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Nick Cohen
Wednesday 4th August 2010
The Saudi Lobby

Jews get the blame in every great crisis, and it was inevitable that conspiracy theorists would blame them for the foreign policy crisis of the early 21st century.

What distinguishes our time, however, is that elements within western liberalism now adopt the position once associated with European reaction. I noticed that there was much grumbling in Standpoint's letters column after the editor pointed out that the supposedly leftist and supposedly serious London Review of Books had been promoting anti-Semitism rather than say the Spectator or Mail as one would have expected in the 1930s. However loudly readers complained, they could not deny that the LRB had been the first to offer its "enlightened" readers the conspiracy theory of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt that the "Israel Lobby" had taken America into the second Iraq War. "For the past several decades, and especially since the Six-Day War in 1967, the centrepiece of US Middle Eastern policy has been its relationship with Israel," the authors intoned. "Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was critical."

I remember thinking at the time that "the Lobby" must be composed of remarkably stupid Jews. Why did they use their scheming wiles to con their goyish American dupes into invading Iraq, which was after all contained by sanctions in 2003, and represented only a minor threat to Israel, instead of Iran, whose Islamist rulers wanted to wipe Israel off the map?

Ever since I have followed a zero-tolerance for racism policy. Every time I encounter the Walt and Mearsheimer hypothesis at a "liberal" dinner party, and I encounter it all the time, I bang the table and batter its proponents remorselessly. Sometimes the hostess disapproves; more often she is grateful to have laid on a party her guests will never forget.(It's probably best to check beforehand if you want to follow suit.)

But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it was their claim that Israel is at the centre of Western policy that was asinine. The centre of western policy in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia. Its vast oil wealth grants it privileged status.

Saudi Arabia is the only country in whose interests the British authorities will stop the Serious Fraud Office investigating charges of alleged corruption, for instance. When Channel 4 investigated the work of extremist Saudi-backed clerics in Britain, the authorities in the form of the West Midlands Police and Crown Prosecution Service intervened again and made outrageous and baseless accusations of journalistic fraud against the programme makers, which they later had to retract in the libel court.

Meanwhile, from the other side of the pond, here is an account of Obama's courting of the oil sheiks, by the admirably hardheaded David Keyes of the Daily Beast.

                Obama Outdoes Bush in Saudi Arabia

by David Keyes

August 2, 2010 | 10:40pm

Far from calling the Saudi king on his awful record on human rights and women's issues, the president is pushing a huge arms deal and heaping praise on the monarch. He's not only continuing Bush's soft Saudi policy-he's surpassing it.

In the next two months, Congress will be asked to give formal approval to a staggering new arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Valued at $30 billion, the deal includes selling the Saudis state-of-the-art missile technology, jets, ships, and helicopters. "Saudi is a key country for us and we continue to work hard," Navy Vice Admiral Jeffrey Wieringa, director of the U.S. agency that oversees foreign military sales, said last month.

Contrast the arms deal the Obama administration is pushing with a seemingly insignificant human-interest piece recently reported in Saudi press. Um Hasan, a Saudi mother of six, is not being allowed to divorce her abusive and drug-addicted husband. The reason? She appeared in court without a male guardian, so the judge refused to see her. "I have medical certificates from Makkah's King Abdulaziz Hospital proving I have been physically abused," Um Hasan said, "but the judge has refused to even look at them because I had no male guardian with me."

From 2005 to 2008, Saudi Arabia bought $11.2 billion in weapons from the U.S., more than any other country in the world. Enormous sums of money are invested in this relationship, but don't let the Saudi lobby fool you. The desert kingdom remains a draconian dictatorship that prohibits even the most basic of liberties. Women are still banned from voting and driving; they are lashed and imprisoned for mingling with men; they are forbidden from traveling anywhere without a man's permission. And the Obama administration seems to be outdoing Bush-era policies in Saudi Arabia, much to the disappointment of human-rights and women's groups.    

