Something Is Up
Tuesday, December 12, 2006, was a day of very odd news and views. The epicenter seemed to be the Washington Post, perhaps attempting to prove newspapers, with their primary reporting and editorial clout, aren't dying dinosaurs at all.
Robin Wright was the reporter with the big scoop, with Saudi Ambassador Abruptly Resigns, Leaves Washington - "Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, flew out of Washington yesterday after informing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and his staff that he would be leaving the post after only 15 months on the job." She had the story first.
What is this about? Wright speculates another key Saudi prince is ill, and there's some sort of internal realignment going on over there - but that's only speculation. This is a mystery, and a bit of a diplomatic earthquake.
Josh Marshall notes all sorts of officials are giving various unconvincing explanations, the best of which is that, in the words of an unnamed embassy official, "He wants to spend more time with his family." Right - or as Marshall comments - "Perhaps we can take that as a foreigners gently parodic homage to the American tradition of political white lies."
But what's the reason for the standard white lie in this case? He dismisses Wright's speculation about illness or some palace intrigue in the Saudi royal family. He suggests we look at the geopolitical context -
Saudi Arabia's neighbor Iraq is in some sort of slow motion civil war. The neighbor across the water, Iran, has been empowered tremendously and stands to gain even more power if their Shi'a coreligionists in Iraq take over the country and slaughter or dominate the Sunni Arab minority. And the White House is signaling that it might opt to take the side of the Shi'a in that cataclysm and, shall we say, go along for the slaughter.
That would cut at the heart of the seven decade US-Saudi alliance, though admittedly it's taken quite a few cuts already of late. The White House has also just been presented with the Baker-Hamilton report which has, I think fairly, been characterized as a bid to return to the earlier US policy of aligning its regional interests with those of the Sunni autocracies in the region. The White House has dismissed that out of hand.
I'm no expert on the finer points of US-Saudi relations. But I don't think you need to be to see that the underpinnings of the relationship are on the table right now. And just at this moment, the ambassador resigns and gets on the next plane home. To borrow a phrase from our judicial pals, I think any excuse that this is just some personal matter deserves the strictest scrutiny. Something must be up.
You think? The president's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, wrote in that recent leaked memo, the one about how totally useless Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki was, that Washington should "step up efforts to get Saudi Arabia to take a leadership role in supporting Iraq, by using its influence to move Sunni populations out of violence into politics." But then, the week before, a Saudi who headed a security consulting group close to the Saudi government, Nawaf Obaid, wrote in the Washington Post that Saudi Arabia would use money, oil and support for Sunnis to counter Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq if American troops pulled out (previously discussed here). The Saudi government denied the report and fired Obaid. Actually, Prince Turki al-Faisal fired the guy - he was the prince's advisor.
But something was up with that. This thing is going regional, and the Saudis may be jumpy. The word is the administration is seriously considering siding with the Shi'a in all this, if something can be done about that Sadr fellow and we can keep them from being too friendly with Iran, and writing off the Sunnis, to get us out of the current mess - reportedly Cheney's position. And, as noted last week, things are getting serious - "Private Saudi citizens are giving millions of dollars to Sunni insurgents in Iraq and much of the money is used to buy weapons, including shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, according to key Iraqi officials and others familiar with the flow of cash." That was discussed in the pages in Hope as Strategy. It seems we've got to do something, no matter how much it looks like assured genocide.
Marshall says his readers have written in to say that "there's just no way we're going to let ourselves take sides in what would likely be at least a borderline genocidal civil war between Iraq's Sunni minority and Shi'a majority." He notes that, and responds why not? -
Is there anything we've seen in the last six years that makes you think we wouldn't pull the trigger on a ridiculously foolish new plan? I don't just mean that as trash talk. I think it's the only sensible way to approach the case at hand.
The main mistakes I've made thinking about foreign policy over the last half decade were, I think, all cases where there were certain outcomes I just didn't find credible because they were just too stupid and dangerous for anybody in a position of power to try.
Marshall is an experienced political reporter who now has his widely-read blog empire, and decides to raise another point he is not sure is widely appreciated -
The folks who brought you the Iraq War have always been weak in the knees for a really whacked-out vision of a Shi'a-US alliance in the Middle East. I used to talk to a lot of these folks before I became persona non grata. So here's basically how the theory went and, I don't doubt, still goes ... We hate the Saudis and the Egyptians and all the rest of the standing Arab governments. But the Iraqi Shi'a were oppressed by Saddam. So they'll like us. So we'll set them up in control of Iraq. You might think that would empower the Iranians. But not really. The mullahs aren't very powerful. And once the Iraqi Shi'a have a good thing going with us, the Iranians are going to want to get in on that too. So you'll see a new government in Tehran. Plus, big parts of northern Saudi Arabia are Shi'a too. And that's where a lot of the oil is. So they'll probably want to break off and set up their own pro-US Shi'a state with tons of oil. So before you know it, we'll have Iraq, Iran, and a big chunk of Saudi Arabia that is friendly to the US and has a ton of oil. And once that happens we can tell the Saudis to f$#% themselves once and for all.
