March 18, 2017
D’Trump meets Angela Merkel
March 18, 2017
March 14, 2017
by Joseph Nye@www.project-syndicate.org
CAMBRIDGE – A series of episodes in recent years – including Russia’s cyber interventions to skew the United States’ 2016 presidential election toward Donald Trump, the anonymous cyber-attacks that disrupted Ukraine’s electricity system in 2015, and the “Stuxnet” virus that destroyed a thousand Iranian centrifuges – has fueled growing concern about conflict in cyberspace. At last month’s Munich Security Conference, Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders announced the formation of a new non-governmental Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace to supplement the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE).
The GGE’s reports in 2010, 2013, and 2015 helped to set the negotiating agenda for cybersecurity, and the most recent identified a set of norms that have been endorsed by the UN General Assembly. But, despite this initial success, the GGE has limitations. The participants are technically advisers to the UN Secretary-General rather than fully empowered national negotiators. Although the number of participants has increased from the original 15 to 25, most countries do not have a voice.But there is a larger question lurking behind the GGE: Can norms really limit state behavior?
Most experts agree that a global cyberspace treaty currently would be politically impossible (though Russia and China have made such proposals at the UN). But, beyond formal treaties, normative constraints on states also include codes of conduct, conventional state practices, and widely shared expectations of proper behavior among a group (which create a common law). In scope, these constraints can vary from global, to plurilateral, to bilateral. So what can history tell us about the effectiveness of normative policy instruments?
In the decade after Hiroshima, tactical nuclear weapons were widely regarded as “normal” weapons, and the US military incorporated nuclear artillery, atomic land mines, and nuclear anti-aircraft weapons into its deployed forces. In 1954 and 1955, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told President Dwight Eisenhower that the defense of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and of offshore islands near Taiwan would require the use of nuclear weapons (Eisenhower rejected the advice).
Nobel Laureate Economist Thomas Schelling
Over time, the development of an informal norm of non-use of nuclear weapons changed this. The Nobel laureate economist Thomas Schelling argued that the development of the norm of non-use of nuclear weapons was one of the most important aspects of arms control over the past 70 years, and it has had an inhibiting effect on decision-makers. But for new nuclear states like North Korea, one cannot be sure that the costs of violating the taboo would be perceived as outweighing the benefits.
Similarly, a taboo against using poisonous gases in warfare developed after World War I, and the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons. Two treaties in the 1970s prohibited the production and stockpiling of such weapons, creating a cost not only for their use, but also for their very possession.
Verification provisions for the Biological Weapons Convention are weak (merely reporting to the UN Security Council), and such taboos did not prevent the Soviet Union from continuing to possess and develop biological weapons in the 1970s. Similarly, the Chemical Weapons Convention did not stop either Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons against their own citizens.
Nonetheless, both treaties have shaped how others perceive such actions. Such perceptions contributed to the justification of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the international dismantling of most Syrian weapons in 2014. With 173 countries having ratified the Biological Warfare Convention, states that wish to develop such weapons must do so secretly, and face widespread international condemnation if evidence of their activities becomes known.
Normative taboos may also become relevant in the cyber realm, though here the difference between a weapon and a non-weapon depends on intent, and it would be difficult to forbid – and impossible to prohibit reliably – the design, possession, or even implantation for espionage of particular computer programs. In that sense, efforts to prevent cyber conflict cannot be like the nuclear arms control that developed during the Cold War, which involved elaborate treaties and detailed verification protocols.
A more fruitful approach to normative controls on cyberwarfare may be to establish a taboo not against weapons but against targets. The US has promoted the view that the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC), which prohibit deliberate attacks on civilians, applies in cyberspace. Accordingly, the US has proposed that, rather than pledging “no first use” of cyber weapons, countries should pledge not to use cyber weapons against civilian facilities in peacetime.
