Jong-un, the regime’s aggressive overtones towards its neighbors have reached a fever pitch over the past three years, coinciding with the natural instability brought about by the transition from the ailing Kim Jong-il to his 28-year-old son.

These provocations are not undertaken without careful consideration. Kim Jong-un and his inner circle know that if they actually started a war against the United States and its allies, they would lose. Despite latent hand-wringing in American political circles and the over-exuberant boasts of international rivals, the United States is a superpower and possesses the world’s preeminent military force. Although North Korea could kill tens of thousands in its initial attack — Roger Cavazos’ analysis of their oft-repeated threat to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” is a must-read on this — it is highly difficult to see a way in which the North Korean regime could survive that war, much less win it.

At the same time, there’s a vast difference between the reality of American aggression and North Korean propaganda thereof. The regime knows that the United States won’t launch a pre-emptive war against them despite repeated provocation. Such a conflict would be an unmitigated bloodbath that would devastate the Korean peninsula and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. There’s no popular or political support for it at all in the United States, even among hard-liners, and the risk of a broader war against China would be too great. Because of this, the regime knows it can get away with shenanigans that that the international community otherwise wouldn’t put up with, even including nuclear weapons tests and artillery bombardments of South Korean territory. At the same time, Kim Jong-un can’t be so overtly aggressive that China abandons them altogether or that Barack Obama throws his hands up in frustration and flattens Pyongyang once and for all. The goal isn’t victory, but survival.

Behind what the average American would call the actions of a madman or a lunatic lies a sinister calculus. The North Korean regime must raise international tensions to such a level that they can justify their totalitarian system while simultaneously not be so overly threatening that the United States or China feels compelled to take action. So far, they are succeeding.