Why Saudi Arabia Gets Away With Murder

The kingdom is set to execute a young man for participating in the Arab Spring as a 17-year-old—and the Obama administration has admitted it’s not going to do a thing about it.

Ali Mohammed al-Nimr Image via Facebook
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr
Image via Facebook

By Jay Michaelson

An Islamic regime in the Middle East may soon behead a young man and hang his corpse up for display. ISIS? Iran? No—America’s ally Saudi Arabia. And because it’s the Saudis, the Obama administration’s silence has been deafening.

In 2012, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was a 17-year-old pro-democracy activist in the Arab Spring. After harsh government crackdowns, protests turned violent, particularly in Qatif, a majority-Shiite region in majority-Sunni Saudi Arabia. Al-Nimr was arrested, along with others, and charged, at first, with relatively low-level political crimes related to the protests, such as “going out to a number of marches, demonstrations, and gatherings against the state and repeating some chants against the state.”

But then al-Nimr’s uncle, a prominent Shiite cleric, began giving fiery sermons against the regime. He, too, was arrested, on more serious charges of inciting sectarian strife, aiding terrorists, and “insulting Gulf leaders and scholars.”

Suddenly, the younger al-Nimr’s charges were increased as well, to include the capital crimes of attacking police and sheltering criminals. According to al-Nimr’s father, the teen was tortured until he confessed, and he was subsequently sentenced to death.

Al-Nimr would, however, be the first solely political prisoner to be executed in Saudi Arabia in some time—and based on flimsy evidence, an allegedly coerced confession, and acts of political dissidence committed when he was 17. How could such a thing happen, without a peep of protest from the United States?

Because it’s Saudi Arabia.

As outrageous as killing a kid for political activism may be, al-Nimr is just the latest collateral damage in our long, troubling marriage of convenience with the House of Saud. We need the Saudis for the fight against ISIS, for oil, and for providing some semblance of stability in the most unstable region on the planet. As my colleague Michael Tomasky wrote in January, we’re stuck with Saudi Arabia, because as bad as the Saudis are, the alternatives are worse.

Adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia was just named to a UN Human Rights panel—only a subsidiary committee, and part of a regionally based rotation, but outrageous nonetheless given the country’s appalling human rights record.

Read more at The Daily Beast

The myth of Obama’s failure in the Middle East

US President Barack Obama waves after addressing Israeli students at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, March 21, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

It has become an article of faith that President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy, along with the rest of his foreign policy, is adrift. According to a slew of would-be policymakers and pundits, the United States is “weak” and “feckless.” These criticisms are not exclusive to the Obama administration’s adversaries in Washington, but also routinely heard among officials and pundits in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Jerusalem​ and Riyadh. Such critics believe that Washington has not “done enough” to meet the challenges of the region, portending disaster for America’s national security and its allies in the region. Has it really?

Calamity and misfortune may be the future of the Middle East, at least in the short run, but the region’s problems are not the result of the White House’s policy choices. Lost among the complaints about what the administration is or is not doing and demands for leadership is an appreciation of just how difficult the region has become or what demonstrating “leadership” actually means.

The Obama administration has had its problems, no doubt. The White House got itself into trouble with its now-infamous Syrian “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, confusing friends and emboldening enemies. It is fair to say that since August-September 2013, when the administration reneged on its vow to respond to the Syrian regime’s use of such weapons, President Bashar al-Assad has prosecuted the civil war with even greater impunity.

In regard to Egypt, Washington has sought to split the difference between its strategic interests and efforts to hold leaders there accountable to their own democratic commitments as they engage in a harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and all other dissenters. As a result, Washington’s Egypt policy is muddled.

When it comes to prosecuting the war against terrorists, the White House’s overreliance on drones has led to the deaths of a number of civilians, needlessly antagonizing innocents and ensuring that generations of Yemenis and others will harbor resentment and anger toward the United States. Despite the administration’s bold effort to reach a “grand bargain” with Iran, hard-liners in both Washington and Iran may still block a final deal from reaching fruition.

Even taking into account these problems, much of the Washington-based criticism is rooted in politics rather than an objective analysis of what is happening in the Middle East. After Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak fell and protests began in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria, Washington policy geeks and journalists began to ask if they were witnessing a Middle Eastern version of the Eastern and Central European revolutions of 1989 or maybe the Arab analogue to 1848’s Springtime of Nations. These are interesting analogies that may offer analysts some general insights about political change, but there is no precedent or policy playbook for the historic changes underway in the Arab world.

It has almost become a cliche that Arabs are engaged in battles over the hearts and soul of their countries, but that is precisely what is happening. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya were successful in chasing long-time authoritarian leaders from power, but since then, the struggles to shape new and more just political orders have produced instability, uncertainty and violence. Even Tunisia, which pundits and analysts consider the most promising prospect for a democratic transition, confronts significant economic challenges that could threaten political progress.

