Terra Incognita: The West’s axis of evil friends

Over the past six decades the US and its Western allies have fallen entirely under the spell of a few sheikhs who, in other times, would have been laughed off as characters conjured up by Dante.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) poses with his Arab counterparts in Jeddah September 11, 2014.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) poses with his Arab counterparts in Jeddah September 11, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The picture is shocking: US Secretary of State John Kerry beaming as he stands with Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Oman’s Foreign Minister Yussuf bin Alawi and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin al-Khalifa. They look like the cast for a bad Hollywood film about despotic rulers in the Middle East, like some orientalist wet-dream. But it is very real. This is the “alliance” against Islamic State that America is forming. Five years after Obama’s Cairo speech, in which he talked about “American values,” the US is in bed with the most backwards, despotic, monarchical, chauvinistic regimes in the world.
This best friend’s club looks like something from the dark ages. Abraham would have negotiated with people like this to buy a burial plot in Beersheba. Even in the 18th century these kinds of leaders would have been considered backward and their method of governance outdated.
Other photos of Kerry doing the rounds shows him meeting with sheikhs wearing sunglasses, their fat overflowing their chairs, looking as though they had just finished with a heroin deal.
But these aren’t drug dealers in Columbia, these are America’s allies; these are the leaders who spend every other Thursday watching a beheading; these are the people with multiple wives and closed-off compounds for them, who rule countries in which women cannot drive without permission from a male chaperone.
It isn’t enough that America thinks these people are the drivers of the future of the Middle East, it isn’t enough that these despots and tyrants hold the strings of US foreign policy; Europe also thinks they are the bee’s knees. Google “Catherine Ashton Iran” and the first picture you’ll find is her playing John Kerry to the Ayatollahs; smiling, joking, laughing and coddling Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif.
No shame in the smiling and laughing; she doesn’t project European values or power, she projects support and love for the Iranians. Zarif and his religious bigoted friends are meanwhile presiding over the whipping and lashing of women for the “crime” of making a video to Pharell Williams’ hit song “Happy.” And they are imprisoning a woman for the “crime” of watching men’s volleyball. Iran’s ayatollahs aren’t a regime so much as a museum of crimes against humanity.
How did this happen? How did it happen that the West’s leaders not only tolerate these terrible regimes in the Middle East but enjoy the company of people whose hands are still stained with the blood of beheadings and flecks of flesh whipped from women’s backs? How did it happen that the leading democracies, the ones with women’s rights, priding themselves on flamboyant gay pride parades, are the same ones whose leaders smile broadly standing next to the people who stone homosexuals, who hang them? How did it happen the countries that abolished slavery in the 19th century some 200 years later count as their closest allies the sole countries where slavery still exists? There was in the past a doctrine of realism according to which countries’ self-interest meant shaking hands with the devil, especially to defeat a bigger devil. But under the guise of self-interest, genuine love, adoration, tolerance and self-delusion has crept into Middle East policies.
Does it surprise anyone that the one country these western leaders don’t seem to smile and act cheery is Turkey? Lebanon too, for that matter? At least in these countries there are democratic frameworks, there are widespread liberal values.
The same is true among the Kurds.
Sure, Lebanon has Hezbollah; Turkey is run by a thuggish Islamist party. But they still have a relatively free press, women go out as they please, and can drive. People are not being sentenced to lashes for making a Youtube video, and people are not being beheaded. In fact, no beheadings or lashes could be a good red line when it comes to which foreign leaders it’s appropriate for Western politicians to be cheerful around.
THE WEST talks about self-interest: “We must work with the Saudis.” But the Saudis and their Gulf friends need the West more than the West needs them. What are the Saudis going to do, turn off the oil? The oil is what keeps these gross men in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Kuwait needs the West far more than the West needs Kuwait. It fears the Islamist head-choppers running around Syria and Iraq in Toyota Hilux pickup trucks more than the West does. And if the US and EU want to test that, they can just threaten to withdraw military aid. These despots will come running, begging on the carpet for assistance.
Iran is in the same boat; it fears IS and Sunni fanaticism far more than the West does. It threatens to cut off the Shi’ite crescent stretching from Dahiya in Beirut to Balochistan. So how is it that Iran has convinced the West that the EU “needs” it for stability in Iraq? It feigns strength with its recent claim that it will only “help” fight IS if the US and EU decrease sanctions and the West buys their lies. IS threatens to cut the tentacles off of the Teheran octopus.
How about making aid for these regimes contingent on civil rights reforms? “Dear Saudi Arabia, stop beheading people and lashing women for being raped, and we will send you some bullets.”
Over the past six decades the US and its Western allies have fallen entirely under the spell of a few sheikhs who, in other times, would have been laughed off as characters conjured up by Dante or Euripides. It is madness, like watching a world turned upside down, to see the leaders of the free world bowing to people whose main accomplishment in life is getting religious police to hold down women to be whipped in public; whose main contribution to culture, philosophy and art are the blood stains on the ground following executions and whose bravest achievement is finding a way to confiscate the passports of foreign indentured servants and working them 12-hour days.
Americans teach themselves back home about Abraham Lincoln and democracy and the Bill of Rights and then proudly eviscerate every American value the second they search out foreign allies such as these. In the old days politicians in the West were concerned about working with despots, they actively campaigned against close alliances with the Turkish Sultan, “butcher of the Armenians,” or the Russian czar. Newspapers spoke out against injustices. But the West has become entirely inured to this today. Is it too much to ask of the leader of a democracy not to shake hands with the foreign minister of a country that lashes women for appearing in a dance video? That might jeopardize our relations with them and offend them? So what. Let them be offended. We are talking about regimes run by modern-day versions of the KKK, the Inquisition and Ray Rice... all rolled into one.
Will we never be rid of the cowardly foreign policies of countries that have become helpless democratic giants with no moral compass? The least we can do is continue to be shocked by the pandering to the abusers. It is like the Dark Ages. Yes, the world has become savage and full of abuses of humanity, but some people have to preserve the memory of what it could be and the knowledge that one day the men with dark sunglasses in Riyadh will meet with the fate that they so richly deserve.
Follow the author @sfrantzman.