By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security
President Barack Obama was criticized heavily for going to Hawaii instead of France right after freedom of speech satirists Charlie Hebdo and others were massacred by jihadists near Paris. The president even apologized for sending a low-level cabinet member in his place. However, for the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, the president, First Lady Michelle Obama and many within their inner circle flew thousands of miles to pay their respects.
The administration’s foreign policy appears highly experimental and inconsistent. Former attempts to champion democratization in Islamic states during the Arab Spring were mostly exhausted in the public eye. Currently, the Obama administration defends its relationships with Saudi Arabia by traveling there to meet the newly crowned King Salman. This visit comes at a controversial time between Western and Islamic civilization in Europe and the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses are equal if not worse than Iran’s or Russia’s and some of the most egregious in the world. The execution rate is one of the highest. Torture, religious police, political prisoners, jailed liberal Muslim reformers; cruel and unusual forms of punishment are all present. In 2014, all atheists were considered “terrorists” by the interior minister under King Abdullah. Women cannot even pick out the clothes they wear outside of their homes. In fact, women cannot drive, they cannot travel alone and when they are with children, they need permission from a husband or male head of the household. It was reported that four of the late King Abdullah’s 15 daughters were placed under house arrest for speaking out for more women’s rights. Additionally, Michelle Obama’s face was blurred on Saudi state television Tuesday because she declined the mandatory head scarf.
The first three executions were carried out under the new King Salman including the beheading of a man who “confessed to smuggling amphetamine pills.” That brings the execution total for this year to 16, (there were 87 in 2014). Even more chilling is that the president said he wouldn’t mention the human rights abuses (in the case of the blogger) while in Saudi Arabia because his delegation was there to offer respect and adulation for the late King Abdullah. He is focused instead on regional security and counterterrorism.
President Obama was joined by a host of other prominent Americans and politicians, including: Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan E. Rice, CIA Director John O. Brennan, and General Lloyd J. Austin III, who oversees Middle East military operations. Democrats and Republicans, including Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and John McCain; Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Ami Bera of California and Eliot L. Engel and Joseph Crowley of New York were all part of the trip.
For many years, King Abdullah played the game of pleasing the West with small surface changes with democratic window dressing, but he continued to fuel both Islamic extremism and violence abroad, thereby deflecting the radicals away from his own instability. Only the latest war against ISIS has made the monarchy vow for greater Islamic moderation and more peaceful renderings of the religion. This was seen in statements from the highest religious leaders in the kingdom during the last hajj.
Ironically, Americans are helping to protect a country that does not even permit them to walk the streets safely but remain in compounds for their own safety because of the scores of Islamists, including al-Qaida, dispersed within the population that hate them.
For pro-liberal democracy advocates, the latest foreign policy movements by the Obama administration are an outrage. Once again, Washington is comfortable with official photo ops and sending envoys to one of the most brutal and extremist Islamist lands where many want to turn back the clock to the seventh century. This does not rally the tolerant moderate Muslims, and it does not prevent the spread of violent extremists; especially because America is officially renewing its commitment to the root source of all Salafism and Sunni jihad: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
“There is nothing more revolting than listening to Western leaders praising the deceased King of Saudi Arabia,” writes Jan Burton, from Toronto in a letter to the National Post.
In defense of the president, he blamed Muslim nations for their own perils as a consequence for supporting violent and extremist Islam: “The trend-line is one that I will sustain throughout the rest of my presidency…to make the case to our friends and allies that if they want a society that is able to sustain itself in this day and age, then they’re going to have to change how they do business…Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability.”
But ultimately, there will also be “issues of immediate [jihadist] concern” because of places like Saudi Arabia. So the question is, can the West really change states like Saudi Arabia? And if ISIS and al-Qaida are not enough to get them to change with just soft words from their ‘allies’ will anything work?
The tug of war between radicals and the West for Saudi leadership will go on but it is anybody’s guess as to how long; especially with the recent transition of rule.