Tom Friedman Fawns over the Arab Spring in Saudi Arabia

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Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times op-ed, “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last”, has attracted a large amount of attention, making the “trending” list on many social media and on-line news platforms. As has been his wont since he has become a sought after media celebrity, Mr. Friedman flies into Tel Aviv, Beijing, Delhi or in this case Riyadh, stays in a five star hotel, meets with a few senior government officials, tosses them some softball questions, records their answers and flies home. The result is a piece of journalistic fluff that provides little or no context and addresses almost none of the difficult questions that beg to be asked. Normally I would ignore such an inconsequential piece, but Mr. Friedman’s high profile requires a response

Let’s start at the beginning. The idea that the power grab and radical reform policy of Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS) can be compared to the bottom up calls for reform in autocratic regimes that characterized the Arab Spring is patently absurd. During these Arab Spring uprisings, Saudi Arabia, a poster child for an autocratic regime, supported brutal crackdowns in Bahrain, in Egypt, in Yemen and within its own borders. In order to prevent the Arab Spring from coming to Saudi Arabia the Saudi government was forced to ramp up its social welfare programs which, combined with the collapse of oil prices, has blown a huge hole in the Saudi budget, creating massive deficits.

In his discussion of foreign policy, Freidman essentially followed the Israeli/Saudi party line. MBS, as is his penchant, blames all of the problems in Saudi Arabia and the greater Middle East on Iran. His claim that the 1979 revolution, which resulted in the founding of the Islamic Republic, was the source of the rise of radical, intolerant Islam in Saudi Arabia completely ignores history. The unholy alliance between the al- Saud clan and the al- Wahhab clan which led to the creation of the modern state of Saudi Arabia dates from 1744. The pact specified that the Salafist religious leaders of the Wahhab movement could control religious affairs within the kingdom and in return they would support the political ambitions of the al-Saud clan. This pact endures until today. The biggest threat to MBS’s plan to “restore Islam to its [moderate] origins” is not Iran, but the radical jihadists of the Wahhabis.

The fixation of MBS on curtailing the spread of Iranian influence has led to a series of rash foreign policy adventures which have Saudi Arabia involved in two unwinnable proxy wars in Yemen and Syria. These conflicts have not only resulted in humanitarian and financial disasters, but have drawn the U.S. into the quagmire. Not satisfied with creating this instability, MBS, with the support of Israel, seems to be pushing for war with Iran, accusing Iran of an “act of war” when a missile was fired from Yemen toward Riyadh. Such a confrontation cannot help but draw the U.S. into a regional conflict.

Friedman writes very little about the ambitious Vision 2030 economic plan designed to convert the petroleum reliant Saudi economy into a modern technology and tourism based economy by 2030. The plan includes such elements as turning Saudi Aramco into a public company and using the proceeds to finance a massive sovereign investment fund, implementing a green card system in order to encourage immigration, developing infrastructure in order to increase pilgrimages and tourism from 8 million per year to 80 million per year, creating a military arms industry plus numerous other projects. The fact that allowing women to drive was a big deal shows how steep a hill there is to climb. As Bill Gates noted when asked if it were realistic for Saudi Arabia to become a Top 10 technology economy, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.” It is unlikely that a conservative, inward looking population used to living on the government dole or on no-show jobs can absorb this kind of radical change.

And so, one might ask why write this article? Who benefits from portraying Saudi Arabia as a modernizing, moderate Muslim country intent on protecting the region from the radical, terrorism supporting Ayatollahs in Iran? Beyond Saudi Arabia itself, Israel comes to mind. This fits right into the Israel/NY Times narrative that Iran is the source of all the instability in the Middle East. The Trump administration seems to have bought the story. Now we need to work on the American people.

This article was previously published by American Herald Tribune


The Third Intifada – Six Things that You Should Know

Originally published on Foreign Policy Journal


The Al-Aqsa Mosque at the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount (Godot13/Wikimedia Commons)

Last week I participated in a conference call on the growing violence in Israel/Palestine. The call included Palestinians and Jews who were either on the ground or had been recently. The picture they painted about the deteriorating situation was very grim. Although, at some level, I knew much of what was discussed, several things stood out for me.

