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Saudi Arabia, Russia, The Magnitsky Act, And 'Whataboutism'
Forbes blogs ^ | March 6, 2013 | Mark Adomanis

Posted on 03/07/2013 3:49:13 AM PST by cunning_fish

I’m about to commit one of the most deadly sins of “serious” commentary: whataboutism.

You see in the United States the idea that we need to punish Russian officials for their human rights violations has rapidly become a bi-partisan consensus. The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, a bill targeted at Russian human rights violators and their US-based assets, passed the US senate by a vote of 92 to 4. 92 to 4! In a deliberative body like the US senate, a chamber that can no longer pass a budget and that increasingly borders on complete dysfunction, a 92 to 4 vote is a truly shocking degree of unanimity. Indeed the idea that we shouldn’t punish the Russians for their domestic repression is one that, at this point in time, is a completely marginal one. At least among everyone on Capital Hill and the big think tanks, the people whose opinion actually matters, there is near-total agreement that the Russian government is beyond the pale and that the United States should do whatever it can to punish and isolate it. As Human Rights First said about the Magnitsky Bill, it “should make clear to Russia that the United States is serious about the rampant problem of impunity for serious human rights violators.”

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TOPICS: Government; Military/Veterans; Religion; Society
KEYWORDS: foreignaffairs; gayagenda; humanrights; islam
And from a certain perspective, this could make sense. If the Russian government actually were one of the world’s most abusive and repressive, then, all things being equal, we probably should do whatever we can to weaken and isolate it. There is a long tradition of American foreign policy thinking, call it Wilsonian, neoconservative, or whatever you please, that is steeped in the idea that the United States can and should act to promote democracy and defend human dignity. If followed consistently, such a philosophy can be quite compelling (if followed inconsistently, of course, it rapidly degenerates).

What I simply cannot understand is how people can continue to say that the United States has any sort of genuine commitment to ending “the rampant problem of impunity for serious human rights violators” while it continues to have a close security and military alliance with Saudi Arabia. And it’s worth reminding everyone that the United States does not simply passively acquiesce to Saudi misbehavior, it routinely sells the Saudis tens of billions of dollars of its most sensitive and advanced weapons systems (weapons systems that it would never even consider selling to the Russians under any imaginable scenario). And the US’ close embrace of Saudi Arabia is hardly a unique foible. Many other Western countries also enjoy close relations with the Saudis and, in a nice contrast to Magnitsky bill, the United Kingdom apparently exempts Saudi Prices from immigration controls entirely.

The gigantic yawning gulf between the United States’ treatment of Russia and Saudi Arabia was something that I simply could not ignore yesterday when I stumbled upon a story about how our close allies were preparing to behead and crucify seven people, including several people who were minors when they were first charged with a crime, who were convicted for a string of armed robberies.* Beheading! Crucifixion! I know that the Russian penal system is a cruel and capricious one, but you have to go back to some of the darkest days of the Soviet Union to find examples of such untrammeled barbarism. Can anyone imagine what the reaction from Freedom House would be if Putin were preparing to crucify someone, or to have decapitation (or any form of capital punishment at all) re-inserted into the Russian legal code? I feel like a draft declaration of war would be circulating on the hill before noon.

I simply don’t understand how an American foreign policy which says to country X “you commit human rights violations, therefore your officials are banned from visiting our country and will have their assets frozen” while saying to country Y “you commit far more serious human rights violations, here are the world’s most sophisticated combat systems” can long endure. Perhaps I’m naive, or simply consumed with the virus of whataboutism, but I honestly don’t see how such a policy can have a very long shelf-life, or how it can be effective in an increasingly interconnected and well-informed word. Surely, at some point, the sheer overawing hypocrisy of the whole thing means that something will change, right?

If you’re going to have a morality-based foreign policy, fine. I don’t think that’s the best way to go about structuring foreign relations, the world seems too nasty and anarchic a place to have “morality” structure our relationship with it, but it’s a perfectly coherent school advocated by intelligent and capable people that should be treated with respect. And a realist policy, a policy that focuses purely on American interests to the exclusion of other factors, is also perfectly logical and intellectually defensible. The first policy would limit American engagement with both Russia and Saudi Arabia, though it would, in practical terms, have a far greater impact on the alliance with Saudi Arabia since the Saudis are so much more repressive than the Russians and since their relationship with the US is already so much closer. The second policy would have an unclear impact, quite a lot would come down to the definition of US interests, but would not rule out cooperation or engagement with either country.

But what we have now is a completely incoherent mishmash of both schools, a “selective Wilsonianism” in which the United States uses values against its strategic adversaries while studiously ignoring the far more grievous human rights violations of its close allies and partners in the Middle East. Basically, what’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. If the United States wants to take upon itself the responsibility of punishing human rights violators in the Russian government, then it should do. But if it keeps the Magnitsky bill on the books it should take similar legislative action against the Saudis, the Bahrainis, the Qataris, the Kuwaitis, and all of the other repressive and dictatorial governments with which it is allied. To do otherwise is to admit that, for the United States, values are relative, and are important only when they are beneficial. That hardly seems like the message we want to be sending with a “values-based” foreign policy.

1 posted on 03/07/2013 3:49:24 AM PST by cunning_fish
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To: cunning_fish

Or perhaps the Saudis have a perverse hold on our government. They’ve learned from ABSCAM. Of course, nearly everyone convicted was a Democrat.

2 posted on 03/07/2013 4:32:16 AM PST by 1010RD (First, Do No Harm)
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To: 1010RD

Or perhaps the Saudis have a perverse hold on our government.


3 posted on 03/07/2013 6:27:08 AM PST by Bigg Red (Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved! -Ps80)
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To: cunning_fish
What I simply cannot understand is how people can continue to say that the United States has any sort of genuine commitment to ending “the rampant problem of impunity for serious human rights violators” while it continues to have a close security and military alliance with Saudi Arabia.

Don't forget the People's Republic of California.

4 posted on 03/07/2013 8:00:59 AM PST by JimRed (Excise the cancer before it kills us; feed &water the Tree of Liberty! TERM LIMITS, NOW & FOREVER!)
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