Two of Saudi Arabia's most prominent human rights activists, Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed, were sentenced over the weekend to lengthy jail terms. As Ahmed al-Omran reports today for the Middle East Channel, the sentences were not a surprise (when I met him in January, Qahtani told me that they were inevitable), but the optics for American foreign policy are frankly appalling. Their sentencing was sandwiched between John Kerry's first visit to Riyadh as secretary of state and a visit by Attorney General Eric Holder. Neither appears to have publicly said anything whatsoever about this case nor about any of the massive human rights and democracy issues in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, or the rest of the GCC.
Quite the contrary. Instead, both Kerry and Holder waxed rhapsodic about U.S.-Saudi cooperation on strategic issues and went out of their way to praise the kingdom's appointment of thirty women to its unelected Shura Council. Holder was quoted across the Arab press as praising the Saudi Interior Ministry's counter-extremism efforts and the Kingdom's reforms. In Kerry's March 4 press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, he had this to say:
"Across the Arab world, men and women have spoken out demanding their universal rights and greater opportunity. Some governments have responded with willingness to reform. Others, as in Syria, have responded with violence. So I want to recognize the Saudi Government for appointing 30 women to the Shura Council and promoting greater economic opportunity for women. Again, we talked about the number of women entering the workforce and the transition that is taking place in the Kingdom. We encourage further inclusive reforms to ensure that all citizens of the Kingdom ultimately enjoy their basic rights and their freedoms."
In other words, he places the kingdom within the ranks of the regimes who have "responded with a willingness to reform." In a meeting with embassy staff, Kerry was even more effusive. On nearly every issue which concerns the United States, he said, "Saudi Arabia has stepped up and helped." (For those keeping score, those issues were the sanctions on Iran, arms to Syria, Yemen, counterterrorism, Israel, and Egypt's transition.)
And why should he be more critical? It's not like he was being pushed on these issues. In his various press availabilities in Riyadh and Doha and in the seven interviews he recorded in Doha on March 5, Kerry was peppered with questions about arming Syrian rebels and negotiations with Iran and how he was getting along with President Obama. Not a single question was asked about human rights or reform in the Gulf. No worries, though -- there was time for a question about Dennis Rodman. Because the American people want to know.
This is a mistake which will have enduring implications. I've been pointing to the problems caused by the "Saudi exception" in American foreign policy for a while now, and I had urged Secretary Kerry to not set aside human rights and democracy questions during his inaugural trip to the Gulf. By punting on these issues on this trip he sent a clear signal about American priorities, which do not include democracy or human rights in these Gulf countries. The sentences on Qahtani and Hamed have been months in the making, but it's hard to not interpret the timing of their harsh sentence amidst these two high profile American visits as a clear signal of "message received."
Ignoring these questions of reform, human rights in exchange for support on strategic issues probably seems prudent but I believe it reflects a real misreading of the evolution of Gulf politics. Bahrain isn't over. The Saudi public sphere is rapidly transforming. Gulf-backed sectarianism is doing serious damage across the region. Do go read Omran's essay on why this matters and how Saudi reformists are responding to this American silence.
John Kerry's first visit to Cairo as Secretary of State this weekend laid bare some of the deep limitations of U.S. policy toward Egypt. Kerry, like many others, is struggling to find a bridge between supporting a staggering Egypt and pushing it in a more democratic direction.The administration is open to new thinking about the nature of Egypt's problems and possible U.S. responses. Over the last month, the Middle East Channel has been hosting an "Egypt Policy Challenge," asking leading analysts to offer their perspective on the nature of Egypt's ongoing political crisis and their advice for U.S. foreign policy. Today, we are pleased to announce the release of The Egypt Policy Challenge as a free PDF collection in the POMEPS Briefs series - download it today!
The challenge was framed around the ways in which Washington might help Egypt become more democratic. A significant portion of the policy, academic, and activist community likely disagrees with either the goal of democratizing Egypt, the assumption that the United States actually wants democracy in Egypt, or the idea that the United States has any useful role to play in accomplishing such a goal. A significant faction within the broader policy community likely believes that Hosni Mubarak's Egypt was better for American interests than what has followed, particularly given intense suspicion about the Muslim Brotherhood and the widespread circulation of anti-American attitudes across the Egyptian political arena. Many others do support the goal of democracy in Egypt, but fundamentally reject the conceit that the United States government shares that goal.
While those critical views deserve attention and discussion on their own merits, the focus of this particular Egypt policy challenge was more limited: if the United States. does want to support a democratic transition, then what can and should it do?
