Another War of Jenkins' Ear

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There’s No Easy Answer on Consistency in Foreign Policy

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Jumping off Eugene Robinson, Matt Yglesias sees that Arab dictators are using fighting Gaddafi as a means to deflect attention from their own crackdowns. He continues:

This is why it’s so nuts for intervention enthusiasts to dismiss out of hand the obvious concerns that have been raised about US-subsidized regimes in Yemen, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia attacking un-armed protestors even as we intervene militarily in Libya to halt repression. There’s an obvious question as to what, in reality, American policy in the Arab world is. Is this part of a policy of boosting democratic change in the region, or is it part of a policy of bolstering the position of the Persian Gulf dictators who are important clients of American arms manufacturers?

This is not a new or unforeseen problem either. The Second Additional Procotol to the Geneva Conventions foresaw this; it applies to non-international armed conflicts, but specifically does “not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature.”  From the very drafting of the Geneva Conventions it was foreseen that countries would suppress riots, even democratically justified ones.

In fact, the Protocol only applies when “armed forces [of the country] and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol.”

Firing on protesters is morally repugnant. In their actions, the governments of Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and more almost certainly committed violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

And yet, facing an entire region under the control (as Yglesias notes) of an armed dissident group is a legally different situation (provided the Benghazi rebels implemented the Protocol; I have no idea if this was the case). Without going too much into the geopolitical aspects (of which I am not an expert) there are justifications for treating the events in Libya more seriously, especially as Gaddafi went on the offensive. In any event, now that foreign countries are involved, it is now subject to Protocol I, not Protocol II

Quick point on geopolitics: as Juan Cole and others say, it’s clear that Gaddafi is more a threat regionally if unchecked, even if Benghazi itself may not be. By contrast, the biggest cash crop in Yemen is probably US aid to fight Al Qaeda. Someone else will get that when Saleh is gone.(And eventually he will be).

Yglesias is understating just how little influence the United States has on the Gulf States as a matter of policy: an addict can’t tell a drug dealer how to live his life, and neither can the United States really change much in Bahrain:

For the United States, the intervention is a slap in the face. On Saturday, March 12, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Bahrain, where he called for real reforms to the country’s political system and criticized “baby steps,” which he said would be insufficient to defuse the crisis. The Saudis were called in within a few hours of Gates’s departure, however, showing their disdain for his efforts to reach a negotiated solution. By acting so soon after Gates’s visit, Saudi Arabia has made the United States look at best irrelevant to events in Bahrain, and from the Shiite opposition’s point of view, even complicit in the Saudi military intervention.

. . .

The crown prince is well aware that the Saudi intervention only makes a negotiated solution to this crisis more challenging, so it is difficult to imagine that he invited the Saudis into Bahrain. The more liberal Khalifas, such as the crown prince, know very well that the only way out of the crisis is to obtain the resignation of the prime minister and some of the more extreme Sunni ministers.

However, the prime minister — with whom Gates did not meet with during his weekend visit — does not appear to have any intention of resigning and is the most likely figure behind the invitation to the Saudis to intervene. Although details are still sketchy, he is likely joining with the Saudi king to pass the message to the United States that he is in charge and no one can tell him what to do. Furthermore, it signals that the Saudis agree with Bahrain’s conservatives that the Shiite must be reined in rather than negotiated with, even at the cost of telling the United States to kiss off.

The Bahrain charge implicating Gates in the crackdown is prevalent on Twitter and elsewhere online. Despite the fact that there’s no evidence (Wikileaks anyone?) that Gates actually meant for this to happen – indeed, it just makes the US look worse to have him implicated. Sec. Clinton did condemn the Bahraini government, but the message was muddled because of the worrying influence of Iran. It seems clear in the Gulf the Saudis and Iran are competing regionally by having a race to the bottom in terms of autocracy. How can the US break that cycle? Condemning crackdowns isn’t going to do it, that’s for sure. No matter how strong the language is. By contrast, events in Africa are more malleable. Should the United States let Benghazi burn because there’s no clear path to reform in Bahrain? That seems excessive.

And seriously, does anyone anywhere think the United States can dictate anything to Saudi Arabia on how to treat any of it’s people? Seriously? If we haven’t done so by now I don’t think it’s happening.

Back to Yemen, does anyone think more active involvement on the ground from the United States would help? I agree wholly with Gregory Johnsen that the U.S. should be more noticeably condemning violence in Yemen, but that’s relatively minor compared to talk of intervention and what have you.  The range of opinions on Yemen goes from “wait and see” to “call for him to leave, then wait and see”.

The US, the UK, and the EU are not the bad guys here, but their combined policy and public posturing could have been much wiser and much more proactive.  As it was, the US has consistently been behind the curve in Yemen, making reactive statements that lead many to believe it will never part with Salih because of his support on AQAP.  But make no mistake the responsibility for yesterday’s deaths falls on the shoulders of the Yemeni government.

Following yesterday’s attack President Obama strongly condemned the violence, but stopped short of calling for President Salih to step down.  I hope that privately the US is pressuring him to leave, but most sources suggest that this is not the case.  The US is too concerned about what will happen with AQAP if Salih leaves.

(I think this is a mistake and the longer Salih stays and the more the US is seen to be supporting him, the worse the AQAP problem will eventually be.  My opinion, however, has been dismissed.)

Obama did make a mistake here. But even if he didn’t, there would still be a discrepancy in policy compared to Libya. That’s a result of different (though similar) geopolitical situations.

But this is why the categorical imperative is a bad guide to foreign policy, or even policy in general. In the face of a laundry list of bad policies, you can’t fix everything at once, but you ought to try to move in the right direction. It’s easier to do that in Libya because the United States has a giant military, Britain and France are embarrassed (for Libya and Tunisia respectively), Gaddafi is a regional pariah who if left uncheck with billions could very well threaten progress in Egypt and Tunisia,  and the UN resolution sets clear limits at least on the type of force that will be employed.

It’d feel lovely to have the same policy every time an Arab revolt happens, but circumstances are so different in every country that it’s virtually impossible to do that.

Moreover, I’d argue that the United States should do more small-scale humanitarian interventions and less giant train wreck operations that are one in a million for turning out right. Bosnia and Kosovo weren’t perfect operations, but they were somewhat successful and actually led to tribunals. The NYT this weekend editorialized for more peacekeepers in the Ivory Coast. That’d be a great start. There’s a lot of work to do in the Sudan that requires constant U.S. engagement. Do that too.

In conclusion, I’d argue that instead of bemoaning the lack of consistency like Immanuel Kant when someone interrupted his daily routine, we should argue for what the United States ought do. On that, there’s plenty to be done. I don’t know that I’m right on anything (seriously, this could all backfire spectacularly.) But I’m not convinced by people basically concern trolling foreign policy because they have a deadline. That’s not a luxury or burden the State Department has.

Oh, and read Tom Ricks because he’s far smarter than I am.

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