This approach to norms has been adopted by the GGE. The taboo would be reinforced by confidence-building measures such as promises of forensic assistance and non-interference with the workings of Computer Security Incident Response Teams (CSIRTs).
The GGE report of July 2015 focused on restraining attacks on certain civilian targets, rather than proscribing particular code. At the September 2015 summit between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, the two leaders agreed to establish an expert commission to study the GGE proposal. Subsequently, the GGE report was endorsed by the leaders of the G20 and referred to the UN General Assembly.
The attack on the Ukrainian power system occurred in December 2015, shortly after the submission of the GGE report, and in 2016, Russia did not treat the US election process as protected civilian infrastructure. The development of normative controls on cyber weapons remains a slow – and, at this point, incomplete – process.
March 4, 2017
Ignore the theatrics, the multibillion-dollar investment deals and even the uncertainty over US hegemony – when the leader of the House of Al Saud is in town, Iran, Islamic State and ultra-conservatism are never far from the surface.
The spectacle of Saudi King Salman’s tour of Asia is matched by its significance. Attention has focused as much on his 1,500-strong entourage and their 459 tons of luggage – roughly the weight of two Boeing 787 Dreamliners – as it has on expectations of billions of dollars in investment.
To be sure, economics is high on the Saudi leader’s agenda. Salman is looking at both strategic investments in Asia as well as Asian investments in the kingdom that will help it diversify its economy and strengthen ties to China and major Muslim nations in an era of uncertainty about the United States’ place in the world.
Yet Salman’s geopolitical concerns go far beyond whether the US remains a reliable guarantor of regional security. Saudi Arabia is locked into a global battle with Iran for dominance in the Muslim world. For the Al Sauds, the kingdom’s ruling family, the struggle with the Islamic republic is existential in nature.
Iran not only represents an alternative form of Islamic rule that recognises a degree of sovereign legitimacy and was established by a popular revolt. It also has assets the kingdom lacks that are key to sustaining regional hegemony: a large population, a huge domestic market, an industrial base, a battle-hardened military, geography, and a deep-seated identity grounded in a history of empire.
The epic battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran is being fought not only on the international and Middle Eastern stage but domestically in Muslim and non-Muslim nations that span the globe. Saudi Arabia’s soft power effort, possibly the single largest public diplomacy campaign in history, has aligned itself neatly with Muslim governments that opportunistically play politics with religion and Muslim communities that embrace Saudi-style Sunni ultra-conservatism in lieu of feasible alternatives.
China may not have a seriously sizeable Muslim community, yet the lure of ultra-conservatism has made its mark among Hui Muslims and Uygurs alike. Chinese concern about the impact of ultra-conservatism coupled with Iran’s strategic advantage has shaped Chinese policy even if Saudi Arabia is a major oil supplier and commercial partner as well as a military ally.
President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) visit to the Middle East last year, the first by a Chinese leader in seven years, saw the signing of billions of dollars’ worth of agreements with Saudi Arabia and a ten-fold expansion of trade with Iran over the next 10 years. The significance may go far beyond commerce as Chinese interests align more with Iranian interests than those of Saudi Arabia.
From Riyadh, Xi went to Iran to become the first foreign leader to do so following the lifting of international sanctions against the Islamic republic. Saudi leaders could not have been pleased.
Xi’s determination to gain a first mover advantage in Iran at a time that Saudi Arabia was seeking to increase rather than reduce the Islamic republic’s international isolation suggested that more than commerce was at play.
Xi’s visit to the kingdom was accompanied by talk of brotherly relations and strategic cooperation. The rhetoric, however, did little to mask serious differences on issues ranging from Syria – with Chinese support for President Bashar al-Assad – to Saudi propagation of ultra-conservatism and a relative decline in Chinese reliance on Saudi oil.
“Our biggest worry in the Middle East isn’t oil – it’s Saudi Arabia,” a Chinese analyst told the Asia Times. Religious affinity is not something China has to worry about with Shiite-majority Iran, which has long projected itself as a revolutionary rather than a sectarian power.