My weekly FP column just went up: "Welcome to the Middle East, Mr. Secretary -- here's what to expect." The column offers John Kerry some friendly advice on what he is likely to hear and what he should say in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Egypt. Besides some suggestions on Syria and Egypt, I urge him to bring up democracy and human rights issues on all of his stops -- including raising Bahrain and Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani in all the Gulf capitals -- no matter how awkward that might seem. There's only one chance to make first impressions, and not mentioning them will speak volumes.
I was pretty happy to be able to work "Louis Vuitton John" into the piece, though I couldn't find a place for the full lyrical reference: "since I signed the con I'm Louis Vuitton John heading out to Ram to eat up all the shwarm." That's what blogs are for.
And since I couldn't figure out how to get the inspiration for the piece's title into the actual column, I'm thrilled to be able to post it here (thanks Erin!): Welcome to the Middle East, John Kerry.. Hope You Survive the Experience!
I'll have more discussion of it in a later post, but for now I just wanted to be sure that blog readers knew about it. After getting Big Sean and a classic X-Men meme into an FP article, my work here is done.
Talks between Iran and the P5+1 on the Iranian nuclear program are set to begin tomorrow in Kazakhstan after some eight months. The expectations game is in full swing, with American officials tipping an offer of a "clear pathway" to sanctions relief (which won't be easy) and Iran signaling a tough initial line. Few expect a breakthrough at the talks, but there is some hope that it might lay the foundation for more regular, ongoing negotiations on the core issues or even to direct U.S.-Iran talks. I don't know what's going to happen in Almaty. But at this weekend's Camden Conference in Maine, I at least got a preview of what the opening rounds of a direct Iranian-American dialogue might look like. It wasn't pretty. But it was a useful demonstration of the vast conceptual divide between the two sides which any negotiation will somehow need to bridge.
Sarah Szwajkos Photography
How can the United States and the international community best help Syrians in the face of its escalating horrors? The most popular recommendation in Washington circles is to provide more weaponry to the "moderate" parts of the Syrian opposition in order to help their military efforts against the Assad regime and to strengthen politically against the increasingly powerful jihadist trends in the opposition. I continue to believe that arming the rebels is unlikely to tip the military balance against Assad, bring the fighting to an end, create enduring influence with the Syriabn rebels, or crowd out the jihadists. As arms pour in and the fighting doesn't end, this will almost certainly continue to dominate the international policy debate (Last week I hosted a roundtable to debate those points.)
But there should be more to the debate than only whether or not to arm the rebels. Given the scale of the humanitarian devastation and political stalemate, it's entirely fair to ask what alternatives remain. On Friday, the Center for a New American Security released my new policy brief, Syria's Hard Landing, which lays out a set of policy alternatives beyond arming the rebels. The main recommendations include a push at the U.N. for a massively increased cross-border humanitarian operation and for explicit integration of that aid with the construction of opposition-based alternative governance structures. My weekly column presenting those recommendations only made it online during the peak prime time of late Friday afternoon, though, because of the report's production timeline.
With this post I therefore urge you to read my column, "Here's Your Plan B: Arming rebels isn't the only (or best) way to help Syria" and the Syria's Hard Landing report upon which it is based. As always I look forward to feedback, and if I get enough productively critical responses I'll publish another roundtable.
My FP column last week argued that the Obama administration was correct to reject plans to arm the Syrian opposition. The objections to arming have become weaker as the conflict has become fully militarized, I argued, but the upside to arming has not become substantially higher. My column tomorrow will feature the second half of my current take on Syria, with a set of alternative policy recommendations drawn from my forthcoming CNAS Policy Brief. Stay tuned for that tomorrow!
Today I am happy to be able to feature three interesting and important responses to my column. This is part of my ongoing effort to promote serious, critical debate and discussion on these issues (for previous episodes, see the Egypt policy challenge responses and the Twitter Devolutions responses). Today's roundtable features Daniel Byman (Georgetown and Brookings), Emile Hokayem (International Institute for Strategic Studies), and Mona Yacoubian (Stimson Center). I am also going to quote from a piece by Karl Sharro that touched on similar themes. I regret that several others whom I invited didn't have time to contribute to the roundtable, but I look forward to hearing their thoughts in other venues.
ZAC BAILLIE/AFP/Getty Images
If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, will it set off a cascade of unmanageable nuclear proliferation in the Gulf? Not necessarily, according to "Atomic Kingdom," a fascinating and deeply researched new report from the Center for a New American Security (full disclosure: I'm a non-resident senior fellow at CNAS, but I didn't review this report). Colin Kahl, Melissa Dalton, and Matt Irvine make a pretty strong case that its own self-interest would probably stop Saudi Arabia from taking the nuclear plunge. Their report is a vital corrective to one of those poorly-vetted Washington "facts" which too often shape policy ... even if it ultimately raises as many questions as it answers.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.