  1. What you read in the western mainstream media is wrong. Whether you read the New York Times, the Washington Post or any other mainstream media outlet, the underlying approach to the coverage is that the violence is being perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists and Israel is responding to these terrorist attacks. The reality is that the violence did not begin in the past few weeks. For years there has been a series of attacks by radical settlers in the West Bank on Palestinians, their homes, farms and businesses. These attackers have, in many cases been protected by the Israeli occupying forces. Over time the racist attacks have spread to Israel proper.
  2. It is not about access to al-Aqsa mosque. Although many of the recent confrontations have taken place at the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) as radical Jews have attempted to gain access to al-Aqsa and the Israeli government has responded by limiting access by Muslims to one of the holiest sites in Islam. While not the cause of the escalating violence, it was a trigger that motivated young Palestinians to take action.
  3. It’s the occupation. Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza since the end of the 1967 War and over time has annexed portions of this territory and built Jews-only settlements throughout. Despite an array of attempts to resolve the conflict and establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the occupation remains in place. We now have a generation of young people that – having grown up knowing nothing but the occupation, having seen the optimism of the Oslo Accords fade away under the pressure of expanding settlement, having no hope for anything but a brutal military occupation – has become frustrated, angry and radicalized.
  4. The 2014 Gaza War united Palestinians. As I wrote at the time, prior to this war Palestinian citizens and residents of Israel, even though they were second class citizens, tended to think of themselves as Israelis first and Palestinians second. Many knew little about conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. The death and destruction inflicted on Palestinians in Gaza during this war changed this mind set dramatically. They now relate intensely to the plight of their Palestinian brothers and sisters living under occupation. They are also more cognizant of their second class status in Israel. After the Second Intifada, Israel responded by building a wall between the West Bank and Israel. That strategy won’t work this time.
  5. Fear is rampant in all segments of Israeli society. The seemingly random nature of the violence has made the entirety of Israeli society fearful. Jews fear that the Arab construction worker, waiter or student could suddenly turn on them with a knife or vehicle. With the introduction of authorization for police and military within Israel to “shoot to kill” if they “suspect” that someone is a terrorist, Arabs see every policeman as a potential killer. One young Arab woman told a story of walking in East Jerusalem with a water bottle and then throwing it away, afraid that a policeman might think it was a weapon and kill her. Mizrahi Jews, Jews of Middle Eastern origin whose looks, culture and language are Arab, are afraid that they will be attacked by other Jews. The usually vibrant Old City of Jerusalem, filled with shoppers, students and tourists, is quiet.
  6. The Israeli government’s response to the violence has only made matters worse. The decision to combat the intifada by instituting even more violent and repressive measures and the inflammatory language used to justify the measures is counterproductive. The arrests and killing of Palestinian youth and children is increasing the anger and spreading the violence.
  7. Israel has a problem that they have no idea how to solve. Iranian Supreme Leader Khomeini may have been prescient when he said, “The occupying regime in Jerusalem will vanish from the pages of time.”

The Syrian Civil War Gets Even More Complicated

100_0531Nourished by the crystal clear headwaters of the Jordan River, an island of green within a surrounding sea of brown parched land, the Golan plateau, a seemingly pastoral place with landscape falling away toward the Sea of Galilee to the south and toward Damascus 50 miles to the east, has been a locus of conflict since Israel occupied it during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

I can imagine an Israeli general looking out over the Syrian countryside, seeing plumes of smoke rising from bombed buildings and hearing the crackle of gunfire drawing closer to the armistice line – perhaps encouraged by his political masters in Jerusalem seeking an edge in the upcoming election – making a decision that has the potential to turn the Syrian Civil War, already a destabilizing factor in the Levant, into a regional conflict.

The Syrian conflict, throughout its four-year duration, has evolved into a multi-sided war of attrition between the Bashir al-Assad government in Damascus, the so-called Free Syrian Army (a loose confederacy of more secular groups), Jabhat al-Nusra (the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria), the self-proclaimed “caliphate” of the Islamic State, and numerous militia groups with shifting allegiances willing to sell their services to the highest bidder. Adding to this complicated environment, the U.S. and its European allies, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, Iran and Hezbollah have intervened on behalf of the various players. This has prolonged the fighting, continuing the agony of those caught in the middle, killing over a hundred thousand and creating millions of refugees. Now Israel has decided to enter the fray.

On January 18, an Israeli gunship attacked a Syrian convoy killing six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general advising the Syrian Army.