Now, you might think this involves a fair amount of wishful and delusional thinking. But this was the thinking of a lot of neocons going into the war. And I don't doubt it's still the thinking of quite a few of them. They still want to run the table. And even more now that it's double-down. I don't know what these guys are planning now. But there's plenty of reason to be worried.
Talk about hope as strategy! If Marshall heard them right, those directing the foreign policy of the United States have been smoking some good stuff. Perhaps Prince Turki al-Faisal, and his government, just gave up on the whole crew, and caught the next flight out to go home and help prepare for the regional war we seem to want. The Saudis had asked Cheney to drop by for a chat in late November. It seems they didn't like what they heard from him.
Stepping back, it is possible to see that this the abrupt departure of the Saudi ambassador, could mark the precise start of the major regional Middle East war - from the edge of the Mediterranean to the western border of India - to realign everything, and that may have been the plan all along. You thought we were looking to eliminate Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? How quaint. Wheels within wheels were turning - big plans and a mad dream of how things could be. So this may be it - the big one. That or the prince really did want to spend more time with his family. That too is possible after all.
Then, late Tuesday, the news broke -
Saudi Arabia has told the Bush administration that it might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in a war against Iraqi Shiites if the United States withdraws from Iraq, The New York Times reported on Tuesday, citing American and Arab diplomats.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia delivered that message to Dick Cheney during the U.S. vice president's brief visit last month to Riyadh, the newspaper said, citing the officials it did not name.
... During the visit, King Abdullah expressed strong opposition to diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran, which is largely Shi'ite, the Times said. The Saudi leader also pushed Washington to encourage the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the newspaper reported, citing senior officials of U.S. President George W. Bush's administration.
The White House could not immediately be reached to comment on the report.
So things are lining up - until now the Saudis promised they would refrain from aiding Iraq's Sunni insurgency, but that pledge holds only as long as we remain in Iraq. We cut out or cut back, or side with the Shi'a, and they will act. They will not let Iraq's minority Sunni population be massacred, even if Cheney thinks that would be okay, given the fix we're in.
This was such a small news item, but something was up.
As for the other shake-up-everything item in the Post, that was a looking backward item. Fred Hiatt and his crew penned the lead editorial of the day, on the recent deaths of both Augusto Pinochet and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, sure to raise some hackles. They, we are told, were both fine folks and will be missed.
To review, Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte was the general who became the president of Chile - he led a military junta to power in 1973 through a coup d'état, deposing the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende. Pinochet stepped down from power in 1990, after losing a national plebiscite in 1988. The story is familiar to those who follow such things. In 1970, Salvador Allende, the leader of the Chilean Socialist Party, had been elected president - the first Marxist in the world to gain power in a free democratic election. The business folks hated him - what with his efforts to redistribute wealth and land, with wage increases of around forty percent and companies not allowed to increase prices, and then the copper industry was nationalized, and then the banks. Then he restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, China and East Germany. Something had to be done. The CIA set up a task force to get rid of the guy, and Pinochet was our choice to replace him. Henry Kissinger admitted that in September, 1970, President Nixon ordered him to organize a coup against Allende's government. A CIA document written just after Allende was elected said - "It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup" and "it is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG (United States government) and American hand be well hidden." So Chile had its September 11 - in 1973. Allende was killed in his office that day, or committed suicide. And we deny everything. Kissinger is considered a wise elder statesman these days.
But Pinochet turned out to be one nasty piece of work. He was notorious for "disappearing" his enemies, and for all sorts of torture, the most dramatic taking people for airplane rides over the ocean and dropping them from high altitude, one by one, until someone not yet escorted to the door talked. Some of our guys in Vietnam found that useful too. These acts got Pinochet indicted in Spain, as some of the dead or tortured were Spanish citizens, and he was arrested in London. The rest is old news - he fought all the indictments, unsuccessfully, but died before anything could come of it all. He was an old man. The heart attack was inevitable.
