Prof. Mel Gurtov: « It’s time for a Reset in US-Saudi Relations. »

Publié le par Mohsen Abdelmoumen

Professor Mel Gurtov. DR.

Professor Mel Gurtov. DR.

Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You mentioned in one of your articles the non compliance with the War Powers Resolution by successive American presidents. Does the president of the United States decide alone, including in military interventions abroad? Can we still speak of a democracy in the United States when institutions such as the Congress do not weigh in the decision?

Prof. Mel Gurtov: When it comes to major decisions on war and peace, the US practice, regardless of administration, has been that a small circle of presidential advisers, mostly civilians rather than military, make the decisions. This circumstance is probably true everywhere, and certainly does not qualify as democracy. The US constitution clearly lays out the role of Congress in war making but, as my blog has pointed out several times, Congress rarely votes to authorize war, rarely challenges the president’s decision to use force, rarely interferes with war strategy or tactics, and never votes to withdraw forces that the president has committed. That is why the phrase “imperial presidency,” though first used during the Vietnam War, remains valid.The COP21 has resulted in agreements in Paris; do you think that these agreements will be respected?

I expect that, as with past international agreements on the environment, some countries (particularly in the EU) will respect COP21, some will take halfway measures (China), and some will ignore it. In many cases, especially with regard to the US, domestic political circumstances will dictate the response to COP21. If a Republican wins the White House this fall, expect that the agreement will be disregarded, whereas if a Democrat wins, it will be respected—although even then, without the kind of urgency that climate change requires. Unfortunately, COP21 does not have enforcement provisions, so as always it amounts to pledges, not treaty obligations.

Faced with the emergence of China, can we invoke a multipolar world free of US hegemony?

A “multipolar world free of US hegemony” would probably receive many votes in China. But I think it is far too early to wish for such a world, although some Chinese intellectuals do insist that world politics is multipolar. They disagree onhow many poles there are, however. As I’ve argued in my book, Will This Be China’s Century: A Skeptic’s View, China does not yet qualify as a global leader despite its increasingly important economic role. From many angles, it does not exercise—and does not want to exercise—leadership on major international issues, thus leaving the field to the US, which always insists on being, as Madeleine Albright once put it, the “indispensable nation.”

With Daesh-ISIS, with US-Russian tensions that send us back to the Cold War and with extensive phenomena of migration, do you think we are facing to a similar chaos that the world has experienced in the 30 and led to the Second World War? In short, is there a risk of World War III?

In my most pessimistic moments, I do think such a risk exists. Besides the ISIS threat, US-Russia tensions, and the migration crisis, there are huge threats to security in global climate change and the reemergence of far-right militant groups and anti-democratic parties in Europe, the US, and elsewhere. If the world economy implodes, the rise of a new world war will be substantial.

I always say that I am a pessimist in the short run but an optimist in the long run. I desperately want to believe that enough good people and strong, progressive grassroots movements will win the day and persuade political leaders to seek humane solutions to the great issues of our time. I look especially to progressive forces in Europe and the US, to transformation-minded people in China, and to environmental NGOs in the developing world to lead the way. But the world today is, sadly, a ticking time bomb.

On one side, we see a massive spy system that controls people’s lives, and on the other hand, we see a terrorist group as Daesh-ISIS that recruits in social networks and strikes when it wants and where it wants, how do you explain it? Is Daesh just an organization stationed in remote areas of the Earth, or is it more complicated? How do you explain the fact that US planes have exfiltrated chiefs of Daesh recently?

Daesh seems to be a more complex and capable terror organization than (for example) al-Qaeda or the Taliban, and also more brutal. Unlike the others, Daesh has mastered social networking and effectively employed its ideological appeal. In short, Daesh really has become a state. But its ability to strike outside the Middle East isn’t a mystery: in an open society, anyone can find a gun and kill people. Police in Paris, Brussels, London, and New York can track down ISIS suicide squads, but they will never be able to identify everyone who is on a killing mission. The best we in the West—or in China and Russia, for that matter—can hope for is to be able to erode the size and capabilities of Daesh and other terrorist organizations to the point where they can do minimal harm.

Given the current tension which is at its peak between Saudi Arabia and Iran, should the US they reconsider their alliance with the Saudi regime, especially when an agreement on the Iranian nuclear has just concluded? When one exports in five years 12.5 billion dollars in armaments to countries like Saudi Arabia, which executes opponents publicly as Nemer-al-Nemer and many others, Westerners can still talk of democracy and human rights? Isn’t the true power in banks and in the military-industrial complex?

