Am I the only one who finds something seriously disturbing about the President of the United States being so buddy-buddy with a monarch? I recognize the importance of diplomatic relations with all nations and I think we should talk to everyone – Castro and Ahmadinejad included, but for the president of a nation founded on telling monarchs to go fuck themselves to attend a royal bash thrown in his honor is unseemly at best. The purpose of the President’s trip and forthcoming speech is to combat anti-Americanism within the “Muslim world” and that’s certainly a laudable goal. However, it looks like the president has bought the Bush idea of where anti-Americanism begins. We heard so much during the Bush Administration about how Muslims hate freedom and that’s why they all so badly hate the West. We all know that none of that is true, but President Obama is acting on those assumptions anyway.
The idea is that Americans and Muslims need to get to know each other better in order to live in peace and harmony, but what if anti-Americanism is the result not of not enough understanding but of too much? Ahmed al-Omran, a Saudi blogger, wrote what I thought was the best contribution to the Times op-ed collection of voices from the Muslim world writing about what they want to hear from President Obama. Here’s the key point, although you should definitely check out his full piece: “The masses will not listen to Mr. Obama unless he also addresses the leaders who deny us basic rights. He must signal to them his intention to change the longstanding policy of turning a blind eye to the undemocratic practices of America’s Arab allies. We don’t need any more nice words.”
President Obama has to understand on whose backs the red carpet rolls in Saudi Arabia. I can’t help but imagine how I would feel if I were a young Saudi who believed in democracy. It can’t feel good to watch the man who’s supposed to be the international symbol of democracy, the man who stood in front of the whole world and said that together we could make things different, grin and compliment the king who won’t let you vote. If I were there, I’d feel a certain about of disdain for a foreign president who speaks so eloquently about democracy but sees no problem with supporting monarchies when it’s in America’s “interest.” To assume anti-Americanism is an irrational reaction to America being the awesome-est country ever is silly considering how blatant the hypocrisy must look to Saudis.
A good relationship between the U.S. and the Kingdom (seriously, still a kingdom) of Saudi Arabia may be in the very short-term interests of the United States. Sure, the king could sponser the next Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and that would be really swell. But Saudis are looking for an alternative to living under a repressive monarchy, and if it doesn’t come with democratic reform then it will come as it has, in the form of conservative religious extremism. The long-term interests of America and the long-term interests of the Saudi people are one and the same and they are markedly distinct from the interests of the King of Saudi Arabia. If America believes that self-determination is the right of every man, woman and child born on this Earth and that this right stands opposed to monarchy, then we’re either with the people or with the king.
What I’m not endorsing is neo-conservatism in any form. It’s not the job of the United States to change regimes, but I do believe it is our job to help the people stand up to their leaders. What I would like to see from President Obama is exactly what al-Omran wants, fewer nice words and a harder stance when it comes to elections in Saudi Arabia. Suspending elections should be the fastest way off the White House’s Christmas card list. In the mean time, the left has to find a way to articulate something other than a simple short-term realist foreign policy.