100_0534Since the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, which killed over a thousand people on both sides, Israel has periodically attacked Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon and has conducted covert assassinations in Iran. In these past incidents, Hezbollah, facing an unstable political situation in Lebanon, engaged in a serious conflict in Syria against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, has been reluctant to engage Israel directly and has elected to absorb the blows and bide their time until an opportunity to strike back in an asymmetric manner presents itself. Likewise, Iran, involved in the difficult nuclear negotiations, has been reluctant to respond. This time, however, is different.

The first indication that this time is different was that both Iran and Hezbollah changed their usual practice by immediately announcing the names of the victims and conducting public funerals. Leaders of Iran and Hezbollah did not play down the attack, but instead announced that “Jewish blood will run in the streets.” They seem to have decided that enough is enough.

On January 28, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli army patrol in the Israeli-occupied Shabaa Farms area bordering Lebanon and Syria, killing two Israeli soldiers and seriously injuring several more. For its part, Israel seems unsure as to how to respond. On one hand they seem to be trying to lower tensions by claiming that the death of the Iranian general was a mistake and by asking Russia to mediate in an effort to diffuse the crisis. On the other hand, some leaders, such as Avigdor Lieberman, have called for all-out war.

An Israeli intervention in the Syrian Civil War will completely change the dynamic. It would risk drawing Lebanon, a fragile state in the best of times, into the war. Iran, having claimed that “unlike the U.S., we stand by our allies” and believing that Israel supports Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda) would have a hard time staying on the sidelines. Nothing unites the Arab world like a conflict with Israel and the strong public reaction that such a conflict elicits. The disparate opposition groups would face strong pressure to unite against the “great enemy.” U.S. and European support for Israel only plays into the Islamic State narrative of a “clash of civilizations.” If Israel decides to escalate the conflict, the region will be left in a far worse position.

Questions Raised by Charlie Hebdo Attacks

Charlie_Hebdo_2006-02-08_gendarmes_mobiles_dsc07407The attacks in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical news publication, and on a kosher grocery store have dominated the news wires over the past week. Pundits and newscasters of all stripes have weighed in on the causes, meaning and implications of the events. While these attacks were relatively small in scale as terrorist events go, they have received wall-to-wall coverage in the media. The media is especially engaged because the events occurred in Europe and not in Africa, where Boko-Haram massacred over 100 people. The events also raised issues of press freedom, a cause near and dear to members of the media. But, on the whole, the coverage has raised more questions than it has answered. These questions need to be considered as they have short and long-term policy implications.

  1. Is Islam responsible? If the question is phrased this way, the answer is no. Those who perpetrated the crime are responsible. Just as 2.1 billion Christians cannot be held responsible for the massacre of 77 people by Anders Breivik in Norway and 14 million Jews around the world are not responsible for the deaths of 2,000 Palestinians in the Gaza War, 1.8 billion Muslims are not responsible for the actions of a few fanatics. Did some aspects of Islam contribute to the events? Probably. The radical, intolerant, Wahhabi brand of Islam promoted and financed around the world by Saudi Arabia can be appealing to young, unemployed, disaffected men. The concept of the “Umma,” the community of Muslims, leads to a feeling that an attack on one group of Muslims is an attack on all and requires a response.
  2. Are there limits on “free speech”? These attacks have been portrayed as attacks on free speech. However, whether by legal strictures, culture or self-imposed limits, every country imposes restrictions on free speech. In Europe many countries, such as Romania, Spain, France, Sweden and Austria, have laws against “anti-Semitic activity.” Jyllands-Posten, the Danish publisher of the Mohammed cartoons, refused to publish anti-Christian cartoons on the grounds that “readers will not enjoy the drawings” and “they will provoke an outcry.” Charlie Hebdo fired a long-time cartoon contributor for refusing to apologize for comments deemed anti-Semitic. In my view Charlie Hebdo has gradually crossed the line from satire to racism and Islamaphobia. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.
  3. Why now? Why here? The U.S. and its Western allies have been at war with Muslim/Arab countries for over 50 years. This long-term war has resulted in many deaths from “collateral damage” (i.e. innocent people die because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time). Everyone killed has brothers, husbands, wives, and friends who are very angry and some are motivated to pursue revenge. As the war against al-Qaeda and ISIS has escalated, so too have the deaths. While Britain, Germany, the U.S. and others are at risk from returning jihadist and home grown terrorists, France is in a unique position. Of the 8 million Muslims in France, the vast majority are of Algerian descent. These people and their families, alienated and regarding themselves as second class citizens, have lived through a piece a French history that most Frenchmen and many Algerians would prefer to forget. The bloody 1954-62 Algerian war of independence, which resulted in the deaths of perhaps 1.5 million Algerian Muslims and many hundreds of thousands of French men and women, remains an open sore for many. It doesn’t take much to reopen these wounds.
  4. Will world leaders come together to deal with the issues? The January 7-8 attacks traumatized the French people and in response they organized a rally in support of free speech and for solidarity. Unfortunately world leaders saw an opportunity for political theater. Leaders from countries not ranked among the top of Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom rankings, Russia (148), Palestine (138), Ukraine (127) and Israel (98), showed up. Israel takes the prize for political grandstanding by sending three top candidates for Prime Minister in the upcoming March elections. Prime Minister Netanyahu elbowed his way into the front row in order to be in all the photos. With the event over, they all will return home to business as usual. President Obama was probably wise to skip it.
  5. How will the leaders react? With no end in sight to the ongoing wars in the Middle East, the threat of asymmetric response by the enemies appears likely to grow. The U.S., having adopted the Israeli model of mass surveillance, racial and ethnic profiling, enhanced interrogation, torture and detention without trial, already has a strong anti-terror program in place. From statements by European political leaders (British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “There should be no means of communication which we cannot read”), Europe, which had been unwilling to allocate the resources and give up privacy, will probably follow suit.
  6. Can a liberal democracy that values individual rights, freedom and privacy survive in an atmosphere of perpetual war? I don’t know the answer to this question. Does anyone?

