Saturday, January 23, 2010

Why aren't the puppet dictatorships even worse?

There are a lot of actions the United States wishes its string of pro-US dictators would take that have been denied. Egypt's Mubarak did not build an underground wall as quickly as Israel would have liked. Palestine's Abbas does not come to the negotiating table without an Israeli suspension of construction. Saudi Arabia's dictator Abdullah does not recognize Israel.

The indirect rule of these countries, Palestine's West Bank, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE by the United States is enforced by threat and in the cases of Egypt and Jordan by direct bribery, but none of these leaders acts as a part of any US chain of command. Along with torturing its own citizens who display tendencies to oppose the dictatorship, Jordan arms and trains troops to fight Hamas, it tortures suspects on behalf of the United States and it sends translators to assist the US in ventures in places that speak Arabic. For this it is rewarded likely with payments and opportunities directly to Abdullah and his family and with some economic and military benefits designed to strengthen his hold on power in his country.

But how far would he have to go before the US would make its constantly underlying implicit threat explicit? Before the US begins a serious search for an alternative Jordanian ruler who would be more compliant? There is a trade-off and Jordan's Abdullah does have some freedom of movement. On the other hand, even US military personnel in actual chains of command have some freedom of movement. There is an amount that one must overstep before replacement or punishment becomes a consideration even under formal organizational hierarchies.

If Jordan's Abdullah spoke out against the attacks on and starvation of Gaza the way Erdogan does, he would not be replaced the next day. But the US ambassador would express his anger, some benefit would likely be withheld and contingency plans for what to do if Abdullah goes further would be re-examined.

There is a balance. The US would like Saudi Arabia to make concessions to Israel in exchange for Israel suspending construction. The US has surely attempted to present a list of benefits that the Saudis could be offered, and nothing on that list was compelling to Abdullah. The United States is not sure that it could find a replacement Arabian leader who would make further concessions to Israel, and the risk of a bad outcome is too great for only a symbolic benefit.

However, the Saudi Abdullah making the US ambassador angry would begin to set in motion events that if Saudi independence continued, would make the US more indifferent to threats to the Saudi throne.

It is a balance. It is not nearly the balance a democracy accountable to the people ruled would strike, but Saudi Arabia is not ruled the way it would be if the US ambassador sat directly on the throne. It was a late colonial-era advance in which indirect rule began to be seen as preferable to direct rule only because a native figurehead on the throne inspired fewer attempts at rebellion. The British decided that some degree of freedom for the figurehead was worth the reduced cost in maintaining the rule, and the Americans today in their indirect rule of the region are following the same practice.

On important matters, Jordan's Abdullah, Saudi Abdullah, Egypt's Mubarak, Kuwait's Sabah and the UAE rulers have to submit. Any would be replaced if, for example, they attempted to break Israel's monopoly of nuclear threats, they offered anyone training such as Iran offers Hezbollah that actually can be effective in resisting Israeli advances or even if they attempted to introduce popular sovereignty to their countries - giving control of policy, especially of foreign policy, to any decision-making process in which the public has direct leverage.

On symbolic matters, these puppet rulers strike a balance between the direct rewards the US can offer and the cost cooperation with the US and its unpopular project of maintaining a majority state for 5 million Jewish people imposes on their own legitimacy.


Lysander said...

Saudi Arabia is the key question mark for me. It is true that the Monarchy exists only due to now obscure Imperial British machinations. But why does the monarchy continue in it current course of action?

Egypt and Jordan are entirely understandable. Both are economically vulnerable, especially overpopulated Egypt. Both are politically vulnerable. Neither has any option but to follow the US whim.

For example, let us suppose Mubarak switched course 180 degrees tomorrow, opened the Gaza border, Invited Ahmedinjad for a state visit and openly declared his support for Hamas, pulling the rug out from under Abbas and the PA.

Immediately a media campaign would start against the Egyptian "regime," no longer simply a government. Every internal problem (and Egypt has many) would be highlighted. The murder of 6 Copts and a Muslim bodyguard 2 weeks ago would have been all over the news. Police repressions and torture would be scrutinized. The prospect of Mubarak leaving the throne to his son now becomes a serious problem for western media. Of course, economic aid would end and possibly a push for sanctions on the slightest provocation (does Egypt have a nuclear weapons program) would occur. There is simply no way Egypt could withstand the kind of sanctions Iran is now under.

Any Egyptian president would understand this and might, however unwillingly, comply with US demands to avoid this fate.

It wasn't always like that. In the 80's, Mubarak had the Soviet option to flash if pushed too hard and the US knew it. Not anymore.

But while Jordan is in the same boat, what about Saudi Arabia? This is where I can't see how the US applies leverage. The US cannot openly threaten to invade Saudi Arabia. It cannot sanction a nation that is the life blood of the global economy. It can't afford to destabilize it.

My guess is that the CIA can effect a power struggle favoring a set of princes more compliant to US interests, but that answer just doesn't seem satisfying. Perhaps the US has close relationships with the Saudi Military and could support a coup. Again, these might explain part of the problem, but not all of it.

Maybe there is something more to King Faisal's assassination in 1975?

Anyway, I'm still aghast at how Saudi Arabia has become a defacto Israel ally and I'm still at a loss to fully explain why.

Lysander said...

On a separate note, this from the top headline on Yahoo finance:

"Iran budgets for $60 price for crude oil"

"The $368 billion budget, nearly 24 percent bigger than last year's, comes as the government is preparing to enact a law in April that would sharply slash energy and food subsidies. The move could provoke more unrest in a country already struggling under international sanctions, high inflation and a government crackdown on the opposition."

The points being 1) Iran has a very large economy and 2) If they are cutting subsidies which could "fuel unrest," then they aren't worried much about unrest. Not exactly the image given here