Saudi Democracy: A Little Realism, Please

Matt Barganier, April 25, 2005

Re: Saudi Arabia, Chris Matthew Sciabarra asks,

    Of what use is “democracy” when the dominant culture would bring about a political condition that might make the current Saudi regime appear “moderate” by comparison?

Good question, though not a new one for readers of Antiwar.com. The neocons’ democratization rhetoric plays well because it’s not a total falsehood. It’s a quarter-truth. It starts from the half-truth of equating democracy, the freedom to participate in a political system, with freedom generally. Then it halves that truth again by saying that everyone wants freedom. Well, sure – every person (with the exception of certain save-us-from-ourselves ninnies in post-liberal societies) wants freedom of thought and action for himself. This innate desire for personal license – which is easily hitched to authoritarianism – is obviously light years away from a commitment to “liberty for all.” The Puritans came to America, as Garrison Keillor once quipped, “in the hope of finding greater restrictions than were permissible under English law at that time.”* Massachusetts was to Puritans what Woodstock was to hippies: a place where all was permitted – all that they wanted to do, that is. Which was go to church every spare moment, stamp out heresy and secularism, drown witches, etc. Now imagine the Islamist equivalent of Salem, and you have a realistic picture of a democratic Saudi Arabia.

Even in the West, the development of (classical) liberalism took millennia, and despite its broad influence, most Westerners have never fully accepted it. Witness the general tolerance of (and even enthusiasm for) eminent domain laws, the War on Drugs, standing armies, state censorship, domestic spying, and in the not-too-distant past, slavery and conscription. Nonetheless, Americans rightly recoil at the tremendous repression in Saudi Arabia, but as a result, many fail to see the true nature of the popular discontent. What if the Saudi masses really don’t want their MTV, but the freedom to stone anyone who looks at the Koran sideways?

The standard critique of U.S.-Saudi relations from neocons, New Republic-style liberals, and true-blue libertarians is that U.S. support for the monarchy has made Saudi Arabia worse off. At the risk of being expelled from the whole debate, I disagree. Yes, the Saudi monarchs have built a police state to quash any challenge to their power, mostly from the Islamist extreme, but also from a handful of moderates. Still, the place could be in far worse hands. Saudi Arabia is actually a case where U.S. meddling may have made a country less illiberal than it would be otherwise. The salient question for Americans, however, is What has this meddling done for us? As the anti-Saudi crowd constantly reminds us, 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. What they conveniently ignore is that those guys weren’t pissed off at the U.S. because they loved the Saudi monarchy, but because they hated it and our coziness with it (and Israel).

Our two options for “dealing with” Saudi Arabia are, as I see them:

1) Don’t. Leave the godforsaken place alone. Don’t prop up the government, don’t knock it down. If the monarchy hangs on, maybe the moderates will slowly grow in strength and improve things. Maybe Saudi Arabia will stay stuck right where it is. Or maybe the hardcore Islamists will take over. At any rate, disaffected Saudis will have one less excuse to ram more planes into our buildings – and if they try, then maybe we could take that monster military of ours out of countries that never screwed with us and use it for a legitimate purpose.

2) Work to topple, overtly or covertly, the status quo in the fanciful hope that the handful of native liberals will fill the power vacuum before the horde of bin Ladenites do. Once this succeeds, establish oceanfront resort in Riyadh.

*Yes, yes, there were other reasons, too, including commerce. Spare me the pedantic e-mails. It’s called humor.




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