The Dog That Didn’t Bark: Middle East Reaction to the Torture Report


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The release by the U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee of the Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program – the “Torture Report” – has created a media fire-storm in the United States. Even before the report was released, opposition to the publication of the information contained in the report was fierce with those opposed claiming that it was a partisan witch hunt, and, given the chaos in the world today, the timing wasn’t right and would stir up violent reaction in the Arab and larger Muslim world, endangering the lives of Americans.

Since the release of the report, reaction in the U.S. has ranged from strong defense, (“While the truth is a hard pill to swallow…the American people are entitled to it” – John McCain), to balanced realistic assessments (“The National Effort at Self-Exoneration on Torture” –Paul Pillar), to intellectual evaluations (“The report is full of crap.” – Dick Cheney).

Much of the criticism of the report’s findings has centered on the conclusions that the “enhanced interrogation” (i.e. torture) yielded little information of value. The CIA has long claimed that its enhanced interrogation techniques provided useful information that saved American lives. Even before the report was released and before they knew what was in it, three former CIA Directors launched a media counter attack claiming that the interrogation program was “invaluable” in stopping terror attacks.

Even if the Director’s claims are accurate, a dubious conclusion at best given the documentation in the report, the claim that the “end justifies the means,” anything is justified if it helps achieve the government’s desired goals and outcomes, is a slippery slope that completely ignores any concept of morality and ethical decision making.

The claims of violent reaction, endangering American lives, have proved equally problematic. While the U.S. media has provided wall-to-wall news and opinion coverage, the coverage in the Middle East has been modest to nonexistent. The reaction of Arabs and Muslims in general has been a non-issue. For them, there is nothing new in this report. It is common knowledge that, in pursuit of the “war on terror,” the U.S. has indefinitely detained, tortured and murdered numerous Muslims whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Their experience with their own oppressive regimes leads them to conclude that this is what governments do to protect themselves and their interests. What’s new? The U.S. government is no different from any other regime. The biggest casualty of this report will be American “soft power.”

As I discuss in my book, Fault Lines, soft power, a concept coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye, is getting others to want what you want. According to Nye, a country’s resources of soft power are its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad) and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority). America’s soft power toolbox has been seriously depleted over the last several decades.

Although the U.S. may get some credit for owning up to its mistakes and, perhaps, taking steps to prevent such behavior from happening again, these revelations will only make it more difficult for American diplomats to influence the behavior of other countries. Already many of our allies, some complicit in these activities, are feeling pressure to distance themselves from U.S. actions and policies. Not a good sign.