Is it time to reexamine the applications of traditional foreign policy paradigms in light of the complicated contemporary realities?
Several recent developments challenge the understanding of limits of international interventions in political or diplomatic context.
The first is the extent of real and alleged Russian meddling in US elections, and other related political operations. Espionage and active measures are nothing new in the world of intelligence, and certainly are a familiar playing field for the Soviet and Russian operatives. However, the chaos generated by the latest antics since 2015 have taken the ability to escalate a limited attempt at controlled chaos to previously unseen heights of mass hysteria, thanks to the polarizing effects of deliberately divisive social media platforms, the level of political agitation internal to the United States, and the low information level of voters on all sides of the political aisles. This combination made the United States, already divided by passions during a rather unique and rambunctious election year, particularly susceptible to manipulations and bad optics.
Indeed, even the Russians themselves may have underestimated the cynicism of American politicians, all of whom used this opportunity to try to drag their political opponents down into the mud and beat them with experience. For the Democrats, this was an opportunity to move away the accusations of vast corruption resulting from Hillary Clinton's server episode, the long series of national security related faux pas in the State Department, intelligence agencies, and Congress, the deterioration of cybersecurity processes under Obama, and various corruption cover ups related to dirty deals during Secretary Clinton's term in office - not to mention the foreign policy disasters resulting from President Obama's ideological proclivities and hopelessly flawed execution.
The Republicans, on the other hand, used the mass hysteria and the patina of denial developed by the Democrats, to excuse their own problematic behavior, the unsavory elements gathered by the Trump campaigns, the President's own highly irresponsible comments concerning Putin, the ability of candidate Trump's various associates to land in hot water over thoughtless interactions with Russian operatives, and the corruption of various Trump administration officials. Suddenly the very same set of Republicans who rightfully condemned President Obama for his foolish "reset" button with President Putin, and other weaknesses towards Russia, came to conclude that Putin might not be such a bad guy after all, that the guy who is closely dealing with Iran and did not actually bomb ISIS in Syria is the savior of Christendom and the Western civilization, and that Russian intelligence is less of a problem than the Democratic propaganda machine.
Trouble is, the Democratic propaganda machine - just as well as the Republican propaganda machine - was fueled by practices last seen in their Cold War iteration with the Soviet Union masterfully engaging in psych ops through its vast array of fellow travelers and agents of influencers in the West. Not much has changed. How much is this hostile interventionism the fault of the Russian troll factories and their controllers, and how much is on the rotten state of affairs of both of the major political parties in the United States, and a complete lack of principles of their members? That may be hard to tell, but what we can easily observe is that this intervention has managed to drag a largely apolitical country into two years worth of endless discussions, investigations, speculations, and distractions all related to a foreign power's willingness and ability to take advantage of foolishness, naivete, greed, and recklessness by a wide swath of the US population starting from the top. Other countries quickly learned from Russian success in dragging US media into a frenzied cycle of Russomania with very little to show for it other than an increasingly limited ability to cover equally important international developments.
From hacking and big data manipulation, interventionism transition into influence peddling and buying (again, not a new concept) that in sheer scope and brazen openness has surpassed previously relatively limited corruption and self-serving lobbying. In particular, Qatar's PR war with Saudi Arabia and UAE into the United States turned farcical with Doha looking to buy up major conservative media conglomerate, real estate ventures, education facilities, Jewish influencers, lobbyists, PR firms, lawyers, and even, as rumored, politicians potentially through generous campaign donations and by coopting friendly think tanks and other non-profits.
. In its quest for gaining legitimacy and winning over Washington, including the White House, Doha spared no expense, including free propaganda trips for various key figures, the hiring of various agents of influence, generous donations to conservative non-profits and Jewish organizations, and sponsorship of a series of propagandistic articles aimed to take down its regional rivals. At the same time, Qatar continued to use its state-run machinery, Al Jazeera, to spread conspiracy theories, spread anti-Semitic and anti-Israel tropes, while playing assorted political games to come out on top of the Gulf Game of Thrones, despite its size and proclivity for drawing into troublesome associations and alliances.
Republican political operatives like Elliott Broidy even accuse Qatar of hacking or threatening to hack their emails in a quest to embarrass anyone who stands on the way of Qatar's dominance in DC or associated with its rivals. This type of contemporary kompromat was surely borrowed from the Russians, who have been doing cyberattacks on key targets for years. Qatar has not yet gone as far as Russia in terms of hacking sensitive infrastructure in the US - nor does it need to. Its goal is to coopt the US and ensure political support rather than destabilize the country altogether. It has correctly identified that both parties are more than willing to be bought up for a generous compensation, but the party in power - the Republicans - will be willing to believe that they are engaging with Doha for some greater good, so long as Qataris pay lip service to pretending to "using" US enemies, such as Iran, for short-term benefits. All of this is of course is deeply unsavory, but to some extent still does not rise to the level of interventionism practiced by...
