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Trouble In The Kingdom

Threaten the stability of Saudi Arabia, as the Shi’a upsurges are now doing in Qatif, and al-Awamiyah in the country’s oil-rich Eastern Province and you’re brandish­ing a dagger over the very heart of long-term US policy in the Middle East for over half a century.

In 1945 the chief of the State Department’s Division of Near Eastern Affairs, wrote in a memo that the oil resources of Saudi Arabia are a “stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” The man who steered the Saudi sheikhs towards America and away from Britain, was St. John Philby, Kim’s father, and with that one great stroke Philby Sr. wrought far more devastation on the British Empire than his son ever did. The fall of America’s ally, the Shah of Iran in 1979 only magnified the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia.

These days the US consumes about 19 million bar­rels of oil every 24 hours, about half of them imported. At 25% Canada is the lead supplier. Second comes Saudi Arabia with 12%. But supply of crude oil to the US is only half the story. Saudi Arabia controls OPEC’s oil price and adjusts it carefully with US priorities in the front of their minds.

The traffic is not one-way. In the half-century after 1945, the United States sold the Saudis about $100 bil­lion in military goods and services. A year ago the Obama administration announced the biggest weapons deal in US history — a $60 billion program with Saudi Arabia to sell it military equipment across the next 20 to 30 years.

The US trains and supplies all Saudi Arabia’s secu­rity forces. US corporations have huge investments in the Kingdom.

Say the words “Saudi Arabia” to President Obama or to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the high-minded prattle about the “Arab spring” stops abruptly. When the Saudis rushed security forces across the Cause­way and into Bahrein, counselling the Khalifa dynasty to smash down hard on the Shi’a demonstrators in the homeport of the US Fifth Fleet, the public noises of reproof from Washington were mouse-like in their reti­cence and modesty.

Could the uprisings in Saudi Arabia spiral out of con­trol? We’re talking here about two different challenges. The first are the long-oppressed Shi’a, making up ten per cent of the population. The second is from the younger generation — youth under 30 account for two-thirds of the Saudi population — in the Sunni majority, living in one of the most thorough-going tyrannies in the world.

In February of this year, perturbed by the trend of events in Egypt and elsewhere, the 87-year King Abdul­lah announced his plan to dispense about $36 billion in welfare handouts — about $2,000 for every Saudi. He correctly identified one of the Kingdom’s big problems, which is that nearly half those between 18 and 40 don’t have a job.

A few days ago Abdullah offered Saudi women a privilege — to participate in certain entirely meaningless municipal elections (if approved by their husbands). What municipal elections can be meaningful amid reso­lute repression under an absolutist monarchy?

As the international rights lawyer Paul Wolf remarked on PressTV, “In Saudi Arabia, cellphones with cameras are illegal. All telephone conversations are monitored. The government controls the TV and the print media. In 2009 an election was cancelled…. So I mean it is great if they are taking action to try to include women in the political process but really, no one is included in the political process.”

The American Empire has lost Iran and Iraq. What of Saudi Arabia? Suppose, fissures continue to open up in the Kingdom itself? I doubt, at such a juncture, that we would hear too much talk from Washington about “democracy” or orderly transitions. Aside from anything else, the downfall of the Saudi regime would have terri­ble consequences in Washington, since hundreds of heavy-hitters there are on the Saudi payroll, starting with virtually all the ex-ambassadors, with the exception of James Akins who once told a friend of mine he was the only one who wasn’t. No way will Washington let the money flow from Riyadh to K street be endangered. Send in the 101st Airborne!

One cherished British imperial rule, handed down to the Empire that displaced it, is: When in doubt, break it up. There have been recent western advocates of break-up of Saudi Arabia, Two well-known neo-cons, Richard Perle and David Frum wrote in their 2005 book, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror that the US should mobilize the Shi’ites living in eastern Saudi Ara­bia, where most of the Saudi oil is: “Independence for the Eastern Province would obviously be a catastrophic outcome for the Saudi state. But it might be a very good outcome for the United States. Certainly it’s an outcome to ponder. Even more certainly, we would want the Saudis to know we are pondering it.”

