Sunday, March 4, 2012

Land of the Free

On Monday, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Sa'ud appeared at the National Press Club, and journalist Sam Husseini asked him a question that I'm sure was extremely uncomfortable, to wit: 
There's been a lot of talk about the legitimacy of the Syrian regime, I want to know what legitimacy your regime has, sir. You come before us, representative of one of the most autocratic, misogynistic regimes on the face of the earth. Human Rights Watch and other reports of torture detention of activist, you squelched the democratic uprising in Bahrain, you tried to overturn the democratic uprising in Egypt and indeed you continue to oppress your own people. What legitimacy does you regime have -- other than billions of dollars and weapons?
After some dancing around and several inquiries about whether or not Husseini had been to Saudi Arabia (...?), Prince Turki finally did respond, sort of:

Anyway ladies and gentlemen I advise anybody who has these questions to come to the kingdom and see for themselves. I don't need to justify my country's legitimacy. We're participants in all of the international organizations and we contribute to the welfare of people through aid program not just directly from Saudi Arabia but through all the international agencies that are working throughout the world to provide help and support for people. We admit this, as I said that we have many challenges inside our country and those challenges we are hoping to address and be reformed by evolution, as I said, and not by revolution. So that is the way that we are leading, by admitting that we have shortcomings. Not only do we recognize the shortcomings, but hopefully put in place actions and programs that would overcome these shortcomings. I have mentioned the fact that when you call Saudi Arabia a misogynistic country that women in Saudi Arabia can now not only vote, but also participate as candidates in elections and be members of the Shura Council. And I just refer you to your own experience to your women's rights, when did your women get right to vote? After how many years since the establishment of the United States did women get to vote in the United States? Does that mean that before they got the vote that United States was an illegitimate country? According to his definition, obviously. So, until, when was it -- 1910 when women got to vote -- from 1789 to 1910 United States was illegitimate? This is how you should measure things, by how people recognize their faults and try to overcome them.
Husseini raises an excellent point in his post about the incident, and his commentary explains why he is both a better man and a better journalist than I ever can or will possibly be: 
I was very glad to get the question in and and I was happy that Turki responded. I think his response opens the door to a lot more serious reporting. For example, Turki's response that Saudi Arabia gets legitimacy because of its aid programs is an interesting notion. Is he arguing that by giving aid to other countries and to international organizations that the Saudi regime has somehow purchased legitimacy, and perhaps immunity from criticism, that it would otherwise not have received? This is worth journalists and independent organizations pursuing. might seem like I'm giving him too much praise for being open minded about Turki's response.  I give him an extra measure because the same day, Husseini was suspended from the National Press Club for his question.

Here's the thing.

The United States has allied itself with Saudi Arabia for decades because we need two things: their oil and their oasis of reasonable calm in a turbulent region.  I am not one to immediately brush off alliances made for economic resources.  While we Americans refuse to work towards a less oil-dependent nation, we need to get oil from somewhere, and right now that means either from nations of problematic politics in the MENA region or from Canada via the proposed affront to the environment that is the Keystone XL pipeline.  It sucks, but here we are.  If you need things and someone else has them, you trade for them.  That said, it is incumbent on a nation that prides itself on its moral stature to occasionally say "this nation's human rights violations are too much to bear," and to at the very least separate the diplomatic fawning from the economic transaction.  There are plenty of countries we do trade with - serious, big time trade worth significant chunks of GDP - that do not receive nearly the endorsement, defense or encouragement that we lend to Saudi Arabia.  It is frankly unseemly for us to be castigating other nations in the region to act right and stop oppressing their people while shoveling money and support into Saudi Arabia as they commit the same sins.

Saudi Arabia has some serious shit to answer to, and so do we.

What worries me, though, isn't even Saudi Arabia's behavior or the fact that they send members of the royal family to the National Press Club to answer soft questions and lie to the world, but rather that the National Press Club, which despite its name is not an organ of the US government, but a private club for journalists, would suspend a member for asking a question that is extremely relevant to US foreign policy and also raises an important point about legitimacy of rulers and sovereignty generally.  This is precisely the kind of soft despotism that so concerned Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835.  Tocqueville was concerned that in a democracy, one would find not the despotism that jailed you or beat you or tortured you, but an even more insidious form, which would trick you into policing yourself.  He feared that citizens in democracies would become so brainwashed by the conventions of their societies that they would suppress their own freedom, without any prodding from the state.  This kind of incident seems to prove Tocqueville's concerns valid, and that is a really worrying proposition for America's present and future.

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