Saturday, October 19, 2013


The Saudi decision to refuse its Security Council seat is as idiosyncratic as one would expect from an absolute monarchy that names its country after its own clan. It is even possible the King did not know what his foreign ministry was doing when they campaigned for a seat.  The last time Saudi  Arabia made a bid for serious UN glory was in 1991 when its UN Ambassador Samir Shihabi ran for President of the General Assembly, overturning the expected candidate, Papua New Guinea. The quip at the time was that most of the hands raised for the Saudi candidacy had a Rolex on their wrists.

More seriously, it showed the dilemma for a Saudi regime of trying to look after its home constituency and yet pander to its essential foreign backers. One of Shihabi’s first tasks was to preside over the special meeting of the General Assembly called by George H W Bush to rescind the “Zionism is Racism” resolution of the UN. Shihabi absented himself from the meeting - as in fact so did the Israeli ambassador since Israel saw the move as Bush’s attempt to win over AIPAC after refusing the loan guarantees that the Israelis wanted to build settlements with.

That hints at the reasoning behind the shocking decision.  Saudi diplomacy by its very nature has to be somewhat duplicitous. It wants Iran hobbled, for example, but cannot be seen supporting an attack on a Muslim country. On the Israeli issues it would have to confront its existential ally, the US, publicly, or go along with that  many more where its domestic Wahabi base would be unhappy if the Saudi representative voted the foreign ministry’s head rather than the Imam’s heart. So perhaps the decision is not so shocking after all!

On balance, of course, the Security Council will benefit from a Saudi absence. It might be occasionally correct on Middle Eastern issues but on almost everything else it is solidly on the side of reaction with little to recommend it except oil and money.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Iran, reality impinges in DC
by Ian Williams
Sunday, October 6th, 2013
As Winston Churchill said: “America always does the right thing, but only after it has tried everything else first.” Finally responding to Iranian overtures has taken so long that his dictum has been tested close to destruction. And everything is connected. Apart from the symbolic handshake, American officials and politicians have been dealing with Iran all along.
One cannot help wondering if there were not some subtext on Syria behind the current rapprochement. Iran is one of the few nations in modern times to suffer chemical warfare, and, in their own odd way ,the ayatollahs can be quite principled – as we were reminded at the United Nations, about the fatwa against nuclear weapons. Is it possible that the sarin in Syria might test the Damascus-Teheran axis?
Even so, Barack Obama’s uncritical proclamation of American exceptionalism in his UN speech counterpoints his willingness to talk to Teheran. The latter shows some pragmatic acceptance that other countries than the United States and Israel have domestic policies with which their leaders have to cope with. The occasion recalls one of the better US ambassadors to the UN, Bill Richardson, who looked puzzled when questioned why other countries should accept a US offer to pay some of its arrears to the UN, but leave hundreds of millions owing. “But Congress has passed this.” Even such liberal and well-meaning statesman had difficulty accepting that there was anything between Capitol Hill and heaven, which puts into context Obama’s original thought that if Congress approved air raids on Syria, why would the UN be involved?
Mark Twain averred: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” Successive generations of representatives have reinforced his point with their votes. But the contemporary breed has a particularly obtuse outlook in which the criminality is permeated with an ideological rigour that is disturbing because the stench of corruption is (only partially) masked with the whiff of sanctimony.
If Obama had gone to Congress for support to bomb Syria without a UN resolution, then some legislators would have opposed it because of its illegality. But diehard conservatives would have opposed it because they have written the Good Samaritan out of their texts. They do not see that is any of America’s business what is being done in a far away country of which they genuinely know little and care less. Indeed, their phobia about “Obamacare” shows that they do not care much about suffering at home.
However, American conservatism is not monolithic. The neo-conservatives, as their name implies, are new. Unusually, their focus is on foreign policy, as befits their Trotskyist antecedents, and they now substitute a pro-Israel and anti-Islamist sensibility for their former rabid anti-communism. The older conservatives draw on the isolationist trends that kept the US out of the League of Nations and the Second World War for so long.
The spectrum is varied. Principles are fine, but a lot of them depend on domestic lobbies to be re-elected. So neo-cons and older conservatives alike will go along with powerful campaign funders such as the defence industry lobby. Some of the libertarian right are so firmly isolationist that they defy their conservative colleagues and oppose intervention even when Israel wants it.
Which, sort of, brings us back to Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way to Washington, and is unhappy with the idea of any kind of a deal with Iran. It is remotely possible that Obama will finally tell the arrogant Likudnik that the tail does not always wag the dog. It will be difficult, and diplomatically stupid, for the administration to withdraw from a deal brokered with the Russians and Europeans. But will the Palestinians end up paying the price, with yet more concessions ton settlements and arms aid? John Kerry’s willingness to chastise the European Union over embargoes on settlements is a reminder of the lobby-trimmed limits to ethics in US foreign policy.
So the shifts in foreign policy might not be as tectonic as one would hope, but any concession to global reality in the face of domestic lobbying has to be a step forward.