Perle was once head of the Defense Policy Board, advising the Defense Department. As Robert Dreyfus reports in Devil’s Game, In 2002, a Defense Policy Board briefing argued that the US should work to split Saudi Arabia apart so the US could effectively control its oil. Other neoconservatives like Michael Ledeen expressed similar views. In early 2003, Akins, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, mentioned the possibil­ity that Osama bin Laden could take over Saudi Arabia if the US invaded Iraq. “I’m now convinced that that’s exactly what [the neoconservatives] want to happen. And then we take it over.”

I guess the current model is the Kurdish sector of Iraq.

Straight from the Shoulder

Here’s Ernest Hemingway, on James Jones’ From Here to Eternity , Jones’ first novel and winner of the National Book Award for fiction in 1952. Hemingway was writing to his and Jones’ mutual publisher Charles Scribner. Maxwell Perkins had edited Jones, as he had Hemingway, but by the time this acrid communication reached Scribner, Perkins was dead.

“About the James Jones book … It is not great no matter what they tell. To me it is an enormously skillful fuck-up and his book will do great damage to our coun­try. Probably I should re-read it again and give you a truer answer. But I do not have to eat an entire bowl of scabs to know they are scabs; nor suck a boil to know it is a boil; nor swim through a river of snot to know it is snot. I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not dam­age your sales. If you give him a literary tea you might ask him to drain a bucket of snot and then suck the puss out of a dead-nigger’s ear… How did they ever get a pic­ture of a wide-eyed jerk (un-damaged ears) to look that screaming tough. I am glad he makes you money and I would never laugh him off. I would just give him a big­ger bucket of the snot detail. He has the psycho’s urge to kill himself and he will do it. Make all the money you can out of him as quickly as you can and hold out enough for Christian Burial. Wouldn’t have brought him up if you hadn’t asked me. Now I feel as unclean as when I read his fuck-off book. It has all the charm and trueness of the real and imitation fuck-off. Mary sends her love to you and to Vera. Best always, Papa.”

Alexander Cockburn can be reached at


  1. chuck becker October 13, 2011

    It’s celestially ironic that Hemingway would write this, ” He has the psycho’s urge to kill himself and he will do it.” about James Jones. And a good case for the position that creative genius bears only lightly, if at all, on human wisdom. As for the MidEast, there’s no part of it that doesn’t resonate, as the Universe still reverberates with echoes the Big Bang, of Anglo/French/Russian colonial competition.

    Unlike the European colonial powers, America has one interest in the world generally, and the MidEast particularly. That interest is in fostering the development of liberal Western democracy. In the MidEast, that makes our obligation to support the only liberal Western democracy in the region completely obvious.

    We don’t need MidEast oil, it’s a convenience that should never be allowed to direct our objectives.

  2. Harvey Reading October 17, 2011

    C’mon Chuck, give me a break. The U.S. interest has always been imperialism, first over the natives of this continent, then the world at large, with military bases everywhere these days. Our government and the wealthy who direct it lie and mislead us into thinking that we are exceptional humans only out to do the best for humankind, to spread “democracy” (whatever happened to self-determination?), like missionaries spread mythology, but in fact we, since we acquiesce in their goals of global domination, are nothing more than brutal, murderous savages who want power over all.

    What we have here is hardly liberal democracy. Theoretically, we have a republican form of government. In reality, we have always had a plutocracy, which is exactly what the founders had in mind when they created the Constitution, a document that ensured continued, uninterrupted control of their class over the rest of us, with the circuses of elections thrown in to fool us into thinking we had choices. The illogical apportionment of the “senate” is one of the better examples of this. A population with any gumption at all, would have gotten rid of that particular corruption of representation long ago … the 25 largest states, with about 84 percent of the population gets 50 senators, with the remaining 16 percent of the population getting the other 50 senators. “Liberal democracy”? Give me a break.