Iran, which has turned the entire European continent into the playing field for its intelligence and terrorist operatives. Asdollah Assadi, the Iranian diplomat stationed in Vienna, who was arrested in Germany for planning a massive terrorist attack against an opposition rally in Paris, along with associates in Belgium and France (some of whom pretended to be false flag operatives for MEK), ran a vast network of MOIS, IRGC, and HIzbullah apparatchiks all over Europe, who had in the past also participated in planning other international attacks, such as the AMIA bombing in Argentina in 1994, and a prevented operation against the opposition in Albania. Assadi had managed to get rid of most of the regular Iranian diplomats in various European agencies, and infiltrate them with trained intelligence professionals and covert operatives, evidently responsible for a wave of assassinations against opposition members, particularly ethnic minorities, in a number of European countries.
Despite this obvious violation of national sovereignty of the European Union and its member states, Europe has met these obviously provocative activities with little fanfare or concern, with many even denying the extent of the spy network or Assadi's own intelligence background. The reason for this willful blindness is fairly obvious - a number of European countries, such as Austria, have low key but extensive relationships with Iran, and most stand to profit from continuing business relationships with the Islamic State. The concern about interference with democratic norms, which shook Europeans in light of a populist wave and Russian support for Catalan independence movement, and an attempt to manipulate elections in Germany and France, did not go so far as to consider Iranian intelligence activity against opposition and critics as in any way undermining European democracies. Espionage against Jewish and Israeli targets in Germany, too, did not seem to shake the democratic institutions the way propaganda put out by the Russians did.
One may safely ask, then, why Europeans who were so concerned about Russian meddling in elections had no problem whatsoever doing exactly that to another liberal democratic country, Israel. It is reported that under pressure, the European Union finally stopped funding an NGO dedicated to denying Israel's right to exist - a preposterous notion to be even discussing among the supposedly liberal and civil societies concerned about human rights, such as the right to self-determination. However, as Tuvia Tenenbom documented in his bestseller "Catch the Jew!", various European member states continue funding radical leftist and anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic Palestinian NGO, which peddle one-sided and grotesquely distorted narratives of Israeli "occupation", promote conspiracy theory, justify terrorism and hatred, and deny Israeli voices. Are these propagandistic outlets not interfering with Israel's democracy or with the human rights of the people who inhabit it to be free from foreign interference, incitement to violence, and blatant defamation?
IT is interesting how countries that supposedly hold themselves up to a superior moral standard fail to see these distinctions when it comes to their own supposedly enlightened self-interest. There may be many reasons for continuous European Jew hatred which translates into a subtle form of denial of Israel's democracy and national sovereignty; not the least of it, however, is quite simply old fashioned envy and economic rivalry. Despite its diminutive size, Israel leads in scientific and technologic innovation, creative output, disproportionally contributes to humanitarian missions around the world, and is quite simply, dangerous and disruptive to European colonial view of Middle East's present and future.
So long as Israel and Palestinians remain divided, so long as the Arabs residing in Europe see Israel as an enemy, so long as Arab states are forced to play absurd games over not being able to engage directly with Israel due to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflicts... the Middle East will remain divided, tribalist, broken down, and distracted by conflicts and petty feuds. Integration of Israel into the larger social fabric threatens a disaster for Europe, which is going to be displaced as a port of call and primary trading partner for the Middle Eastern conflicts. Certainly the peacemongering NGOs will go out of business, and the economically stagnating European Union, throttled by bureaucratic regulations, political correctness, and demographic failures, will be forced to contend with falling standards of living and the inevitability of stagnation and disassembly.
So what happens when Middle Eastern and supposedly Western notions of democracy and human rights collide? Who has the right to intervene, when, and for what purpose? The latest unexpected crisis between Saudi Arabia and Canada, exposes hypocrisy of these standards, when it is clear that some countries get a presumption of innocence no matter what they do and whom they support, while others get to be berated in public even while in the process of trying to rise to the level of expectations of their supposedly civilized counterparts. The latest crisis erupted over the weekend after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government engaged in a series of public confrontations, asking Saudi Arabia about the fate of its dissidents and human rights activists - Raif Badawi, serving a ten year sentence for his critique of the religious police, and his sister Samar Badawi, a women's rights activist, recently arrested despite the ongoing liberalization which has resulted in a number of reforms related to women's rights.
Saudi Arabia's reaction was nuclear, and yet, somehow, managed to escalate: it recalled the Saudi ambassador, kicked out the Canadian ambassador, froze all trade with Canada, as well as flights to Toronto, removed thousands of its college students from Canadian universities, made a decision to withdraw Saudi patients undergoing treatment in Canadian hospitals, and put out a series of videos accusing Canada of human rights violations and hypocrisy, including even a bizarre accusation that Jordan Petersen, a conservative-leaning popular writer, is a political prisoner of Trudeau's government, despite the fact that he has not even been arrested.
