Here’s the best short commentary I’ve recently seen on our complicity in Saudi tyranny, from the letters section of today’s New York Times:
To the Editor:
What are American “interests” in this region, who determined them, and why have they not been shared with the American people?
We get energy from the Saudis and also used to buy significant amounts of oil from Iran. But we diversified our oil purchasing after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and cut off all Iranian shipments after the Iranian Revolution in 1979. With the current glut of oil on the market, we have never been in a stronger position to press the Saudis for democratic reform. But we don’t.
The only plausible answer is that they continue to buy enormous quantities of American weapons and get support from that lobby. They also continue to invest tens of billions of their petrodollars in Western banks. So despite all our talk about human rights and democracy, it appears that our “interests” are being dictated by the arms industry and Wall Street, both of which have a lock on the White House and Congress.
We the people, who do have an interest in human rights, are left to write letters to the editor and hope that our so-called representatives will hear our voices above the money machine in Washington. Something is very, very wrong with this picture.
Long Island City, Queens
The writer is a professor at the CUNY School of Law.
Every element of that is right, but there’s one thing he doesn’t mention: no boycott of or blacklist against the Saudi regime can work unless Muslims, especially Sunni Muslims, decide to join in and boycott the hajj and umra pilgrimages to Mecca (and Medina).
I find it odd and revealing that Sunnis, who pride themselves on their differences from Shia Muslims over questions of political succession, find themselves unable to apply their vaunted principles to the Saudis. Sunnis are distinguished from Shias by their adherence to the principles of merit and consensus in political succession: the most meritorious should lead the Muslim ummah, and should do so by uncoerced popular consensus of some kind. Sunnis are willing to kill and die for that principle, as applied to the caliphs of the distant past. The Shiite principle of hereditary succession, I’ve heard all my life, is ridiculous, subservient, racist, and tyrannical. Right. So why adopt it when it comes to the Saudis? If Sunnis are willing to kill and die over sectarian differences, why not try something more constructive and less violent: boycott the biggest tyrants in the Islamic world today?
A boycott/blacklisting is the only message that has a chance of breaking through the calculated indifference of the Saudi theocracy, and hitting the regime where it hurts. There was talk of such a boycott and of abolishing Saudi “custodianship” over Mecca just after this past September’s stampede in Mecca, but I’m not sure it’s gone anywhere since. It ought to be revived. Whatever the merits or demerits of BDS against Israel, BDS against Saudi Arabia is, morally speaking, a complete no-brainer. (Consider this and this while you’re at it.)
I’m curious to hear what Sarah Skwire, Steve Horwitz and the rest of the “Scholars Without Borders” crowd have to say about that. Here’s their official position:
If invited to present our work in a country that is currently under such a boycott, or to collaborate with scholars in those countries, we will do everything possible to accept and, where possible, to reduce or waive our standard lecture fees.
Really? You’ll waive your standard lecture fees to go to King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah? You’ll go out of your way to lecture in a country that’s reluctant to give you a visa because you’re Jewish, or won’t let you in if it finds out that you’ve been to Israel?
When you boycott, say, King Abdul Aziz University, you’re sending a message to its owners, the Saudi regime: they lack moral legitimacy, and ought to clean up their act. Likewise when you reject a $10 million offer of assistance from them, as Rudolph Giuliani very properly did in the aftermath of 9/11. Granted, some innocents might adversely be affected by such actions, but innocents are bound to be adversely affected by any political action: one can’t avoid adverse effects in political life except by avoiding political action altogether (and even that won’t quite do, if you count the negative effects of apolitical quietism). But you’re not “punishing” those innocents by any plausible definition of that term (or any semi-plausible account of punishment in the literature). Those innocents are alas, “collateral damages” of an otherwise worthy (and entirely peaceful) endeavor. And frankly, it’s a bit of a stretch to think that they’re “damaged” at all.
By contrast, when you join the International Advisory Board of a Saudi university, you’re sending a different kind of message: that the Saudi regime is sufficiently legitimate that you’re willing to join it in a common enterprise, and lend your name to the task. When an American university accepts Saudi money, it’s saying something similar, and then some: that the Saudis can permissibly shape American scholarship by subtle and indirect financial means. (Read this as well.) Scholarly exchange is not as simple or easy as Scholars Without Borders would have us believe. Sometimes complicity is what allows one’s scholarly work to be “used as a political tool.” So-called “scholarship without borders” has to be tempered by scholarship conscious of moral limits–and conscious of the perils of complicity. Open Border cliches only go so far in the real world.*
The ultimate goal for Mecca (and perhaps Medina)–as for Jerusalem–should be the internationalization of the holy sites. The ultimate goal for Saudi Arabia should be the abolition, or constitutionalization (and secularization) of the monarchy. For now, the task is a matter of concerted de-legitimization of the regime–not just by Shiites, but by all of us. Enough to keep our hands full for the foreseeable future.
Postscript, January 27, 2016: Here’s another element of our entanglement with the Saudis–our reliance on their money to fund our proxy war in Syria–reminiscent of our reliance on their money to fund our earlier proxy war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
WASHINGTON — When President Obama secretly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin arming Syria’s embattled rebels in 2013, the spy agency knew it would have a willing partner to help pay for the covert operation. It was the same partner the C.I.A. has relied on for decades for money and discretion in far-off conflicts: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
In other words, we don’t seem to have learned anything from our experiences in Central America in the 1980s. And though the Republicans have offered a lot of brave talk about “carpet bombing ISIS,” don’t expect that courage to extend to a candid discussion of the threat posed by reliance on the Saudis–who will inevitably pay for the “boots on the ground” after the inevitable failure of the bombing campaign.
*Though I haven’t read it yet, I’m eager in this connection to read Gregory Mellema’s new book, Complicity and Moral Accountability (Notre Dame, 2016):
In Complicity and Moral Accountability, Gregory Mellema presents a philosophical approach to the moral issues involved in complicity. Starting with a taxonomy of Thomas Aquinas, according to whom there are nine ways for one to become complicit in the wrongdoing of another, Mellema analyzes each kind of complicity and examines the moral status of someone complicit in each of these ways.
Mellema’s central argument is that one must perform a contributing action to qualify as an accomplice, and that it is always morally blameworthy to perform such an action. Additionally, he argues that an accomplice frequently bears moral responsibility for the outcome of the other’s wrongdoing, but he distinguishes this case from cases in which the accomplice is tainted by the wrongdoing of the principal actor. He further distinguishes between enabling, facilitating, and condoning harm, and introduces the concept of indirect complicity.
Mellema tackles issues that are clearly important to any case of collective and shared responsibility, yet rarely discussed in depth, always presenting his arguments clearly, concisely, and engagingly. His account of the nonmoral as well as moral qualities of complicity in wrongdoing—especially of the many and varied ways in which principles and accomplices can interact—is highly illuminating. Liberally sprinkled with helpful and nuanced examples, Complicity and Moral Accountability vividly illustrates the many ways in which one may be complicit in wrongdoing.
For a systematic discussion of American complicity in Saudi tyranny, I once again recommend Said Aburish’s The Rise, Corruption, and Coming Fall of the House of Saud (Bloomsbury, 1994), with this update.