Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece is reprinted with permission and can be found on Abrams' blog "Pressure Points" here.
Does the United States stand for anything at all? Do we have a view about, say, slavery, or child prostitution, or the stoning of gays?
What should be a ridiculous question is raised by Secretary of State John Kerry's offensive obeisance to the Saudis yesterday when visiting Riyadh. Here is the AP story:
"On the move for Saudi women to be allowed to drive, Kerry was careful not to appear to take sides. Noting that while the United States embraces gender equality, 'it is up to Saudi Arabia to make its own decisions about its own social structure and choices and the timing of whatever events.'"
Apparently, far be it from us to criticize Saudi repression of women and the ludicrous and offensive practice of preventing women from driving. How far does Secretary Kerry go with this "your own decisions about your own social structure?" Does it matter to him that "Saudis" don't get to make that decision -- because the country has no democratic institutions whatsoever?
Mr. Kerry's abandonment of American standards when addressing the Saudi leaders was not only offensive, it was useless and unneeded. When his predecessor Condoleezza Rice used to visit there, she refused to cover her hair as current Saudi practices demand; they got over it. Had Mr. Kerry replied, "Well, as an American of course I think that rule about driving is ridiculous," do we think they'd have declared war? Kerry was speaking with Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, a graduate of Princeton University who also went to prep school in the United States. Does the secretary believe that Saud actually thinks women should not be permitted to drive, and that saying so would have offended him? Does the secretary think he increases respect for the United States when he refuses to defend our view of equality before the law?
The Saudi episode came a day after Kerry made an inaccurate and unfortunate statement about Egypt: that it is moving toward democracy under army rule. In an editorial, The Washington Post said it all:
"A Freedom House report released Monday concludes that 'there has been virtually no substantive progress toward democracy ... since the July 3 coup,' despite the military regime's supposed 'road map.' But that's not how Secretary of State John F. Kerry sees it. 'The road map is being carried out to the best of our perception,' he pronounced during a quick trip to Cairo on Sunday. A liberal constitution and elections? 'All of that is, in fact, moving down the road map in the direction that everybody has been hoping for.'
"What is it that Mr. Kerry doesn't perceive? To judge that Egypt is headed toward democracy is to ignore the fact that its last elected leader and thousands of his supporters are now political prisoners facing, at best, blatantly unfair trials. It is to overlook the reality that opposition media have been shut down and that those that remain are more tightly controlled by the regime than they have been in decades. It skips over the rigging of the constitution by the military and that leading secular liberal politicians, such as former presidential candidates Mohamed ElBaradei and Ayman Nour, have been driven out of the country. ... Mr. Kerry's embrace of the regime's empty promises of democracy only makes him appear foolish -- or, perhaps, as cynical as the generals."
Chalk up one point for Kerry: consistency. In both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, he abandoned any defense of American political and social principles to curry favor with the folks with whom he was speaking. Nothing good ever comes of such a stance: We look weak to the very officials to whom we are trying to look strong, and walk away from the courageous individuals in those countries struggling for human rights, for women's rights in particular, and for political freedom.
From "Pressure Points" by Elliott Abrams. Reprinted with permission from the Council on Foreign Relations.