Consequently, China remains reluctant to clearly articulate its strategic interests or intentions in the Middle East and North Africa beyond its drive to secure resources, investments and people, and expand its influence through economic ties and its “One Belt, One Road” initiative to link economies into a China-centred trading network. As a result, China’s strategic dialogue remains focused on free-trade agreements with the six-nation, Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rather than the forging of broader strategic partnerships that go beyond economics.
China has also long sought to tread carefully in its for now limited military contacts.
China was, for example, slow to engage in its security cooperation with Saudi Arabia that started in secret in 1985, five years prior to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. In a deal that was only disclosed three years later, Saudi Arabia in its first weapons deal with China bought in 1985 for US$3.5 billion 36 Chinese CSS-2 East Wind intermediate range ballistic missiles even though they were known to be highly inaccurate in conventional use.
The deal said much about the attitude of Saudi Arabia towards China. Saudi Arabia saw the deal as a way to counter Iran’s missile strength that in a twist of irony was built on Chinese technology and design, and as leverage to persuade the US to be more forthcoming with weaponry that had offensive capabilities. In a further indication that China was making only limited inroads and that Saudi Arabian arms purchases remained focused on Western suppliers, Saudi Arabia – even while engaged in a massive weapons buying spree – waited 30 years to acquire a more up-to-date Chinese missile system, the DF-21 East Wind ballistic missile.
Ultra-conservatism – which complicates communal relations, changes policies towards minorities, and alters local culture as well as Saudi efforts to forge an anti-Iranian military alliance – loomed even larger in Malaysia and during the current Indonesian leg of Salman’s tour. In Malaysia, a supposedly pluralistic nation that bans Shi’a Islam, ultra-conservative Islamic scholars legitimise the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the country’s ruling party, raising concerns about a more intolerant society despite its multi-ethnic composition.
Both Malaysia and Indonesia have been reluctant to become too involved in a 41-nation, Saudi-led military alliance headquartered in Riyadh that officially was created to combat political violence and the Islamic State (IS). Many fear the alliance is also intended as a military bloc against Iran that would also bolster Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen – where it is fighting Houthi militia and loyalists of the former president, Ali Abdullah Salleh, allegedly supported by Iran.
Saudi influence was nonetheless evident when Malaysian Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein last year, to the consternation of his ministry’s civilians, agreed to let 300 Malaysian paratroopers participate in a 20-nation military exercise in the kingdom. Malaysia currently has up to 100 military personnel and C-130 Hercules transport planes in Saudi Arabia that provide the alliance with logistical support.
The Indonesian military, like its Malaysian counterpart, regularly trains with Saudi officers to counter IS. Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi policy analyst with close government ties, described last year’s exercise as a preparation for possible Saudi military intervention in Iraq and Syria.
Critics in the ministry were taken aback when Hishammuddin obliged them weeks later to endorse Saudi funding for the King Salman Centre for Moderation (KSCM). Under the auspices of the ministry’s think tank, the Malaysian Institute of Defence and Security (MIDAS), would seek to counter jihadist messaging in Southeast Asia. An internal ministry memo said MIDAS had a “strategic interest to be collaborating with various institutions internationally particularly from Saudi Arabia”.
A joint communique at the end of Salman’s visit described political violence as the most important issue discussed between the king and Prime Minister Najib Razak. Najib backed Saudi concerns about Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries and called on the Islamic republic to respect the sovereignty of regional states.
The two leaders also announced the establishment of the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP), a collaboration of Saudi and Malaysian defence institutions as well as the Muslim World League, a prime Saudi vehicle for the propagation of ultra-conservatism. It’ not clear if KSCM and KSCIP are separate institutions.
Saudi media reported that King Salman hoped during his visit to lay the ground for the opening of more Arabic-language Islamic schools in Indonesia. They said the king would also be increasing the number of scholarships available to Indonesians for study in Saudi Arabia. Many of those who return after completing their studies are imbued with Saudi-style ultra-conservatism.