Then there is Bahrain, which, with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has suppressed demands for political change. The Bahraini leadership along with the Saudis and Emiratis clearly believe that these demands and the demonstrations that have accompanied them are part of an allegedly broad sectarian struggle playing out in the region. With the prevailing unstable circumstances in North Africa and the perception of threat in the Gulf, where local political actors think they are engaged in existential struggles, it is unclear how US “leadership” can alter the calculations of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military, Libyan militias, the Bahraini ruling family or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Read more at Al-Monitor

Obama Punts On Keystone Pipeline

A decision to give executive agencies more time to review plans for the controversial pipeline could push a final decision to after the midterm elections

President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network’s conference in New York, April 11, 2014 (Carolyn Kaster—AP)

The Obama Administration is extending its review of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline that has become an election-year minefield.

The State Department said Friday that while the public comment period will not be extended, executive agencies need more time to review the submitted comments as well as consider a Nebraska court case surrounding the pipeline. The indefinite extension could put off a decision on the pipeline, which would carry crude oil from Canadian tar sands to American refineries, until after November’s midterm elections.

“On April 18, 2014, the Department of State notified the eight federal agencies specified in Executive Order 13337 we will provide more time for the submission of their views on the proposed Keystone Pipeline Project,” the department said in a statement. “Agencies need additional time based on the uncertainty created by the on-going litigation in the Nebraska Supreme Court which could ultimately affect the pipeline route in that state. In addition, during this time we will review and appropriately consider the unprecedented number of new public comments, approximately 2.5 million, received during the public comment period that closed on March 7, 2014.

“The Permit process will conclude once factors that have a significant impact on determining the national interest of the proposed project have been evaluated and appropriately reflected in the decision documents,” the State Department statement continued. “The Department will give the agencies sufficient time to submit their views.”

The pipeline has become a focus of Republican critics of the Obama Administration’s regulatory process. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the White House Friday after news of the decision broke.

Read more at TIME

America’s war on immigrants

Al Jazeera America

In the name of safeguarding the nation, acute violations of human rights go unchallenged

Activists hold family photos outside the White House on March 12 to protest the nearly 2 million deportations that have taken place during Barack Obama’s presidency while Congress debates immigration reform.Brendan Smialowski//AFP/Getty Images

As the interminable debate in Washington over immigration reform wears on, undocumented migrants in the U.S. continue to exist at the mercy of law enforcement efforts that defy all pretenses of justice and legality.

Earlier this year, Al Jazeera America reported on the stop-and-frisk-style raids being conducted in New Orleans by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to boost migrant deportation quotas. In that article, a Honduran immigrant recounts his experience of being handcuffed and shackled in the back of an ICE vehicle, which had been deployed to round up undocumented people using racial profiling techniques, saying, “I heard one of the agents say to another, ‘This is like going hunting.’ … And the other responded, ‘Yeah, I like this s—.’”

Also mentioned in the article is the fact that ICE agents in New Orleans “use mobile fingerprinting devices similar to those used by the U.S. military during its counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

If we add to this mix the prevalence of abuse that deportees face from federal officials, fatal shootings of migrants by Border Patrol personnel and the rampant construction of nativist border walls, it begins to appear that the U.S. is indeed waging a war on immigration. It starts at the very top: Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama has overseen more deportations than any other president in history — nearly 2 million people in the six years he has been in office.

The severity of such statistics is partially camouflaged by Republican accusations that Obama isn’t tough enough on immigration. Meanwhile, he is able to invoke Republican intransigence to excuse his inaction on reform. That much is clear. What is less clear and much more insidious is that political inertia ultimately benefits those in power, regardless of party.

This is where the story gets interesting:

Read more at Al Jazeera America

Why the United States Is Getting Tough With Turkey

Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Barack Obama in the White House Rose Garden, May 16, 2013. (Kevin Lamarque / Courtesy Reuters)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu did something extraordinary when they emerged from a January 12 bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Friends of Syria conference in Paris. Such occasions are usually marked by predictable boilerplate rhetoric about how productive the talk was and how closely both countries are working to solve pressing global issues, and Davutoğlu’s comments followed the standard script. What happened next was more unusual. After Davutoğlu finished speaking, Kerry took the opportunity to chide his Turkish counterpart for neglecting to mention an important component of the talks: Kerry’s emphatic rejection of Turkish claims that the United States had been meddling in Turkish politics and trying to influence the Turkish elections. As Davutoğlu sheepishly looked at the floor, Kerry continued that Davutoğlu now understood the score, and said that the two countries “need to calm the waters and move forward.”