Trudeau, for his own part, stood his ground, and refused to apologize or withdraw the statements, which, he claimed derived from Canada's concern about human rights and interests in preserving human rights around the world. Saudi Arabia's reaction was clearly meant to send a message to a country that has somewhat limited trade with Saudi Arabia and whose government does not enjoy the backing of the United States, which indeed chose not to interfere in the kerfuffle. When taken to the absurd, such reaction may certainly appear rash, poorly thought out, and impulsive. Leaving aside the quality of decisionmaking by the Saudi officials, however, were Trudeau government's positions as altruistic as may meet the eye? Critics rightly point out that without taking into consideration the specifics of Saudi culture, Trudeau's actions may have done more harm than good, and indeed, it does not appear as if they were designed to resolve the problem. Rather, they represented convenient virtue signaling at a particularly sensitive political moment. Saudi Arabia is a country which is not immune to requests related to human rights.
President George W. Bush used personal relationships with the monarch to release political dissidents. In the past, President John F. Kennedy had used his influence to pressure the Saudis into eliminating slavery. Most recently, the country's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman voluntarily dedicated the Kingdom to a process of slow and painful reforms, many of which touch on human rights issue's, such as women's rights to drive, and ability to make choices about whether or not to wear traditional face and head coverings. Trudeau's government also failed to take into the account the internal struggle between the old guard and the reformists, some of whom are less experienced politically and are still struggling to take control of the country's parochial institutions. The smart way to handle expressed interests in ongoing reforms would have been to acknowledge these difficulties, to praise the valiant efforts the Saudi government has put forth in the face of pressure by the country's conservatives, to show understanding about the necessarily painstaking process of reforming a closed, conservative society - and to offer support in making the necessary changes.
If interested in helping the human rights activists, Trudeau should have addressed the issue privately, engaging in the process of strengthening the relations between the two countries. He should have focused on what would work rather than on embarrassing the young leadership of the country, which would obviously looking to assert its strength in the face of a foreign challenge. Instead, however, the process was placed on a path to failure from the start. These statements were issued just days before the United States were set to reimpose sanctions against Iran. Coincidentally, a number of Canadian citizens languish in Iranian prisons as political hostage, while the Islamic Republic has been cracking down on women's rights activists, beating and torturing them, and jailing them for extensive prison terms. None of that has been noted by Trudeau, who retained a close relationship to Iran, recently reopening the embassy, and who likewise did not express the same level of personal concern for political prisoners in Russia, Venezuela or Cuba. Indeed, as others point out, Trudeau had used an unusually harsh diplomatic language in his criticism of Saudi Arabia, usually saved up for the worst of the worst, while using similar language rarely for Iran, Russia, Cuba and others, and frequently using softer words. Could the level of rancor aimed at Riyadh have anything to do with its pro-Trump positions which angered the ideologically liberal elites in Europe and Canada?
(Same people had lionized Mohammed bin Salman's predecessors, whose supposed reforms were perfunctory at best). Or, as seems at least as likely, all of this has to do with greed towards easy Iranian money (Saudis have made business transactions rather cumbersome, and are struggling with reforming the process), which explains the sudden and coincidental concern about the activists? Cue in other odd timing. At about the same time, Associated Press reported "breaking news" that the Saudis, who lead the Arab Coalition against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, have colluded with Al Qaeda. This supposedly shocking story has been known since the beginning of the air campaign against the Houthis three years ago. What has changed that brought this well known situation to the forefront of the news?
The pressure on Iran after the reimposition of sanctions by the United States may have had something to do with it. Only days prior to this examplar of stellar journalism, Houthis attacked Saudi oil tankers, with Iranians taking credit for the attack. The Saudis had to temporarily freeze deliveries of the oil through Bab al-Mandeb, in a shock for investors. However, international outrage was limited to non -existent towards this unacceptable act of aggression, and soon enough, the incident was forgotten. There was certainly no call to punish the Iranians for their act of war on Saudi interests. Trudeau, too, stayed silent. When dressing up as a Pakistani and visiting a Pakistani mosque to join in an iftar, the Prime Minister had failed to address the underlying issue of concern - honor killings and targeted murders of Christians and atheists inside the country. He also did not seem to care much when he willingly paid off a terrorist responsible for murders of two Americans. It would be much easier to take claims of concern for universal human rights coming from that administration seriously had it been consistent in its application and had it held itself to the same standard as it does Saudi Arabia, a developing country just emerging from the status of being a completely closed society. Perhaps, then, we should ask ourselves - w hat does democracy and what do human rights actually mean for us, if we use these terms to justify interventions in whatever way that suits us with no standards or consistency whatsoever? If we are willing to make excuses for some of the world's worst human rights abusers, while subjecting countries struggling to improve to public scrutiny and beratings, are we really defending democracy or human rights? And if we ourselves are willing to intervene against other democratic countries that are protective of human rights for the sake of economic and political convenience, then who are we really to dictate others what's wrong and what's write?