Jeanne Kirkpatrick was a Humphrey Democrat who became a Reagan Republican - a brilliant scholar and a rather mean lady, who Reagan sent to the UN as our ambassador there. Her big thing was that there was a real difference between authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes. The former were unpleasant, but the latter - they were all communist, as she said - were unacceptable. So Pinochet was just fine by her - he would evolve and the place would be fine. It was the same with Marcos in the Philippines and all the rest. The problem was the damned Marxists. Everyone knew no good would evolve from any Marxist regime. That was the "realism" of the day, in her day. She died the same week Pinochet died - of old age, pretty much.
Fred Hiatt and his crew decided to offer an assessment of these lives. And the opening is classic - "Augusto Pinochet tortured and murdered. His legacy is Latin America's most successful country."
Now you would expect what follows would be a stirring defense of torture and murder - we may have done those very things in Iraq and elsewhere, but it is obvious and logical that torture and murder are good things. They lead to real success.
Fred Hiatt and his crew just aren't that dumb. They aren't going to endorse torture and murder as fine and dandy. They just want to point out some things -
It's hard not to notice, however, that the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America. In the past 15 years, Chile's economy has grown at twice the regional average, and its poverty rate has been halved. It's leaving behind the developing world, where all of its neighbors remain mired.
So he must have done something right. Sorry about the thousands of dead people, and those who just disappeared. Sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do. And anyway, the Post says, Augusto Pinochet wasn't Castro - and when Castro finally kicks the bucket the left will probably defend him, so in your face, lefties.
Matthew Yglesias, for one, differs -
Seriously? The justification of Pinochet's 1973 coup and subsequent seventeen-year dictatorship is Chile's strong economic growth record after Pinochet left office? Then we learn that Pinochet was a good guy because Fidel Castro is a bad guy, which I think is the moral philosophy of six year-olds. And then Kirkpatrick: "Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right."
I don't really see what's obvious about this. Communist regimes in Central Europe were replaced by liberal democracies, much as Pinochet's right-authoritarianism was replaced by liberal democracy in Chile. But Communist regimes elsewhere have often been replaced by non-Communist authoritarianisms. But then again, right-wing authoritarianism in, say, Venezuela doesn't seem to have paved the road for liberal democracy. And, of course, Communism arose in Russia in the wake of the Czar's right-wing authoritarianism and, indeed, Communism arose in Cuba as the aftermath of right-wing authoritarianism under Battista.
UPDATE: Sorry, Venezuela's a bad example; I thought the military was in charge there in the 80s. Consider, say, Haiti where the Duvaliers hardly seem to have paved the road for a smooth transition to liberalism.
So Jeanne Kirkpatrick was full of crap - arguing against historical fact - and the Post is too, arguing that what happened after the old man was gone from office proved what he did in office was fine and dandy.
It doesn't matter. What is in the air is obvious here. Supporting some awful people, and doing awful things ourselves, may be just fine. It's all how you look at it. It's setting up what we will be doing in the Middle East next, and what we have done already.
But Margaret Thatcher is reported to be sad about the old man's death - Pinochet, not Ronald Reagan (she's over that) - to which Christopher Hitchens adds some thoughts -
There were those who used to argue that, say what you like, Pinochet unfettered the Chilean economy and let the Friedmanite breezes blow. (This is why Mrs. Thatcher was forever encouraging him to take his holidays and shopping trips in London; a piece of advice that he may well have regretted taking.) Yet free-marketeers presumably do not believe that you need torture and murder and dictatorship to implement their policies. I read Isabel Allende not long ago saying freely that nobody would again try the statist "Popular Unity" program of her uncle. But Salvador Allende never ordered anybody's death or disappearance; he died bravely at his post, and that has made all the difference. Meanwhile, a large part of Pinochet's own attraction to "privatization" has been explained by the disclosures attendant on the collapse of the Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., which revealed large secret holdings in his name. This, combined with the cynical delaying tactics that he employed to delay or thwart prosecution, made his name stink even more in Chilean nostrils while he was still alive.
It is greatly to the credit of the Chileans that they have managed to restore and revive democratic institutions without any resort to violence, and that due process was scrupulously applied to Pinochet and to all his underlings. But there is a price to be paid for the slowness and care of these proceedings. We still do not know all that we might about the murder of U.S. citizen Charles Horman, for instance. And many Chilean families do not know where their "disappeared" loved ones are buried or how they died. (Perhaps sometimes it is better not to know the last bit.) Not once, in the prolonged process of investigation and clarification, did Pinochet offer to provide any information or to express any conscience or remorse. Like Slobodan Milosevic (who also cheated justice by dying) and Saddam Hussein, he was arrogant and blustering to the very last. Chile and the world are well rid of him, but we can thank his long and brutish rear-guard action for helping us to establish at least some of the emerging benchmarks of universal jurisdiction for tyrants.