    • chuck becker October 20, 2011

      Hey Harvey,

      I’ve been to a good number of those bases, and I’ll tell you what I saw. A lot of young Americans serving in faraway places, bored, drowning their sorrows in alcohol, drugs, and pretty nearly promiscuous sex. How did we end up there, anyway?

      Well, when WWII ended, there weren’t a handful of people in the world who would conceive of a rearmed Germany or Japan. Yet, both Germany and Japan were surrounded by implacable foes. Hell, the Soviet Army was PARKED in Germany for a couple decades. So Japan and Germany couldn’t rearm to defend themselves, and they couldn’t exist without protection. So the United States stepped up and took responsibility for the external security of Germany and Japan, at the same time pitting us against Russia and China.

      I don’t need to explain the logical conclusions of all this. Of course, today, it seems arcane and stupid, but it didn’t happen ‘today’. It happened in the 40’s and 50’s … do you remember the Berlin Airlift?

      That’s what people take for ‘imperialism’, but it’s obviously not. Were there times when we were stupid? Sure. Were there times when we aspired to European style imperialism? Sure. Is that the grand theme by which America has been guided? No way.

      As for the Senate, the worst mistake made in American history was the 17th Amendment. The Founders foresaw the case where the nation was too big to manage in a single, monolithic, top-down, centralized fashion. So they designed a decentralized system of local, state, and federal government. Now, in a decentralized system there is contention: do lower levels simply execute policy, or do they have control of policy? The Founders intended that the lower levels of government have a role in forming policy, ergo state legislature selection of Senators. The 17th Amendment undid that, which has led directly to our current catastrophic situation.

      Google “liberal democracy”, you may be surprised.

      Chuck (AVHS ’68).

      PS: the Greek legislature just voted to accept mandated austerity measures.

  3. Harvey Reading October 23, 2011

    Chuck, leaving aside our imperial conquest of and genocide against Native Americans, which continues, to this day, let’s go back a little, prior to your myths about the cold war period, say back to James Monroe. You remember him. One of us “exceptionals”, elected to the presidency by white landowners. He’s the one who proclaimed the countries to our south off limits to all but us. Though powerless at the time to enforce his edict, it later was, and is still used to ensure that only regimes friendly to U.S. businesses are allowed to take root for long, no matter how brutally they suppress their own “commoners”. Witness the vitriol from “our” government and the media towards Hugo Chavez. “A mistake”, Chuck? Or a deliberate decision in favor of U.S. business interests, and the people be damned? I suspect I can guess your answer.

    How about the invasion of Mexico in the mid 19th Century, a war we picked because of our desire for more land, including Texas? One which the New York Times justified by saying that since we paid $15 million for the land as part of the peace treaty, it wasn’t empire building. Even then that paper was in the propaganda business. So, Chuck, another mistake?

    How about the “black fleet” sent also in the mid-19th Century to force open Japan to our business interests? Another mistake? Or a cold-blooded decision in favor of the wealthy?

    How about the Spanish American war, entered into when a battleship blew up because of an explosion in a coal bin (according to Rear Adm. Hyman Rickover’s report)? Was that another mistake? Seems to me it was a pretty clear case of imperialism, since we suddenly owned Cuba, the Philippines and assorted other Pacific Islands.

    How about our gunboat diplomacy in China during the 20s, again to protect business interests? How about the annexation of Hawaii as a territory, using armed Marines (then making it a state by allowing military members stationed there to vote along with the natives)? How about Vietnam, where we slaughtered millions and lost tens of thousands of our own, because we knew the Vietnamese would have the audacity to elect someone we didn’t like? How about restoration of the authoritarian ruler of Kuwait during Bush I’s war? All mistakes? All with the best of intentions, by “exceptionals”? And on and on.

    I’m as old as you, so of course I remember learning about the Berlin Airlift, and I don’t need to search the Internet to respond to you. You might as well save your condescension for those who can appreciate it.