All in all, Salman’s Asian official visit-cum-holiday is likely to reverberate far beyond the billions of dollars in economic and commercial agreements he signs. The visit also solidified cooperation between Asian nations and Saudi Arabia in the fight against IS. This, despite the fact that IS and the kingdom have the same ideological roots, even if the jihadists accuse Saudi Arabia of having deviated from the true path of Islam. At the same time, the tour could also well embed sectarian aspects of Saudi’s Arabia’s epic struggle with Iran ever deeper in the social and political life of the continent’s Muslims. ■
March 4, 2017
Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel (pic above), the top diplomat for East Asian and Pacific issues at the U.S. State Department, is leaving the job to take a fellowship in New York, the latest senior official to leave the agency since President Donald Trump took office.
Less Money for Diplomacy and Foreign Aid, more for Defense-Security makes streamlining, downsizing and cost cutting necessary for productivity. So Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former Chairman, ExxonMobil, is not in unfamiliar territory. Will we see a more dynamic State Department or a demoralized bureaucracy with Foreign Policy being driven from the East Wing of The White House? –Din Merican
The State Department–Home of American Diplomacy
The flags in the lobby of the State Department stood bathed in sunlight and silence on a recent afternoon. “It’s normally so busy here,” marveled a State Department staffer as we stood watching the emptiness. “People are usually coming in for meetings, there’s lots of people, and now it’s so quiet.” The action at Foggy Bottom has instead moved to the State Department cafeteria where, in the absence of work, people linger over countless coffees with colleagues. (“The cafeteria is so crowded all day,” a mid-level State Department officer said, adding that it was a very unusual sight. “No one’s doing anything.”) As the staffer and I walked among the tables and chairs, people with badges chatted over coffee; one was reading his Kindle.
“It just feels empty,” a recently departed senior State official told me.
This week began with reports that President Donald Trump’s budget proposal will drastically slash the State Department’s funding, and last week ended with White House adviser and former Breitbart head Stephen Bannon telling the attendees of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference that what he and the new president were after was a “deconstruction of the administrative state.” At the State Department, which employs nearly 70,000 people around the world, that deconstruction is already well underway.
In the last week, I’ve spoken with a dozen current and recently departed State Department employees, all of whom asked for anonymity either because they were not authorized to speak to the press and feared retribution by an administration on the prowl for leakers, or did not want to burn their former colleagues. None of these sources were political appointees. Rather, they were career foreign service officers or career civil servants, most of whom have served both Republican and Democratic administrations—and many of whom do not know each other. They painted a picture of a State Department adrift and listless.
Sometimes, the deconstruction of the administrative state is quite literal. After about two dozen career staff on the seventh floor—the State Department’s equivalent of a C suite—were told to find other jobs, some with just 12 hours’ notice, construction teams came in over Presidents’ Day weekend and began rebuilding the office space for a new team and a new concept of how State’s nerve center would function. (This concept hasn’t been shared with most of the people who are still there.) The space on Mahogany Row, the line of wood-paneled offices including that of the secretary of state, is now a mysterious construction zone behind blue tarp.
With the State Department demonstratively shut out of meetings with foreign leaders, key State posts left unfilled, and the White House not soliciting many department staffers for their policy advice, there is little left to do. “If I left before 10 p.m., that was a good day,” said the State staffer of the old days, which used to start at 6:30 in the morning. “Now, I come in at 9, 9:15, and leave by 5:30.” The seeming hostility from the White House, the decades of American foreign-policy tradition being turned on its head, and the days of listlessness are taking a toll on people who are used to channeling their ambition and idealism into the detail-oriented, highly regimented busywork that greases the infinite wheels of a massive bureaucracy. Without it, anxiety has spiked. People aren’t sleeping well. Over a long impromptu lunch one afternoon—“I can meet tomorrow or today, whenever! Do you want to meet right now?”—the staffer told me she too has trouble sleeping now, kept awake by her worries about her job and America’s fading role in the world.