Kerry’s addendum came in response to what has become a familiar Turkish government strategy of shifting the blame to outside powers, and particularly to the United States, when faced with any sort of internal opposition. During the Gezi Park protests in June, for example, Turkish government figures blamed Washington, CNN, and “foreign powers” for inciting unrest. More recently, when an ongoing corruption scandal exploded into the open in late December, Turkish ministers were quick to insinuate that the United States was the hidden hand behind the graft probe. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to expel U.S. ambassador Francis Ricciardone for allegedly provoking Turkey and “exceeding limits,” a reference to allegations that the ambassador was somehow meddling in Turkish affairs and prodding the investigation of government officials.

It isn’t surprising that the Turkish government has blamed the United States for self-inflicted wounds. But it is surprising that the United States has finally responded forcefully. And, if Turkey’s behavior after the flap is any indication (it made a quick about-face on a number of issues that have been particularly angering the United States), the Obama administration should make getting tougher with Turkey a priority.

PROBLEM PARTNER

Turkey voted in the UN Security Council against additional sanctions on Iran; helped Iran get around the international sanctions regime; and even hinted at Iran’s natural right to a nuclear program.

Turkish officials like to describe the last few years as a golden age in bilateral relations. Davutoğlu, in particular, likes to wax on about the “model partnership” between the two countries. What he is responding to is the United States’ decision early in Obama’s first term to treat Turkey with kid gloves despite an increasingly long track record of troubling Turkish behavior. The United States had two main motivations. The first was the hope that Turkey could serve as a democratic example for other Muslim countries. For a variety of reasons, including Turkey’s unique history and its distinctive combination of structural pressures, it was never going to be a good model, but that did not prevent Washington from pushing it wholeheartedly.

The second motivation was a conviction that Turkey could serve as an interlocutor between the West and the Middle East. With its ties to groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its relationship with Iran, Turkey was seen as irreplaceable, and Washington was reluctant to alienate it. Even when the United States instituted a policy directly intended to counter problematic Turkish behavior, Turkey was still given an inordinate amount of leeway. For example, in January 2013, when Congress passed legislation specifically outlawing trade in gas for gold to stem Turkish sanctions-busting in Iran, Turkey was granted a six-month buffer period. The only thing the backpedaling did was enable ever-bolder Turkish probing of U.S. red lines.

And probe it has. As has been documented repeatedly, Turkish democracy has been off the rails for some time. Since winning re-election in 2007, the AKP has systematically squeezed political opponents, consolidated state power, and done all it can to marginalize the feckless opposition. It has jailed journalists in unprecedented numbers, prosecuted citizens for insulting the prime minister, subjected companies that have run afoul of the government to crushing fines, and convicted military officers on charges based on forged evidence. All the while, the United States has largely sat on the sidelines with its mouth shut. State Department officials repeat the mantra that Turkey is more democratic now than it has ever been, and in 2012, President Barack Obama listed Erdogan as one of the five world leaders with whom he has the closest and most trusting relationship.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

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Air War in Kosovo Seen as Precedent in Possible Response to Syria Chemical Attack – NYTimes.com

WASHINGTON — As President Obama weighs options for responding to a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria, his national security aides are studying the NATO air war in Kosovo as a possible blueprint for acting without a mandate from the United Nations.

With Russia still likely to veto any military action in the Security Council, the president appears to be wrestling with whether to bypass the United Nations, although he warned that doing so would require a robust international coalition and legal justification.

“If the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work?” Mr. Obama said on Friday to CNN, in his first public comments after the deadly attack on Wednesday.

Mr. Obama described the attack as “clearly a big event of grave concern” and acknowledged that the United States had limited time to respond. But he said United Nations investigators needed to determine whether chemical weapons had been used.

Kosovo is an obvious precedent for Mr. Obama because, as in Syria, civilians were killed and Russia had longstanding ties to the government authorities accused of the abuses. In 1999, President Bill Clinton used the endorsement of NATO and the rationale of protecting a vulnerable population to justify 78 days of airstrikes.

Read more at The New York Times.

Rick Perry Quietly Lobbies The White House For $100 Million In Obamacare Funding | ThinkProgress

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX)

Politico reported Tuesday evening that Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s (R) administration is in negotiations with the Obama White House to accept about $100 million in federal money to implement an Obamacare Medicaid program to help elderly and disabled Americans.

Perry has been a heated opponent of the health law. He refused to accept $100 billion in federal funding to expand Texas’ Medicaid program under Obamacare, which could have helped 1.5 million poor Texans afford basic health benefits. As recently as April, Perry essentially called the expansion a joke. “Seems to me April Fool’s Day is the perfect day to discuss something as foolish as Medicaid expansion, and to remind everyone that Texas will not be held hostage by the Obama administration’s attempt to force us into the fool’s errand of adding more than a million Texans to a broken system,” said Perry.

Now, Perry is seeking federal dollars for Texas’ Medicaid program anyway.

Read more at ThinkProgress