So how does this jibe with my claim earlier this week that, “the claims of the House of Saud’s demise have been somewhat exaggerated“? I think it’s largely consistent with that claim — this appears to be the new king consolidating his hold on power.
But it’s also part of a deeper, more disturbing trend that has been observed as of late: authoritarian regimes consolidating their authoritarianism. Saudi Arabia might be a U.S. ally, but the nature of the Saudi regime makes many Americans queasy about the nature of that alliance. Which leads to the troubling question of what the United States should do in response.
Earlier this week my Washington Post colleague Jackson Diehl upbraided the Obama administration for its failure to counter the authoritarian restoration in the Middle East:
Four years after the [Arab Spring], however, democracy is the one option not being discussed as a way of ending the subsequent turmoil — in large part because liberals have been excluded from the debate. Tens of thousands have been driven into exile, including the leaders of Libya’s first liberal government; many more are in prison, including most of those who organized the Jan. 25, 2011, march in Cairo that triggered the downfall of Egypt’s rotting autocracy.A realistic U.S. strategy would start with the right long-term goal, which is putting the rest of the Middle East on the path that Tunisia is following toward building liberal institutions. It would then invest in the Arabs and Iranians who share that goal, of whom there are millions, and defend them from the despots who are tossing them in prison, dropping barrel bombs on their homes and forcing them into exile. It’s not a policy that would pay off in the short run. But it would recognize that the best Mideast future lies with young people like Maikel Nabil Sanad.
I certainly share Diehl’s foreign policy aims, but I do wonder whether the policies he proposes would work as well as he thinks. First, the United States has been banging on about democracy promotion in the Middle East for close to 14 years now — and we’ve been really, really bad at its execution. Simply assuming that the United States will make the right investments in Middle East liberals strikes me as a bit of wishcasting.
Second, a big reason why authoritarians have been doubling down on authoritarianism is that they are reacting to the color revolutions of the last decade. This has been a theme of Vladimir Putin and Iran’s leadership for quite some time. Diehl’s proposed policy would feed the belief by the world’s authoritarians that all nascent democratic and liberal movements are simply agents of the U.S. government.
Third, the “not a policy that would pay off in the short run” is kind of important, because the short term looks pretty dicey in the Middle East and we know what Keynes said about the long run. On a lot of issues, Saudi Arabia has been aligned with American interests in the region. Just how much does this need disrupting at this particular moment in time with a democratization push? And even if the United States abstains from this kind of policy in the Gulf kingdoms, just how comfortable will they be with such policies being applied in Egypt?
None of this is to say that Diehl’s point should be rejected out of hand. But the obvious short-term costs and hazy long-term benefits of this policy are somewhat troubling, and merit a continued debate.