President Obama missed a golden opportunity to talk about women's rights with King Abdullah in late June at the White House, said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. "It's disappointing that President Obama didn't raise women's rights when he met with  the Saudi king," she said in an email from the Middle East.    

Instead, Obama praised the dictator's "wisdom and insights" and thanked him for his "good counsel." Among the many issues discussed between the two leaders were combating extremism, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, the peace process, Palestinian statehood, the global economic recovery, people-to-people contacts, educational programs, and commercial ties. Left out was the single most important issue: human rights.  

Jim Woolsey, a former director of Central Intelligence, says the issue has stymied both Democratic and Republican presidents. "Dictators and theocratic autocrats of the Middle East have two Achilles' heels-human rights, especially their treatment of women, and their total dependence on oil revenues," he told me. "We need to go after both hard. We've had serious difficulties doing this in all administrations for decades.

Much to the chagrin of the human-rights community, nearly every president has been soft on the Saudis. "It is almost ludicrous that with our own secretary of State being a woman, the rights of women are not center stage on any meeting between the United States and Saudi Arabia," said Robert L. Bernstein, the founding chairman emeritus of Human Rights Watch. "When you add to this the lack of freedom of speech and the incitement to genocide by preaching hate of Jews in textbooks and other media, plus the lack of respect for other people's faiths, it is hard to see how a meaningful peace can come about."  

Obama also ignored the pleas of Wajiha Al-Huwaidar, the Saudi women's rights activist who wrote him an open letter "kindly [requesting] that you bring to his majesty's attention the issue of reforming the Saudi male guardianship system. As I'm watching the Gulf of Mexico birds which are totally covered with black oil stain, I can relate to their suffering as a Saudi woman. These birds can hardly move: They have no control over their lives, and they cannot fly freely to go to a place where they can feel safe. This describes Saudi women's lives. I know that kind of pain. I have been living it most of my life."  

The president's time with the Saudi king would have been better spent demanding the release of Hadi Al-Mutif, who has been imprisoned for 17 years in Saudi Arabia for making a joke about the prophet Muhammad. Or Obama could have proposed tying U.S. arms sales to the right of Saudi women to vote, drive, and travel. The United States sends tens of billions of dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia-the least we can do is not praise a country that makes a mockery of our most basic values.  

Successive administrations have always had reasons for appeasing the Saudis: They provide intelligence on al Qaeda, keep the oil flowing, maintain "stability," oppose Iran, and have taken a few baby steps in the right direction. There is partial truth to every claim, but even added together they are far from sufficient to justify the scandalous love affair with one of the most repressive dictatorships on earth. The Saudis should also not be applauded for going from an "F" to an "F+" on human rights.  

Soviet dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Natan Sharansky pioneered the idea that a state should be trusted only as much as that state trusts its own people. By that standard, Saudi Arabia shouldn't be trusted with a toothpick, let alone a strategic alliance with the West. Perhaps when the Saudi government entrusts women to walk outside their homes alone, it can regain a modicum of our trust.  

Lest one think Saudi Arabia hides its shameful legacy, the website of its Washington, D.C., embassy declares: "Ladies cannot apply for a transit visa if not accompanied by a male relative." Would Obama have raised the issue if an embassy mandated that "black people cannot apply for a transit visa if not accompanied by a white"? Is gender apartheid any less offensive than race-based apartheid?  

America should not wait until Saudi Arabia runs out of oil to do the right thing. Then it will be easy. We will be judged on how we act when it is difficult and when there is a price to pay. America is exceptional precisely because it has been willing, far more than most other nations, to sacrifice in the name of liberty. Obama's appeasement of Saudi dictatorship is inexcusable; it harms America no less than it harms Saudi Arabia.  

The future of the Middle East and the restoration of American dignity there lies squarely and unmistakably in the liberation of women.

David Keyes is the director of


You will note that Obama is meant to be a liberal president, but then the LRB is meant to be a liberal journal. I am sorry to say that the convulsions and betrayals of modern liberalism have become so commonplace they don't shock me anymore.

