October 23, 2015

It’s Time to Talk About Saudi Arabia

by Stanley A. Weiss

In the House of Commons this past Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond made two announcements pertaining to Saudi Arabia that sounded like they came straight out of the ninth century. The first was that thanks to British diplomacy, Hammond did “not expect” that a young political activist named Ali Mohammed al-Nimr – who had been sentenced by a Saudi court to “beheading and crucifixion” for the crime of attending a pro-democracy rally when he was 17 years old – would be put to death after all. The second was that a 74 year-old British grandfather named Karl Andee – an asthmatic, three-time cancer survivor living in Saudi Arabia who has spent the past year in jail for the crime of possessing homemade wine – would likely be spared the 350 lashes to which he had also been sentenced and which his children feared would surely kill him.

For those not up on their medieval execution methods, one story helpfully explained that had the sentence against Al-Nimr been carried out, the Saudi way dictates that his head would have been cut off with a sword, and then his headless body would have been publicly displayed as a lesson to others who would dare challenge the Saudi monarchy. Meanwhile, an Arab News columnist reflected on the grandfather’s case without a trace of irony, noting that while it is well-known that “alcohol is hazardous to health,” 360 lashes with a long, hard cane is “not a matter of inflicting pain but more of a moral punishment” – because, according to the Saudi way, “lashing is done through a careful procedure,” with the “elbow planted firmly to the side,” and with “only the quick movement of the hand from the wrist. It is not the pain,” he clarified, clearly never having felt 350 lashes. “It is the shame.”

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December 17, 2014

America and Iran’s Taba Moment

by Stanley A. Weiss

As President Bill Clinton tells it, Yasser Arafat wanted to wear something controversial to the White House ceremony in which Israelis and Palestinians signed the Oslo Accords in 1993: his handgun. While Clinton convinced Arafat, then chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, to leave his firearm behind–and then convinced Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to shake hands with Arafat–in truth, a gun abandoned only for a few hours is a good symbol of the tortured road that Israelis and Palestinians have traveled ever since. The closest the two sides have come to realizing the promise of a peaceful two-state solution imagined by Oslo was during a two-month period in the closing days of Clinton’s presidency that began 14 years ago this week.

In negotiations that started at Camp David and continued in the Egyptian town of Taba, Palestinians were offered a solution that met 97 percent of their demands. Both sides declared that they had “never been closer to peace.” But then, negotiations were halted for a looming Israeli election, with the two sides expressing “a shared belief that the remaining gaps could be bridged.” But it was not to be: Israelis elected a prime minister who had no interest in restarting talks, and the hope of Taba died. In the 14 years since, more than 1180 Israelis and 9,100 Palestinians have been killed, Jewish settlers in the West Bank have doubled, and one in four Palestinians remain mired in poverty.

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April 28, 2014

Somewhere Between Morning and Mourning in New Delhi

by Stanley A. Weiss

NEW DELHI–Watching the national election play out here the past few weeks has brought me back to a late October evening in 1980, when America stood on the verge of making the same choice that India seems poised to make by the time voting ends on May 12. That night, in the only televised debate between the two major candidates running for President of the United States, incumbent President Jimmy Carter repeatedly appealed to voters’ fears by contending that challenger Ronald Reagan’s right-leaning political views were careless, dangerous, and a threat to world peace. While assailing Reagan’s “heartless approach to working families,” Carter charged that Reagan’s eagerness to inject American military force in places like North Korea would lead to the “actual use of it;” and that his “dangerous and belligerent” insistence “upon the nuclear superiority of America as the basis for negotiation in the future with the Soviet Union” would bring a “very dangerous nuclear arms race.”

But none of those strong words were remembered the next day. Instead, all coverage of the debate led with a simple, now iconic question that Reagan asked directly of voters in his closing statement: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” For a country that had lived through four years of Carter-led malaise, inflation and unemployment; endured more than 400 days of American hostages held in Iran; and perceived a softening of America’s military in the face of Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, the answer was an emphatic “no.” It didn’t matter how conservative Reagan seemed to be. People were desperate for strong leadership and wanted a change–proving, as future U.S. President Bill Clinton would later observe, that “when people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody that’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.”

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February 28, 2014

What Thailand Needs Most Is a Bill of Rights

by Stanley A. Weiss

BANGKOK-Over the past century, Thailand has endured colonial aggression, two world wars and neighboring civil wars on every one of its borders.  It has survived extreme nationalism, home-grown fascism, aggressive communism, and stifling dictatorship.  It has persevered through 18 military coups, survived economic collapse, withstood periods of widespread starvation and navigated a ubiquitous regional drug trade.  And after all that, Thailand has emerged as the region’s second-largest economy, with the broadest-based prosperity in its history.

But where do we find ourselves? For the third time in four years, a coalition of urban elites and their allies have taken to the streets wearing bright yellow shirts to force from office a leader that was elected by an overwhelming plurality of the electorate.  It’s the equivalent of having the Tea Party allies of Sarah Palin march on Washington, bar entry to federal buildings, paralyze the work of Congress and insist that the 2012 election of Barack Obama be vacated and turned over to a small council of unelected elites. It might just lead to civil war.

It has taken 180 years, but the lesson of Alexis de Tocqueville has finally come to Thailand.  Tocqueville was a French citizen who toured America in the 1830s.  In his classic work, “Democracy in America,” he tells the story of a mob that destroyed the printing presses of a newspaper that came out against U.S. efforts in the War of 1812.  For their protection, the paper’s editors were brought to the local jail-only to have the mob break in and kill one of the journalists as the police stood by. When the mob leaders were brought to trial, they were acquitted by a jury of their peers. Reflecting on the incident, Tocqueville argued that the greatest threat the United States faced was “tyranny of the majority.”

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