    In your apologetics for bases around the world, you mentioned promiscuous sex, but you forgot to mention rape of women in “host” countries committed by military members, most of which gets swept under the rug. A mistake? Or a deliberate omission, understandable in these days of hysterical, unquestioning military worship?

    Even accepting your mythological dismissal of the cold war – nothing more than a regurgitation of the propaganda I was fed, K-12, in Calaveras County, from 1955 through 1968 – which I definitely do not, but won’t go into here, you seem less interested in actual history than in promoting your pet agenda. Sadly, a lot of people buy into that. It’s far easier than thinking.

    As far as your (convoluted) logic regarding the 17th Amendment, I guess you’re operating on some higher plain, since what you’re peddling is beyond my capacity to understand.

    Oh, and did you happen to notice, austerity measures have been applied here, by business and government (hard to tell them apart these days), against the Working Class, in earnest, since the early 1970s? And we “exceptionals” have been taking it lying down, and begging for more, by voting for monsters like Ronald Reagan. At least the Greeks appear to have had a bellyful.

  4. chuck becker October 23, 2011

    America wasn’t a glimmer in anyone’s eye when the French and Indian War broke out in the then-West, kicking off an era of depredations on all sides. The Spanish conquest of the New World resulted in far more native deaths than the American expansion into the West. Yes, really bad things happened. And in no way intending to excuse what our forebearers did, but America didn’t invent them, and we certainly weren’t alone in the age of exploitation (more on this in a bit). At no point was America a leading “offender” as an imperialist power, our efforts were pathetic and amateurish. Anyone who will take the actions of a bygone era completely out of context has forfeited honesty for the expediency of making an argument.

    As for the Monroe Doctrine, you once again take an act of government completely out of context. When the Monroe Doctrine was issued, the European powers were many times more wealthy and powerful than the United States, and had energetically embarked on the great age of empire. Having fought Great Britain, and then France, we stated that they would not interfere in affairs of the Western Hemisphere. Try placing this in the context of the age: we placed a firewall against genuinely imperialist European Powers around the affairs of the Americas.

    I’m sure you know more about what you refer to in the case of Hugo Chavez than I do. As far as I can tell he is an utter loon, destined to join Gadaffi at some point in the future. In the meantime, Venezuela continues to suffer at its own hands.

    Perry went to Japan to open trade with an utterly isolated nation. Big deal. We didn’t conquer Japan (until after they sunk our fleet at Pearl Harbor, then conquered and butchered half of Asia), we didn’t make them subject to our rule, we didn’t confiscate their riches. We opened the nation to trade with the outside world. It brought them out of the feudal age, and in the long run it was in a completely different league from what the European powers did to China (coming up in a moment).

    You surely jest when you cite the Spanish-American War as an example of American imperialism. It was a war against the greatest, although waned, imperial power of all time – Spain. We took Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines from Spain and granted them independence (well, yeah, 50 years later, but we didn’t take them from Spain to keep them for ourselves). Oh, except Guam, which is unable to stand on its own and continues a symbiotic relationship with the United States. Cuba, Guam, and Spain were Spanish colonies, we threw the Spanish out.

    Gunboat diplomacy in China, indeed. The European imperial powers had partitioned and subjugated Imperial China to do their bidding and conducted nearly one-sided commerce, if it could even be called commerce. The British introduced opium to China, overriding and ignoring the objections of the Chinese government. No, the US was not perfect in our conduct, we were far from perfect. But it was a different age, and we were far less imperfect than the European imperial powers. Oh, and that’s to not even mention Indochina (France) and the Dutch East Indies … if you’re on an imperialism witch-hunt you won’t have to look very closely for some excellent actual examples there.

    We inherited Viet Nam from the French imperialists, and it became a pawn in the global East-West confrontation. It’s easy to poo-poo all that from the distance of 40 or 50 years, but it was as real as the Cuban Missile Crisis. After all the pain and suffering that the Communist regime in Viet Nam inflicted on their own people (bot people, etc, etc), looky there, they’re coming around to our way of seeing things. LBJ, the great Commie fighter, is smiling.

