I’ve started practicing mindfulness, partly to deal with the stress of being a Professor and parent of small kids in a pandemic, and partly to reduce the number of times I become unreasonably angry over bad policy arguments. I experienced a major setback this week, when I encountered yet another evidence-less argument on Saudi-Iran relations. What’s worse, it looks like this zombie claim is not only refusing to die, but it is–in zombie apocalypse fashion–replicating itself and spreading.
The offender was this article in Slate by Fred Kaplan. Reports have emerged of secret talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, intended to ease long-standing tensions between the two countries. According to Kaplan, “by all accounts, this shift was spurred by recognition that the United States is moving away from the Middle East.”
Like so much else in international relations, the answer to this question seems “obvious.” But, like so much else, it gets trickier when we really investigate the situation, and it reveals nuances to international relations that many scholars and policy analysts overlook.
About a week ago, Egypt sent medical equipment to the United States to help in the fight against Covid-19. The packages were printed with “From the Egyptian People to the American People.” This prompted many dark jokes, as Egypt is currently suffering a major Covid-19 outbreak it is struggling to contain. Then Turkey followed suit. Turkey sent a plane with medical equipment to the United States, despite also suffering a Covid-19 outbreak.
The “obvious” explanation is economic: Egypt depends on US aid, so they want to keep us happy. Turkey doesn’t, but its economy is struggling so maybe they want to ensure the United States will help them if needed.
We’ve all spent the weekend processing the killing of Iranian official Qassim Suleimani by a US airstrike. While this is obviously very important, we should think about a secondary implication of this act–how this undermined the apparent Middle East analyst consensus that America was pulling back from tensions with Iran, and how this consensus even emerged in the first place.
A few months ago I noticed something interesting. Saudi Arabia, after adopting a hostile foreign policy on Qatar and Yemen–motivated by its fears of Iran–seemed to be getting nervous. They’d issue warning signs about the impact of a war, and their UAE allies actually seemed to be trying to calm things down. I noted this on Twitter (I’m not going to look up my tweets, but you can find them), and thought I was onto something.
Depending on your Twitter addiction, you either went to sleep or woke up with the news that America had assassinated Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds force. Suleimani was one of the most powerful men in Iran, and the driver of its activities in the Middle East, so this is a big deal. People are debating whether this was just and necessary, and what happens next. But I wanted to raise a different point: what this means for America’s Persian Gulf allies.
Many would suspect these states–particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)–to be the biggest winners in this strike. Both states have a history of antagonism with Iran. Both were also the victim of strikes against their oil industry likely orchestrated by Iran (likely by Suleimani himself). And both have been fighting a proxy war in Yemen against Iran. So removing him from the region would be a good thing for them.
I had a piece in the Washington Post’s “Monkeycage” over the weekend, which you can read here. I noted that many worry Saudi Arabia and the UAE will pull America into war with Iran. But it actually looks like they’re the ones restraining us. The piece was inspired by the famous “chain-ganging” dynamic in IR scholarship, but there was little discussion of that as it was geared towards a broader audience, so I wanted to expand here.
I suspect most readers of this site had to read Christensen and Snyder’s “Chain gangs and passed bucks” at some point. In case you didn’t, the argument is basically that in multipolar systems, alliances tend towards chain-ganging (being dragged into wary by allies) or buck-passing (wars breaking out because no one wants to stand up to an aggressor). The former happens in the case of offensive-dominant systems, the latter in defensive dominant ones.
The other day, Emily McFarlan Miller–a journalist with Religion News Service–noted a sense of deja vu. The AP had an article on a delegation of US evangelicals who travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet with Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s Crown Prince (and effective ruler). The deja vu was because there was a similar delegation–with some of the same individuals–last year, which she wrote about at the time. These repeated visits, and the visitors’ response to the conservative Islamic Kingdom, are surprising, and may represent a shift in how evangelical elites view Saudi Arabia.
The 2018 visit took place shortly after the (technically) alleged (but, come on) assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents, and was led by a US man who’d previously praised MbS as a sincere reformer. Noteworthy individuals on the trip included former Congresswomen Michele Bachmann and Johnnie Moore, one of Trump’s top evangelical advisers and a recent appointee to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. After returning, he praised MbS’ reforms and “support for moderate Muslim rule.”
Remember this summer, when we were about to go to war with Iran? Iran seized an oil tanker passing through the Persian Gulf. Iran also shot down a US drone. The United States responded by shooting down an Iranian drone flying near a US ship, and nearly launching an air strike against Iran. The United States also expanded sanctions on Iran.
With Trump’s behavior becoming…unpredictable, and hawkish advisers like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo seemingly ascendant in the Administration, some sort of military clash appeared likely. But at some point this likely event kind of…faded away. It’s hard to point to a specific moment–someone backing down, tensions defusing dramatically. The issue just slipped away.
One of the (many) concerns about the Trump Administration’s foreign policy is the impact it will have on US influence around the world. Will Trump’s rhetoric and actions restore US dominance in the international system, or will they aggravate the world, leading them to look elsewhere for leadership? We can find some answers in the reports that Trump is considering branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
Most debating US influence under Trump think it’s waning. Dan Drezner has pointed to public opinion polling suggesting a turn away from the United States. The UN Secretary General agrees. And others have suggested America start learning lessons in hegemonic decline from Great Britain.