“I used to love my job,” she said. “Now, it feels like coming to the hospital to take care of a terminally ill family member. You come in every day, you bring flowers, you brush their hair, paint their nails, even though you know there’s no point. But you do it out of love.”
Some try to conduct policy meetings just to retain the muscle memory and focus, but, said another department employee, “in the last couple months, it’s been a lot more sitting around and going home earlier than usual.” Some wander around the streets of Foggy Bottom, going for long, aimless lunches. “I’m used to going to three or four inter-agency policy meetings a week,” the employee added, referring to the meetings in which policy is developed in coordination with other government departments. “I’ve had exactly one of those meetings in the last five weeks.” Even the torrent of inter-department email has slowed to a trickle. The State Department staffer told me that where she once used to get two hundred emails a day, it’s down to two dozen now. “Not since I began at the department a decade ago has it been so quiet,” she said. “Colleagues tell me it’s the same for them.”
A lot of this, the employee said, is because there is now a “much smaller decision circle.” And many State staffers are surprised to find themselves on the outside. “They really want to blow this place up,” said the mid-level State Department officer. “I don’t think this administration thinks the State Department needs to exist. They think Jared [Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law] can do everything. It’s reminiscent of the developing countries where I’ve served. The family rules everything, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs knows nothing.”
Right now, those I’ve spoken to in the department seem to know very little about what’s going on. The staffer told me that she finds out what’s going on at State from the news—which she spends all day reading because, after years of having her day scheduled down to 15 minute blocks, she has nothing else to do. And even the news itself isn’t coming from official sources. There hasn’t been a State Department press briefing, once a daily ritual, since the new administration took over five weeks ago—though they’re scheduled to resume March 6. These briefings weren’t just for journalists. They also served as a crucial set of cues for U.S. diplomats all over the world about policy priorities, and how to talk about them. With no daily messaging, and almost no guidance from Washington, people in far-flung posts are flying blind even as the pace of their diplomacy hasn’t abated.
“Meetings are happening,” said one American diplomat stationed abroad, “but it is noticeable that we’re not having press briefings, which makes it hard for ambassadors waiting to take cues. We’re able to echo what Mattis, Tillerson and Pence say. But we’re still not there in aggressively promoting president’s agenda.” Other American diplomats, especially those in geo-politically sensitive posts, find themselves going on old, Obama-era guidance because no new guidance has been issued. But “the diplomacy goes on,” said another American diplomat abroad. “People notice every little change in our position,” the diplomat said. “And we don’t always know where the administration is or is going to be, so you operate on old guidance until Washington takes a new position. We’re largely taking our cues from the president, vice president, and Secretary Tillerson’s remarks and from reading the Spicer briefings,” referring to the daily briefings of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. “We are watching the news and seeing how quickly we can get our fingers on the [Spicer] transcripts,” the diplomat said.
When Rex Tillerson finally arrived in the building, members of the department I spoke to had very high hopes for him. People wanted to like him. But his remarks to the staff left many cold, and confused. “He only spoke of reform and accountability,” said the State Department staffer. “He offered no vision of America and its place in the world.” He also spoke of protecting missions abroad, which some read as a gratuitous reference to Benghazi. “It landed like a thud,” said the staffer. “There are all these people whose sole focus is protecting missions abroad. What do you think we’ve been doing for all these years?”
The fact that there hasn’t been a deputy secretary of state nominated, and that many undersecretary slots sit empty, is also unnerving to a bureaucracy used to relying on a strict hierarchy to get things done. “Not having a deputy … is going to become a problem real soon,” the staffer said. “The world has been pretty quiet but it won’t stay that way.” She and others I spoke to worry about the optics of Tillerson flanked by empty seats during his meeting in Bonn, Germany, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was accompanied by a dozen aides. All these details send signals that other countries’ leaders and diplomats pore over for indications of potential policy changes. “With the Chinese, protocol is policy,” said the mid-level State officer. “We’re sending signals that are potentially damaging the relationship in ways we can’t anticipate.”