    When I referred to nearly promiscuous sex, I didn’t say anything about locals. From what I saw in the last few years before I retired, US service members were doing fine all by themselves. Any enlisted club on a Friday night will rival the club scene anywhere. No incident involving a local gets swept under the rug. And the worst incidents involving Americans aren’t even in the same league as routine atrocities by the military forces of most other nations.

    You dismiss what I present as a pet agenda, I guess my move would be to dismiss your version of American history as YOUR pet agenda. Then we’d have a real intelligent conversation going, wouldn’t we? Instead, I’ll simply say that you are coming from a position of opposition to America, and you’re inclined to cast the most unfavorable light possible on any American action that will serve to diminish what you oppose.

    17th Amendment: this upset a delicate and vital mechanism of the checks and balanced the Founders established. Now we pay the price. Our greatest blindness is our inability to see that all change is not progress, and that sometimes an improvement turns out to be just the opposite.

    The “austerity” measures you call out have resulted in $15T in direct government debt, double or triple that in personal debt, and many times that much in unfunded liabilities. There has been no austerity, we have been profligate. And now we pay. The Greeks are in a world of hurt, the prudent and prosperous Germans are about to turn off their water. Sure, they might get a write-down on their debt, but the Germans won’t even give them enough rope to hang themselves.

    History is never finished. The newest, hippest version isn’t necessarily better than the older, less stylish version. The more I look into history, the more I find that that mundane explanations generally stand up better than resort to vast conspiracies and occult powers.

  5. Harvey Reading October 24, 2011

    Should have been higher plane.

  6. chuck becker October 24, 2011

    “Should have been higher plane.” – – – I have no idea what you’re talking about.

    You make three mistakes in your post about American history. You condemn America for practices and institutions that predate the Nation by a century or two or more. America inherited a legacy of bad things from the imperial powers that settled the New World, it has taken us a while to clear up that inheritance.

    Second, you take the actions of America out of context of the times. When we were doing what we were doing, what we were doing was an enormous step forward from what the imperial powers of Europe were doing. It’s fine to criticize America for not having been perfect in a highly imperfect age, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

    Third, you resort to the most emotionally loaded word available to the situation in using ‘imperialism’ to describe American foreign policy. The USSR was Russian Imperialism, the culmination of The Grand Game. India was British Imperialism. Haiti and Indochina were French Imperialism. The Dutch East Indies, Indonesia, was Dutch Imperialism. What America did and is doing isn’t even in the same league, and to claim it is misses the chance to make a valid point, and dilutes the impact of ‘imperialism’.

    There you go, that’s what I have to say on the subject.

  7. Harvey Reading October 25, 2011

    Live on, happily, in your world of dreams and excuses. I prefer reality.

  8. rgdavis October 26, 2011

    Doing some research on the subject is this period of Imperialism, as defined by a number of people, Lenin and others. Or, is this the period of Empire as defined by a number of other authors. The reason for a comparison is to clarify what is it that the US is doing with 600 admitted probably 1000 military bases around the world (Chalmers Johnson) and now 60 drone locations under Obama. What is the function and purpose of those military actions? The Empire or just little ol’ Imperialism?

    • chuck becker October 28, 2011

      Oh, dear. The bulk of US commitments and bases go back to WWII and the Cold War. Oh, right, the Cold War is over. Well, the Russian Army has NOT forgotten how to get to Berlin, and Germany is hardly anxious to provide for their own external security. Ditto with Japan: Korea, China, and the rest of the Far East. And probably 300 of those “bases” include a hut or tent on a mountain.

      The drone locations are shear stupidity. If we can’t operate a drone off an airfield that support F/A-18’s, then there’s something wrong with the drone program. And we have 11 floating airfields that operate F/A-18’s. Why we need dirt bases is a mystery to me.

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