Pope Francis recently visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE). His trip is historic, not just because it’s the first by the head of the Roman Catholic Church. He will also lead an outdoor mass, the first to be held, according to the new coverage, in the Arabian Peninsula. Additionally, the Pope signed an accord of “human fraternity” with the Grand Imam of al-Azhar University, the top center of religious learning for Sunni Muslims. This all sounds good, but I have mixed feelings.
The UAE has been putting a lot of effort into promoting interfaith dialogue and a “moderate Islam.” One example is this Foreign Policy article by the UAE’s ambassador to the US, presenting a “vision for a moderate Muslim world.” There is undoubtedly a strategic element to this, but I don’t doubt the UAE’s sincerity. I’m sure they really do want peaceful relations with the Christians nations they interact with, and are very concerned about the spread of extremism among their population.
There was some interesting/concerning information hidden at the end of the New York Times coverage of Secretary of State Pompeo’s Cairo speech. After criticizing Obama’s foreign policy and calling for action on Iran, Pompeo mentioned the progress Egyptian President al-Sisi had apparently made on religious freedom, specifically protecting Christians.
Some may dismiss this as cynicism or a sign of role Pompeo’s faith plays in his policies, but I think it’s more than that. It represents the worrying state of the international religious freedom (IRF) campaign, a robust, if low-key, international human rights campaign that used to pride itself on its nonpartisan nature. While progressives assume this campaign is a conservative cause and conservatives aren’t interested in hearing critiques, both should care deeply about what’s happened to it.
Here’s the text that caught my eye:
For many, Saudi Arabia finally went too far. Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went missing after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; reports suggest he may be dead. Pundits who gave Mohammed bin Salman—Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, also known as MbS—a chance to prove his reformist credentials have become critical. In the midst of all this, a commissioner of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom—(USCIRF) a government-affiliated human rights watchdog—announced…that Saudi Arabia is making great progress on protecting religious freedom? At first glance, this is confusing, but it may be an indication of the powerful role of strategic framing and policy gatekeepers in eroding international norms.
In “Bono made Jesse Helms cry,” international relations scholar (and permanent Duck of Minerva contributor) Joshua Busby discussed the dynamics through which activists can influence states’ foreign policy; his article also inspired the title for this post. Activists can intensify the appeal of their moral arguments by strategically framing their campaigns to match the cultural value of targets. And when they specifically target “policy gatekeepers,” who provide direct access to the relevant policymaking tools, their appeals can change states’ behavior.
Most assume this dynamic is a positive one, a way for activists to spread altruistic ideas and get states to adopt them. But what if it could be used by states themselves to undermine human rights norms?
It’s the weekend, so it’s time for the third edition of “Tweets of the Week.” My twitter feed was again filled with some interesting micro-blogging.
By the way, I apologize for the way last week’s home page post looked. Obviously, I’m doing something wrong with the images, though it seems to be fine once the reader clicks the link to Continue Reading. I hope readers can see the image at the top of this page. Continue reading
Daniel Howden’s piece in The Independent yesterday describes the ongoing furor over the sentencing of a gang-rape victim in Saudi Arabia to 200 lashes for speaking out about the crime. The 19-year old victim was originally sentenced to 90 lashes for being with a non-related male; the sentence was increased because she spoke out to the Saudi media during her appeal.
The fact that the Saudi government is now reviewing the case is a testament to the “boomerang effect” described in Keck and Sikkink’s classic book Activists Beyond Borders.
However, Howden writes:
“The Western world has expressed outrage – which has, in turn, provoked anger among the Saudi establishment… Prince Saud al-Faisal was forced, much to his annoyance, to answer hostile questions about her case at the Middle East peace talks in Annapolis this week. ‘What is outraging about this case is that it is being used against the Saudi government and people,’ he told reporters.”
There is a slight but important mischaracterization here: there is no one monolithic “Saudi establishment.” In fact, while elements within the Justice Ministry are engaged in a defamation campaign against the victim, the Foreign Ministry has distanced itself from the ruling. Prince al-Faisal’s remarks in Annapolis were not meant to suggest that international outrage is misplaced per se (he is also outraged, it seems), but that the West is mistakenly targeting all of Saudi law and culture, rather than (appropriately) calling out a specific failure of justice.
(Responses to Howden’s article posted on the Agonist frankly bear out Faisal’s point. Says one blogger: “I say… invade Saudi Arabia!”; another: “mysogynistic and gynophobic barbarian scum.”)
The difference Faisal speaks of may make little sense in the big picture, but it matters enormously in this particular case: how one appeals for victims of abuse can be as important as whether one does.
If the point is not simply to be right, but to be effective, citizens who wish to protect this woman should call the Saudi embassy and speak respectfully to the government’s interests and values rather than denigrating Islamic law and Saudi tradition per se. For more on how to pitch such appeals effectively, see these suggestions by Diodotus on Elected Swineherd.