It also worries some State employees that Tillerson was unable to name his own deputy. His choice of the neocon Elliott Abrams was vetoed by the White House because Abrams had criticized Trump, and many in Foggy Bottom saw it as yet another signal that they and their secretary were being downgraded. “It’s troubling that his first battle with the president, he lost,” said the State employee. “If he couldn’t even bring in his own staff member, it’s concerning for future issues.”
On Tuesday, Trump confirmed their fears, telling Fox and Friends that there was a reason he wasn’t filling certain government posts: “in many cases, I don’t want to fill those posts. … They’re unnecessary.”
But while senior State appointees have yet to be appointed, other staff has been showing up. The Office of Policy Planning, created by George Kennan after World War II, is now filled not just with Ph.D.s, as it once was, but with fresh college graduates and a malpractice attorney from New Jersey whose sole foreign-policy credential seems to be that she was born in Hungary. Tillerson’s chief of staff is not his own, but is, according to the Washington Post, a Trump transition alum named Margaret Peterlin. “Tillerson is surrounded by a bunch of rather mysterious Trumpistas,” said the senior State official who recently left. “How the hell is he supposed to do his job when even his right hand is not his own person?” One State Department employee told me that Peterlin has instructed staff that all communications with Tillerson have to go through her, and even scolded someone for answering a question Tillerson asked directly, in a meeting.
Peterlin did not respond to request for comment, but former Newt Gingrich aide and State public affairs senior advisor R.C. Hammond clarified that the malpractice attorney was the White House liaison to State, and denied that Peterlin had issued such instructions or admonishments, or that the State Department was slow and listless. “The place is humming,” he said.
He and his staff pointed me to, among other people, Christiaan James, who is the Arabic-language spokesperson for State’s bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. He is busy; he spends a lot of time fielding questions from the Arabic-language press. “Even though we haven’t had a press briefing since January, we still get a lot of inquiries,” he said. “There’s still a lot going on, and we have to respond.” In the absence of a press briefing, staffers are now winging it, trying to interpret for their questioners what the American president meant when he seemed to toss overboard the idea of a two-state solution. “This actually came up yesterday,” James said. “An Egyptian channel wanted me to go on air and talk about this.” So, using the “two pages of guidance” put out by the press officer on the Israel-Palestine desk, James told them that, whatever the two sides agree on, “the United States is committed to finding a solution to this, that we’re going to be involved in the process. It’s about telegraphing that the U.S. is committed and not getting into the nitty-gritty, and talking in more general terms until something more specific gets developed.”
Michelle Bernier-Toth, who runs overseas services for American citizens abroad, meanwhile continues to monitor the world for crises that might affect U.S. citizens and make consular services for them even more efficient, but she told me that she didn’t need guidance from the White House or even the Secretary of State. “What we do, we just keep on doing it,” she told me. “We’re very much a heart that keeps going. The consular side is law-based, so that’s our guidance.”
A State Department public-affairs officer was on the line with us when we talked. Another public-affairs officer was also on the line when I spoke to Paco Palmieri, a career foreign service officer and the acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Palmieri has had plenty to keep him busy, from Tillerson’s meeting with the Brazilian foreign minister in Bonn, Germany to his trip to Mexico, but he is an acting assistant secretary and he doesn’t know how long it will take for a political appointee to take his place. “Sometimes as an administration gets started, it takes some time to get a definitive answer but that just means you work harder to get to it,” he told me. “Every transition is unique.” Then the public affairs officer hustled him off to his next meeting.
