Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2018.08.21

Birds of a feather do fall out sometimes

the japan times on August 14, 2018

While the diplomatic feud between Saudi Arabia and Canada is getting uglier, its news coverage in Tokyo has been relatively small. An AFP-Jiji article in Japanese from Riyadh was concise but not detailed. The headline was "Saudi Arabia, furious about request for release of human rights activists, expels Canadian ambassador."

The article goes like this: Saudi Arabia expelled Canada's ambassador, recalled its own envoy and froze all new trade and investments after Ottawa publicly demanded the "immediate release" of human rights campaigners jailed in the kingdom. A furious Riyadh also moved to pull thousands of Saudi students out of Canadian universities.

Moreover, state airline Saudia, the article continues, suspended flights to Toronto, and the kingdom pledged to stop all medical treatment programs in Canada. The move illustrates how the oil-rich kingdom is unwilling to brook any criticism -- foreign or domestic -- under its young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Even Americans weighed in. A former national security adviser to the president contributed a piece to The New York Times titled "President Trump, the Autocrats' Best Friend" with the subtitle "The Trump administration is tolerating abuses by Saudi Arabia instead of defending its democratic ally, Canada."

Wait a minute. Life is not that simple, folks! Seen from Tokyo, they are all political "birds of a feather." U.S. President Donald Trump tolerates Saudi Arabian human rights abuse? Who in the world do you think you are? If this English expression is not clear enough, I will show you its Japanese equivalent: "badgers of the same den."

The above English jargon was used as early as in 1876, when Anthony Trollope, a British writer, published a political novel "The Prime Minister," in which an editor of a widely read scandal sheet in London told Ferdinand Lopez, a financially overextended City adventurer, that "Birds of a feather do fall out sometimes."

Sometimes they do, and even now. Saudis, who still live in a world of Wahhabism, the strictest doctrine of Islam; Canadians who naively believe that tweeting criticism against Riyadh can make a difference; and Americans, who for decades have acquiesced human rights abuse by the Saudis. They are all political badgers from the same den.

The episode this time started on Aug. 2, when Amnesty International announced that a sister of Raif Badawi, a Saudi writer, dissident and activist, was taken into custody. Raif was arrested in 2012 on charges of "insulting Islam through electronic channels" and now his sister and her colleagues seem to be facing similar charges.

Amnesty said, "These brave women represented the last vestiges of the human rights community in the country." Yes, they must be a last vestige for now. But no, because under such outmoded political regimes, those brave men and women have been and definitely will continue to fight against the human rights abuse.

Here, however, come the unpleasant facts. The kingdom has been endorsed by Wahhabism. No matter how differently it treats women from the way we do, it is the political reality there. Whether you like it or not, the kingdom is a sovereign state. If you don't like it, you can do without the kingdom. But can you seriously do that?

Then the Canadian government opines. Its foreign minister tweeted on Aug. 2, "Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi's sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi."

Saudi Arabia reacted harshly. It said the activists "were lawfully detained for committing crimes punishable by applicable law," "the Canadian statement is a blatant interference in the kingdom's domestic affairs," and the phrase "immediate release" is "a reprehensible and unacceptable use of language between sovereign states."

Why did the Canadian minister tweet like Trump? How come she so impulsively went public? Saudi princes are a proud species. Losing face in public is a most serious humiliation and therefore leads to most furious reactions. Of course, the Canadians are right, and the Saudis wrong, but that is not the issue.

And finally comes Susan Rice. In her recent article in The New York Times, she wrote, "Normally, when confronted with this type of challenge," the State Department "would issue a statement" to "firmly support the universal right of all people," and to express deep concern "about the recent imprisonment" and urge "their immediate release."

She also criticized the Trump administration for its "Refusal to criticize obvious human rights abuses. Abdication of American moral leadership." She stated, "This is the hallmark of the Trump administration's approach to violations of human rights, particularly when committed by autocratic friends." Dear Madam, are you sane? Give me a break!

In January 2014, Adam Coogle wrote a piece in Foreign Policy magazine titled "The Deafening U.S. Silence on Saudi Rights," stating "Saudi Arabia carried out dozens of executions in 2013. The vast majority were public beheadings, including the gruesome beheading of five Yemeni men for murder and armed robbery in May."

He concluded by saying, "In Saudi Arabia, 2013 was another bad year for human rights, marred by executions and repression of women and activists. Unfortunately, outside of annual human rights reports, U.S. public criticism of Saudi Arabia's human rights record has been limited for many years."

Then, who was the national security adviser in December 2013? It was she who gave a speech at the Human Rights First Annual Summit saying, "Let's be honest: At times, as a result, we do business with governments that do not respect the rights we hold most dear. We make tough choices." Ms. Rice, how could you criticize Mr. Trump?

This is not to discredit specific politicians. Rather, it is natural that they take back what they said before. This is just to say that political badgers may not always achieve foreign policy goals. Professional diplomacy is much quieter than Twitter. Seasoned diplomats are much subtler and more prudent than badgers of the same stripe.