Hitchens is no Jeanne Kirkpatrick, whatever else he is.
But the Post was on the Pinochet bandwagon. Elsewhere, in a retrospective, Pamela Constable offers this - "Pinochet, who died Sunday at age 91, was a man with a mission. He genuinely believed he was doing the right thing, carrying out a grim duty in order to save his country from evil. In every speech and interview, the strongman of Santiago returned to the same theme: his sacred, patriotic calling to rid Chile of communism, whatever the cost."
It's hard to remember why everyone was so worked up about communism. Communism didn't work out, as it didn't actually work. And it collapsed under its own weight. There was no cost to be paid. You just had to wait. Pinochet didn't get it.
But then, as Yglesias notes, the costs weren't exactly his costs -
Pinochet believed it was his calling to rid Chile of Communism, whatever the cost to other people. He wasn't eager to pay a price personally, or to have members of his circle do so. Indeed, though Pinochet's corruption was hardly on a Mobutu-style scale, it's clear that he and his retainers profited personally from his dictatorship. And when he left office, he didn't throw himself on the mercy of the people, pleading justification but willing to accept whatever verdict - pay any price - they might render. Instead, he had himself made a senator for life to obtain immunity from prosecution. Once that stopped working, he adopted a number of other methods to try - successfully, in the end - to avoid bearing the cost of what he'd done.
This line of thought is, of course, entirely typical of the authoritarian mindset. You hear it in contemporary political disputes about torture and about the use of brutal force abroad. We must do what it takes to succeed whatever the cost. Always suppressed is the proviso - whatever the cost, to other people.
According to an official report by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet in 1990, at least 3,200 people were killed for political reasons and another 1,197 disappeared. He himself was just fine.
And the Post editorial says we were right to support him, as he wasn't a damned communist like Castro -
The contrast between Cuba and Chile more than 30 years after Mr. Pinochet's coup is a reminder of a famous essay written by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the provocative and energetic scholar and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who died Thursday. In "Dictatorships and Double Standards," a work that caught the eye of President Ronald Reagan, Ms. Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right.
No, she was just deeply and vitally angered by, and deliciously frightened of, communism. She didn't know that system would fold like a house of cards, if left to do so, or if just ridiculed (that worked just fine for Havel and his folks in Czechoslovakia). On the other hand, she became famous and powerful with her anger and fear. That works well in the political marketplace. It did then, it does now.
It's just too bad that the rehabilitation of Augusto Pinochet as a hero and role model is underway. That says a lot about us.
On the other hand, again, this too may say a lot about us -
Liberal and progressive Christian groups say a new computer game in which players must either convert or kill non-Christians is the wrong gift to give this holiday season and that Wal-Mart, a major video game retailer, should yank it off its shelves.
The Campaign to Defend the Constitution and the Christian Alliance for Progress, two online political groups, plan to demand today that Wal-Mart dump Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a PC game inspired by a series of Christian novels that are hugely popular, especially with teens.
The series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins is based on their interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation and takes place after the Rapture, when Jesus has taken his people to heaven and left nonbelievers behind to face the Antichrist.
Left Behind Games' president, Jeffrey Frichner, says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.
Oh, that makes it better. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said they have no plans to pull the game from any of their 3,800 stores.
In Left Behind, set in perfectly apocalyptic New York City, the Antichrist is personified by fictional Romanian Nicolae Carpathia, secretary-general of the United Nations and a People magazine "Sexiest Man Alive."
Players can choose to join the Antichrist's team, but of course they can never win on Carpathia's side. The enemy team includes fictional rock stars and folks with Muslim-sounding names, while the righteous include gospel singers, missionaries, healers and medics. Every character comes with a life story.
As for the names, Frichner said the game does not endorse prejudice - "Muslims are not believers in Jesus Christ and thus can't be on Christ's side in the game. That is so obvious." Indeed.
And evil communists are fifties, aren't they?
And the reviews? There's this -
Jeff Gerstmann, senior editor at Gamespot.com, an online publication, said the game isn't popular. The game itself, which Gamespot rated 3.4 out of a possible 10, has lots of glitches.
"And it's kind of crazy," Gerstmann said. "One of the evil characters is a rock musician. ... If you get too close to him your spirit is lowered."
But Plugged In, a publication of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, gave the game a "thumbs-up." The reviewer called it "the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior - and use to raise some interesting questions along the way."
It will raise questions. We're told the company's ultimate goal in offering the game is "to bring parents and kids together to talk about the Bible." God help us all. Something is up.