According to the other people I spoke to, though, Tillerson seems cut off not just from the White House, but from the State Department. “The guidance from Tillerson has been, the less paper the better,” said the State Department staffer. “Voluntary papers are not exactly encouraged, so not much information is coming up to him. And nothing is flowing down from him to us. That, plus the absence of undersecretaries and assistant secretaries means there’s no guidance to the troops so we’re just marking time and responding.”
Many in the State Department openly acknowledge that the department is bloated, that it is at times inefficient and redundant. But they don’t understand why the culling is being done in such a crass and indiscriminate manner. “They didn’t talk to anyone, they didn’t ask them what they did, they just told them to look for other jobs,” said the mid-level officer of the seventh floor dismissals. “Nothing will make you a libertarian faster than working in the federal government,” said the State staffer. “There are inefficiencies, there needs to be reform. They certainly have a right to staffing, or lack of staffing,” the staffer said of the new administration. “But doing it without an analysis of where the inefficiencies are, the cutting just won’t be rational or effective. It just creates ill will.” The last month, the staffer said, “has been a very deliberate stress test.” “There seems to be no effort to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of people who are here, who just want to help,” said the mid-level officer. Instead, they see the White House vilifying them as bureaucrats no one elected, and it all seems, the mid-level officer said, “symbolic of wanting to neuter the organization.”
“This is probably what it felt like to be a British foreign service officer after World War II, when you realize, no, the sun actually does set on your empire,” said the mid-level officer. “America is over. And being part of that, when it’s happening for no reason, is traumatic.”
March 2, 2017
“My biggest fear is that the enlightened Arab thinkers are going to leave the Arab world in search of fresh air: somewhere far away from the sword of the religious authorities.”– Raif Badawi, ‘1,000 Lashes: Because I Say What I Think’
A long-time reader of my writings and someone who has become a friend asked me what I thought about the visit of the House of Saud. “The Prime Minister must be really desperate,” he said and was taken aback when I disagreed.
In my opinion, UMNO President Najib Abdul Razak is in a better position than the current monarch of Saudi Arabia. Maybe it is because Saudi Arabia is heading into (1) extremely choppy financial waters, (2) waging an ideological and proxy war with Iran, (3) leading a “coalition” against Yemen, and (4) promulgating its version of Islam (Wahhabism) which has resulted in blowback across the world.
1) As reported by CNNMoney – “After years of raking in huge sums of oil money, these days Saudi Arabia is pulling out all the stops to raise cash. The kingdom is reportedly planning to take out a US$10 billion loan from a group of banks, possibly paving the way for its first international bond sale.
“The problem is Saudi Arabia needs oil prices at over US$100 a barrel to break even on its budget. The kingdom spends heavily on perks for its huge population of nearly 30 million. Now it’s being forced to reverse some of those gifts, as highlighted by the recent 50 percent gas price hike. Saudi Arabia’s ‘lavish social spending program is on a collision course’ with cheap oil, (Zach) Schreiber said.”
(Schreiber was CEO of hedge fund PointState Capital who walked away with US$1 billion after betting that oil prices would crash three years ago.)
2) Did anyone else read Iranian Foreign Mohammad Javad Zarif’s op-ed piece in the New York Times, titled ‘Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism’? I certainly did –
“Saudi Arabia’s effort to persuade its Western patrons to back its shortsighted tactics is based on the false premise that plunging the Arab world into further chaos will somehow damage Iran. The fanciful notions that regional instability will help to ‘contain’ Iran, and that supposed rivalries between Sunni and Shiite Muslims are fueling conflicts, are contradicted by the reality that the worst bloodshed in the region is caused by Wahhabists fighting fellow Arabs and murdering fellow Sunnis.”
3) Just last month the United Nations warned Saudi Arabia and its “allies” that war crimes may have been committed in the Yemen conflict – “A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition has carried out attacks in Yemen that ‘may amount to war crimes’”, UN sanctions monitors reported to the world body’s Security Council, warning coalition allies including the United States, Britain and France that they are obligated to respect international humanitarian law.
