It is nice to see Michelle Obama sticking up for women’s rights in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The First Lady, accompanying her husband on a condolence call at the Saud’s for the lately departed King Abdullah, wore a decidedly unorthodox outfit, by the standards of the Wahhabi religious branch of Islam which prevails in the kingdom and, with regard to ordinary residents, is enforced with some rigor. Your average Saudi woman could set herself up for a legal whipping if she went outside dressed like Mrs. Obama.
Observe that in our country women have been known to set themselves up for whupping for comparable offenses, as well as for other reasons. I happen to know a woman of the same ethnocultural background as the First Lady, whose husband disapproved of her wedding attire, perhaps a bit provocative but then she had the assets. He wrecked their marriage right then and there.
So let us not get holier than thou. Nasty behavior, brutal behavior, has been known to happen. Now, the difference, the difference is that in our country the woman can go to the cops and get the guy arrested. She might not, for various reasons. The cops might not be quick to respond, for various reasons. But she might, and they might. This is the difference between a free and messy and confusing and a contradictory modern society, and a land of primitive barbarians.
But they are rich. Not wealthy, but rich. And their ancestor — the father of the new king, who is the brother of the departed one — fellow named Ibn Saud, happened to sit down with FDR during a critical period (war was raging) and the two of them made a deal that was not a bad idea at the time, notably on our man’s side seeing as how he had a war to win. It was not a bad idea at the time, but I have to admit that, as a man of deep republican instincts, I never really fathomed what made the great FDR play footsie with that desert primitive.
In point of fact, the only monarchy for which I ever felt any nostalgia was the Hapsburgs, but that was because I had been to visit their last pretender, Otto von H., who is, was I should sadly say, one of the finest, most clear-eyed and sensible political leaders in Europe. He did not have much power — he was a deputy in the European Parliament, of whose limitations and flaws he was well aware — but he had more influence of the truly important kind than almost any of his contemporaries. It is a shame that, when we remember the leaders responsible for the fall of Soviet imperialism in Europe — Thatcher, Reagan, Wojtyla, Walesa foremost among them — he is most often overlooked.
However, I digress. I never understood why we maintained the Saudi connection, or rather, why we maintained it on terms so unfavorable to ourselves. To be sure, Harry Truman did not know much about Arabs, other than that taken as a bloc (he was remarkably free of prejudice when he sized up an individual man), they were basically primitive barbarians and not high on his list of people with whom to do business, let alone rebuild the world in a manner that would assure openings for dignity and freedom in forsaken lands far from our blessed shores.
Many of his counselors, including such brilliant and intelligent men as George Marshall and most of the hoity toities in the State Department and the square-jawed khakis in the top Defense brass, told him to ditch the Jews and go with the Arabs, and he was sensible enough to see how foolish this advice was, textbook examples of brilliant decent men going into abrupt intense strategic myopia. It may be that it was due to the fight over the question of recognizing and politically supporting Israel — strategic support did not begin in earnest until 20 years later — that Truman felt the need to let the Arabists, as high government pro-Arabs are traditionally known, viz. the excellent work by Robert Kaplan (no relation other than tribal) on the subject, have their way with the Saudis.
See where it got us.
Unlike some of the democracist tendency, whose influence on the conduct of American foreign policy has been decidedly ambiguous, I would be reluctant to tell the Wahhabis how to treat their women. It is easy for people who never look at themselves in the mirror or try on other people’s shoes to give advice, you know what I mean? They very rarely follow through. But giving such advice does get us tied up in intellectual and emotional and diplomatic knots and thereby impedes our position. It renders our position more awkward than necessary.
No doubt, moral standards have a place in foreign policy. We ought, for example, to be leaning on Egypt’s president. We should be saying, courteously and discreetly (at first, we can turn up the volume at will), General, we approve your speech on the need for an in-depth reformation of Islam. But now, we think, as a Christian nation, that you could begin by making a serious effort — law enforcement — to protect your country’s Christians, long persecuted. As a Jewish nation, we think you should be demonstrably serious in taking the lead in telling your people that it was a cultural and civilizational disaster of tragic and enduring proportions to go into full-throttle anti-Semitism. Your Jews packed up and left, when they were able to escape the savage lynch mobs, and it got you nothing but trouble, economic failure, military humiliation. That is what you should say to your people.
We can say the same thing to the Sauds. But while we can say this sort of thing, we need not make it a fighting issue. We do not have to say these things out loud. We can say it to them quietly. They have less to do with foreign policy strictly understood than with our sense of ourselves as Americans. And, precisely because we are not dragging these issues out in public, we could also tell them privately and quietly that there’s a change gonna come if they do not shape up.
I know this is wistful, fanciful, history-fiction thinking. It did not happen when it could have, when they really were primitive barbarians and we had them over a barrel, not the opposite. And even later, there were opportunities. I never understood why President Bush — either one of them — did not seize the opportunities handed to them, notably since these opportunities were paid for with American blood and treasure. Why did we not tell them, in 1991, and then again in 2003, that, in exchange for saving their asses, we expect something.
