Saturday, May 27, 2006

John Burgess on "the art of the possible"

One of the more puzzling aspects of international relations reflected in Washington policy moves is the contradiction between pronouncements in favor of "democracy" and human rights, versus the realities we see. When the majority of a county's poopulation is clearly anti-American, or a government with human rights violations is important to our "national interests" -- in those cases our policy is to overlook principles and focus attention on other matters. I have often wondered, as I am sure many others have as well, why and how we have been able to craft wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of the Trade Center attack when the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia? I understand, of course, that KSA is our ally of long standing, that business and political bonds between our two countries are strong and deep. Most Americans are blissfully unaware that there is a flap over textbooks in the Kingdom, and would be mystified if anyone tried to relate that official teaching with young American service people dying in a war against "jihadists."

I don't want to follow that line of reasoning any further. It would indicate we should be at war with Arabia and in this case our leaders get credit for knowing what is possible and what is not. Likewise, the Saudi leadership seems to be on the right track, but progress there is not any faster than it is here. Read what John Burgess says.

Many Americans have the gravely mistaken view that the Saudi King has full, autocratic control over what happens in the country. He does not. While his powers are not limited by a formal constitution, they are very much limited by the "art of the possible". I noted in comments to my earlier post on the textbooks, there are ahandful of real and important constraints on the monarch:

--Other family members
--The Ulema
--Tribal interests
--Major business families
--The Council of Ministers
--The Shoura Council
--Increasingly, public opinion

Several of these can be played off each other—sometimes—but they can’t all be ignored simultaneously. And given the ebb and flow of politics, sometimes one of these parties will have more influence—or have a greater need to be politically assuaged.

A further mistake people make is to assume that the Saudi government speaks with one voice, that all the bureaucrats are on board with whatever the government program happens to be. Would that the world worked like that! Saudi bureaucrats–whether deep within the ministries or standing in front of a classroom–have their own opinions about how things should be. If they don't like the way things are going, they have their ways (well known to bureaucrats since five minutes after bureaucracy was invented) to stop things dead in their tracks, to subtly shift the policy direction, to subvert the policy, or simply ignore the policy.

This problem is worse in Saudi Arabia than in the US, but not as bad in some other developing countries. It comes down to the fact that real professional competence doesn't run very deep in the Saudi government. The decades of being the "employer of last resort", essentially guaranteeing any Saudi a government job, is showing some of its downsides right here.

"...worse in Saudi Aabia than in the U.S...." is a delicate but deft observation that there may be a mote in our own eye. Hmm? Has this guy been in the diplomatic corps or what? He knows a lot about glass houses.

Because of his patient, reasoned attention to the English language press in the Middle East, John Burgess should be essential reading for anyone who wants to keep informed about that part of the world. I can't track his site with Bloglines, so it is among those that are listed separately in my blogroll.

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