teleSUR, 11 September 2015 **** Front Page

Negative Freedom, US Liberals and Saudi Arabia

By Bruno Jäntti

There is alarmingly little organizing that aims at changing the abysmal character of U.S. foreign policy.

If it wasn't for the immense clout of the U.S. in world politics, most of us would probably have more immediate problems to occupy ourselves with than contemplating the antics of U.S. liberals. Yet, with Barack Obama finishing up his second term and some other self-identified liberal moving to the White House sooner or later, perhaps a moment of reflection on U.S. liberalism is in order. Are U.S. liberals loyal to, or dismissive of, their ostensible political values in their approach to foreign policy?

Considering how much momentum there is behind various U.S. movements raising awareness on climate change, police violence, domestic racism, LGBT rights, women's rights and a number of other worthy causes, there is alarmingly little organizing that aims at changing the abysmal character of U.S. foreign policy. American liberals have a not-so-small burden of proof when it comes to explaining the stark contradiction between their stated political beliefs and the policies their superstar politicians and most of the Democratic party carry out around the world.

Political liberalism, including liberalism in the U.S, espouses an emphasis on negative liberty, that is the absence of constraints and obstacles and freedom from coercion and interference by other individuals or social or political structures. Indeed, at various stages of the history of the US, most political goals set by American liberalism have revolved around what they regard as championing negative liberty.

Yet, although regarded as a cherished priority in domestic politics, American liberals often seem to be committed to undermining the realization of negative liberty in American external policies. Think of systems of government that are antithetical to negative liberty. What about a state that is based on authoritarianism, religious fanaticism not just force-fed to everyone but also coded in the country's civil and criminal law, close to zero tolerance for criticism of government policies, sweeping restrictions on political organizing, no due process, secretive trials and misogyny? That would be Saudi Arabia.

What is the approach by American liberals, those passionate guardians of negative liberty, to Saudi Arabia? Under Obama administration, American military equipment exports to Saudi Arabia - including helicopters, fighter aircraft, missile systems, missile defense systems, armored vehicles and bombs - have a potential value of more than US$90 billion. To put that figure in some perspective, that is 30 times the annual military budget of Finland and over four times the military budget of Israel. Weapons trade aside, Saudi Arabia has been a staunch Middle Eastern ally to the United States for decades, at times more so than Iran under Shah or Israel.

An Amnesty International Report 2014/15 documents how the Saudi government has drastically restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly, how the government suppresses dissent and imprisons human rights defenders. According to Amnesty, “[t]orture of detainees was reportedly common; courts convicted defendants on the basis of torture-tainted “confessions” and sentenced others to flogging. Women faced discrimination in law and practice” and so on and so forth.

Sounds like a paradise for those who have a soft spot in their heart for negative liberty. No wonder that, when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia passed away in January, 2015, Obama had this to say, “As our countries worked together to confront many challenges, I always valued King Abdullah's perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship. As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions. One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond. The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah's legacy. May God grant him peace.”

It would not be accurate to claim there is no criticism of Riyadh in the US. The leadership of Saudi Arabia is so outrageous that one finds some unease towards Riyadh here and there even in the US. But is there, among American liberals - or, for that matter, anyone else in the U.S. - any serious political organizing that intends to put an end to the US-Saudi love-affair? The answer is a resounding no.

There is a clear-cut reason why the apathy in the U.S. towards U.S. foreign policy in general and U.S-Saudi relations in particular strikes any outside observer as rather alarming: US foreign policy is a major global question and those who are most able to change U.S. policies are American citizens. Having said that, nothing in the track-record of American liberals suggests they have any interests in taking their alleged principles seriously. They will not be the ones to end the honeymoon between Washington and Riyadh.


The archive: Bruno Jäntti, United States, International affairs, Phyllis Bennis, Noam Chomsky, Gabriel Kolko, Gary Younge, Howard Zinn


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