In the case of President Bush 41, I suppose it can be understood. He had one of the Republic’s sharpest, deepest thinkers standing next to him and serving as secretary of state, Mr. James Baker. Mr. Baker had it right, except that he did not see the need to press our advantages, which were many, with regard to the Sauds. This caused a historic Missed Opportunity. In the case of President Bush 43, it is more difficult to understand. He had around him men far more emotional on foreign policy than Mr. Baker and his father’s other top aide, Mr. Scowcroft. They, President Bush 43’s men, were men with moral agendas. These agendas were strangely confused, however, as well as based on low-level knowledge of the societies they were dealing with. Mr. Wolfowitz, for example, who was one of Mr. Rumsfeld’s men, Mr. Rumsfeld being President Bush’s defense secretary, seems to have got much of his inside poop from a Iraqi defector. There is nothing wrong with using defectors for getting the inside poop. You have to know who you are dealing with, however, and exercise caution.
Also, Mr. Wolfowitz was relying on an acquaintance of his from Tunisia. This was a she, not a he. She had an agenda, a feminist agenda. That is okay. This is a free country. But you would think a man of Mr. W.’s intelligence would exercise caution. Tunisia is very far from Arabia. It is very far, in some ways less far, but still very far, from Iraq. Mr. Wolfowitz was listening to the wrong person. This led him, as did listening without exercising caution to the defector, to promote a war policy that brought us something less felicitous than the cake walk promised by his and Mr. Rumsfeld’s supporters when they applauded the going up of the balloon.
The pitfalls of letting a woman’s guile, not to mention the advice of intellectuals and experts, carry too much weight in policy-making lead us back to President Obama’s visit to the new Arabian king. It is unknown why the president permitted the First Lady to accompany him on a condolence call. The Saud family is kind of strict on gender segregation. The idea of paying them a visit during a time of grief and mourning accompanied by a woman, a tall, attractive woman moreover, who by her attire and her sheer presence was bound to distract from the point of the visit, namely to share the grief, at least in the manner of accepted forms of diplomatic hypocrisy, must strike one as bizarre. What is the point?
President Obama’s Arab policy, his military diplomatic policy toward the Arabs, is supposed to be based on mutual respect. The Arabs and their principal religious creeds (branches of Islam) are deserving of our respect, he said in a renowned speech at Cairo early in his first term, clinching thereby the Nobel Peace Prize. They represent a major civilization, he more or less said. We want them to be our friends and we want to be their friends.
Well, hey. If you want people to be your friends, why do you pour bombs down on them? But to get back to the point, if you mean to act friendly, why do you bring your wife to a wake in the wrong attire? Or at all? If you are trying to send them a friendly message on the order of, “What can I say, you know how women can be insistent,” it is zilch, because Arabs of the Wahhabi persuasion do not find this funny; their stock reply is that sure they know, and they know what to do with insistent women, and what is the matter with you, who call yourself a global leader?
If, however, what you meant was to send them a message, the kind of message Mr. Wolfowitz’s special informer wanted to send, then that is pretty zilch too, because the response of Arabs of the Wahhabi persuasion to such a message is going to be that if you think we are about to take your advice on how to treat women, then you better think again, mister.
And then what have we achieved, as a nation? Have we persuaded the Sauds to use some of the billions in military equipment we have palmed off on them to police the neighborhood a bit more energetically? No. They do not. Have we persuaded them to stop exporting terrorists and teachers of terrorism, aka world war against the kaffirs, who include us? No. They keep doing it, as per the trouble in Nigeria (about which keep an eye on this page), ignoring us blithely and with hardly disguised contempt.
Some improvements from our point of view, it is true, have been reported by close observers. The Sauds, or some of them, are less averse than in the past to cooperating with Israel for their own security reasons. Basically, what this means is that they are scared. They are afraid. Which reminds me of a joke. Putin gathers his top brass and says, “Look here, comrades, we have a problem. It’s not those Ukrainian pigs. Kick those serfs a little more and we’ll be done with them. Let them keep Kiev, we have the rest. But we have a problem to our south. There are a billion Chinese. They are getting better armed daily. Even if they were not, the sheer numbers of them. Think about the sheer numbers. Our population is small and getting smaller. But, comrades, consider this. There are only a few million Jews in Israel, and they have held off several hundred million Arabs. So have faith, comrades, we’ll get through and the Russian destiny, the fifth Rome, the Moscow empire …”
One of his generals interrupts. “Comrade President, I hear you. I am with you. Numbers are not everything. But, if you will permit —”
“Of course, Comrade General, go ahead, what…?”
“Well, I mean — where are we going to find a few million Jews?”
Har-har-har. But seriously, what is the issue? The issue is that once again, our President misunderstood the opportunity that was presented him. And he did it in a manner certain to make him an object of derision in Arabia. I find it hard to believe he was not briefed, although in view of the ineptitude of such men of quality and experience as Mr. Wolfowitz and others, what should one have expected? The Prez had a chance to go to the Sauds and tell them, just as in Mario Puzo’s Godfather, when the old Don kicks the bucket, Okay, folks, this is it. Your boss is out, your replacement is not yet proven, here’s the deal, and frankly, it’s a deal you would be fools to refuse.
The Arabs are well known for the contempt for black Africans. Has this contempt transferred to black Americans of African lineage?
These are not polite questions. That President Obama seems blithely unaware of them suggests he is more interested in sending messages to an audience at home than to people who wish our country ill.
But they are questions that must be asked. If only for the record.