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jose manuel
August 28th, 2010
7:08 AM
i have always said this, stop talking about islam and start talking about arabia saudi, its the seed of all the money for fanatism and terror

August 6th, 2010
11:08 AM
Wien1938 August 4th, 2010 5:08 PM An antisemite in English socierty is someone who hates Jews more than is necessary.

August 6th, 2010
9:08 AM
not doubting the democratic credentials of David Keyes, but the guy works for Natan Sharansky and is personally linked to George W Bush. No wonder he's hard on Obama - and it's odd that someone 'liberal' like yourself takes neoconservative writing at face value - cyberdissidents, for example, is rather selective about the nations it features (thus Lebanon is featured but not Iraq or Burma). By the way Nick, ever read House of Bush, House of Saud?

August 5th, 2010
5:08 PM
I suppose someone who wants to defend the softly softly line on Saudi Arabia would say that the West needs allies and that alienating Saudi Arabia would be a bad idea just as alienating the Soviet Union would have been a bad idea in the early 40s. I would like to be convinced that this is a bad argument.

Emmet Sweeney
August 5th, 2010
8:08 AM
Keep up the good work Nick. Truth prevails in the end.

August 5th, 2010
7:08 AM
if you'd taken the time to read my posting, you'd have seen that i specifically say i disagree with M&W that AIPAC support for the war 'guided' US policy. That's where M&W's thesis doesn't work for me, but then again that wasn't actually a core part of the original LRB article, which i'm not sure Cohen has actually read. In the above piece cohen specifically denies -in fact ridicules the idea - that AIPAC supported the Iraq war - see his scorn for the idea that Israel would support a war vs 'Iraq, which was after all contained by sanctions in 2003, and represented only a minor threat to Israel'. Cohen here underplays the danger of 2003 Saddam seen through Israeli eyes - as you say, it's a no-brainer that AIPAC would support the war, and it's a matter of historical record that it did. Just on your neocon thing, though i never used the word, another core part of the M&W thesis is that AIPAC is composed as much by Cohen's 'goyish' evangelical Christian Americans, often neoconservative, as it is by the US Jewish community, who are largely less hawkish than AIPAC.

August 4th, 2010
4:08 PM
Neoconservative? Moi? Armo, an antisemite in English socierty is someone who when presented with evidence that contradicts his belief in Jewish villainy refuses to believe the evidence. Iran has featured in Israeli counter-terrorism discussions for far longer than 2005. Hezbollah were founded by Iran which has also been supporting Hamas from its inception. Of course, AIPAC and Israel would support overthrowing Saddam Hussein. He was a danger to the region, a sponsor of terrorism and a fascist tyrant. But to assume that Israeli approval or disapproval guides US policy demonstrates rather more about your own prejudices than your grasp of facts. Do some more research.

August 4th, 2010
3:08 PM
Why do you, and Denis MacShane, and so many other mates of yours spend all your time at dinner parties with people you consider antisemites? come to think of it, how do you manage to go to so many dinner parties full stop? and in any case your entire thesis about Mearsheimer and Walt is a big fail - see the washington post, 1 april 2003. AIPAC and the govt of Israel did back the Iraq war (they might not have 'clinched it' as M&W claim - that's where their thesis seems most ropey to me - but it's a matter of historical record that it was backed, albeit somewhat quietly, by AIPAC and the then Israeli govt) - and in any case, Iran's leadership only threatened to "wipe Israel off the map" in 2005, 2 years after Iraq started - and lest we forget, this same war massively increased Iran's power in the region.

August 4th, 2010
1:08 PM
"Every time I encounter the Walt and Mearsheimer hypothesis at a "liberal" dinner party, and I encounter it all the time, I bang the table and batter its proponents remorselessly". You do mean metaphorically right?

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About Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate) and What's Left? How The Left Lost Its Way (Harper Perennial). Living With Lies, a collection of his writing for Standpoint, is available as an ebook. 

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