4) Again, from the New York Times, last year – “Small details of Saudi practice can cause outsize trouble. For at least two decades, the kingdom has distributed an English translation of the Quran that in the first surah, or chapter, adds parenthetical references to Jews and Christians in addressing Allah: ‘those who earned your anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).’ Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a Professor of Islamic studies at The George Washington University and the editor-in-chief of the new Study Quran, an annotated English version, said the additions were ‘a complete heresy, with no basis in Islamic tradition’.”
Compared to the above, being labelled a kleptocrat at the centre of the country’s biggest financial scandal pales in comparison. Furthermore, unlike the wolves baying at the door of the House of Saud, the opposition towards this Najib regime is fractured, with certain members of the coalition still thinking–how naive– they can deal with PAS.
It is pointless talking about the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. It is pointless pointing out the fact that the so-called moderate form of Islam practiced in Malaysia is anathema to the kind of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. It is pointless going over the so-called “donation” that was – or not to be – from the Kingdom.
Forestalling another Arab Spring
Remember, when Islamist political parties PAS and UMNO were arguing about UMNO actually used the donation to “uplift” Muslims?
I certainly do – “PAS Vice-President Iskandar Abdul Samad in a statement that was revealing of the UMNO strategy but at the same time an unintentional condemnation of Islam, questioned the efficacy of the use of dubious funds in the eradication of Muslim poverty, here in Malaysia.
“Would it have been acceptable to PAS if the so-called gift from The House of Saud was used to ‘uplift’ Muslims here in Malaysia? Of course, PAS splinter group Amanah is equally myopic in its version of how Islam is practiced in Malaysia.”
I contend there is nothing we can and should take from the Saudi Kingdom. I would argue that the reason why Malaysia is a so-called moderate state is because however dismally we have managed to resist the excesses of the House of Saud, we still have a multi-ethnic population whose contribution to politics, economics and culture has maintained a fast fading line between what the Wahhabis and their ilk want and what is secular and rational.
Saudi Arabia has been embarking on social programmes for years putting money in the hands of its citizens. This is not nearly enough because with records highs in unemployment and poverty, the country is the poster child for what Islamic states would look like if Wahhabism managed to overrun the world.
The issue here is not whether you think that BR1M is a question of corruption. When the UMNO Grand Poobah notes with satisfaction that the House of Saud is considering adopting a similar plan of putting money into the bank accounts of needy citizens, they are doing this because they have screwed up the economy to the point that people are living in (even more) poverty and the House of Saud is attempting to forestall another Arab Spring.
Saudi jails are filled to bursting point with not only ordinary people who have fallen foul of pernicious Wahhabi laws but also extremely dangerous fanatics who wish to wage war on the House of Saud and have bloody hands from not only domestic terror attacks but also plying their trade on foreign soil.
This of course is to be expected. If former United States Ambassador to Afghanistan and the United Nations, not to mention Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad is to be believed, officials from Riyadh admitted that they were funding extremists for years in part because of cold war hegemonic stratagems and their great game with Iran.
Writing for Politico, Khalilzad (pic above) claimed that measures were currently under way to divest the system of its Islamic extremism. The said measures included:
I suppose we should be grateful that Saudi petro dollars may run out and they will not be able to fund an ideology they know to be corrosive and barbaric. However, I am not holding my breath. Islamic State is a self-funded criminal organisation. The world over we have Muslims who do not think to question their religious beliefs, especially those which pits them against their fellow men and this is because of the efforts of the House of Saud.
I end this piece with another jailed Saudi dissident Raif Badawi’s quote as to what I think of this visit to Malaysia by Saudi King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud – “Any religion-based state has a mission to limit the minds of its people, to fight the developments of history and logic, and to dumb down its citizens. It’s important to stand in the way of such a mentality, to deny it from continuing its mission to murder the souls of its people, killing them deep within while they are still alive and breathing.”
More often than not, the truth hits close to home.
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.
February 19, 2017