It’s time for a Reset in US-Saudi Relations. The growing rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran is reportedly causing great consternation in US policymaking circles ( Once again, US officials are called upon to address the old question whether to support an ally that isn’t behaving in accord with US interests or abandon it. The Obama administration, like all its predecessors going as far back as the 1930s, values Saudi oil, notwithstanding the current oil surplus. But these days it also wants Saudi participation in talks with Iran on Syria’s political future and in the assault on ISIS. Unfortunately, the Saudis are showing (surprise, surprise!) that they have their own interests, which include confronting Iran, intervening in Yemen’s civil war (using criminally disproportionate force), and avoiding a deep military commitment in Syria.

People with a long involvement in US Middle East policy naturally deplore the evolving gulf between the US and Saudi Arabia but insist that the Saudis are still too valuable an ally to desert. Dennis Ross, a longtime US State Department negotiator in the Middle East, writes: “Distancing from Saudi Arabia will raise further questions with America’s traditional partners in the Middle East and might mislead the Iranians into thinking the US will never hold them to account on the nuclear deal or their regional behavior” ( For analysts like Ross, Iran remains the primary US foe in the region. So long as such thinking holds, support—especially with multibillion-dollar arms packages—for “traditional partners” such as Saudi Arabia and Israel will remain firm no matter how often, and how significantly, those countries’ leaders thumb their noses at Washington.

Therein lies the conundrum that so often seems to afflict US policymaking, in the Middle East and elsewhere. How long must a so-called ally be tolerated and coddled, with mountains of arms, when its actions contradict US policy and violate international norms? The Saudi royal family runs an authoritarian political system that nurtures radical Islamism, suppresses political criticism, and systematically violates human rights. Its mass executions that most recently included a leading Shiite cleric and 46 other prisoners are symptomatic of a brutal, insecure leadership that cares little about bridging Sunni-Shiite differences in the region and successfully implementing Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and even less about humane values.

Is this a partnership worth preserving? And what does it say about US priorities and purposes in the Middle East if the answer is yes?

So long as the Saudi tail is wagging the American dog in the Middle East, ordinary people there will remain convinced that oil and repression-driven stability are the only things that matter to US leaders. The Saudis have every right to choose their enemies, but by the same token the US has every right to stop soothing and currying favor with a country that is unreliable and unworthy of support. It’s the same argument for ditching Pakistan, another US partner that Washington consistently rewards with arms despite Pakistan’s awful record on human rights, democratic rule, and fighting terrorism. (See Post #97, Arming Dictators.) And it’s the same for ending the reflexive support of Israel, whose actions in the Occupied Territories and treatment of Palestinians are clear violations of international law and humane ethics.

So far the US response has been a tepid criticism of the cleric’s execution, a diplomatic urging of “restraint” by Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a needless reminder to the House of Saud that finding a way to end the Syrian civil war has top priority. The Obama administration might have handled this latest Saudi-Iranian test of strength differently, however.

First, it should have demanded that the cleric’s life, not to mention the lives of the other 46 people, be spared. That would have avoided the sacking of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the consequent strengthening of the hardliners in Iran. If the US demand was not met, it could then take additional steps, such as reducing imports of oil from Saudi Arabia, stopping logistical support of its air operations in Yemen (which should never have occurred in the first place), and cutting military aid to the Saudis. The Saudis might then have come to their senses and realized that their security problems would only be intensified by rupturing relations with Iran and dramatizing the sectarian divide between Shiites and Sunnis.

Of course, in the “real world” of foreign policy, the US is not prepared and may never be prepared to take such a strong and principled course of action. Access to oil, support of Israel, and reliance on the authoritarian Middle East monarchies have been staples of US policy for many decades. Yet wouldn’t it be worth considering if the violence and deprivations of human rights in the Middle East might be alleviated by US adherence to a different set of priorities: social justice, environmental protection (with a focus on water), accountable and transparent governance, and demilitarization through substantial reductions of armaments and arms transfers?

In your article “Consorting with the devil”, you evoked the recruitment of the CIA’s agents within the American universities, like showed it in particular a scandal in Harvard in 1985. Do you think that this system to recruit agents within the universities is effective when one knows the failure of the American policy in many cases, such as the Iraqi, Afghan, Libyan, Syrian, or Iranian case?

US policy failures never seem to limit the ability of intelligence services to recruit. People want jobs and glamour, more so today than ever before, it seems. That especially applies to academicians and professionals such as those I discussed in the American Psychological Association (APA). Just recently the Pentagon announced that psychologists at Guantanamo would no longer be involved in interrogations or mental health services for prisoners, in conformity with the APA’s new ethical guidelines. But the CIA, FBI, and other organizations may still perform illegal interrogations in other locations outside the US, undoubtedly with help from private psychologists and psychiatrists. Moreover, the government has plenty of support within the US Congress and the public for CIA and other intelligence activities, including drone strikes. So while it might appear that the attractiveness of the CIA would diminish over time, I see no evidence that it has diminished. Indeed, in this age of terrorism, the CIA and other such groups are likely to benefit in terms of money and recruiting.

After the scandal of Benghazi where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has lost an ambassador, and after the scandal of her emails, in your opinion, does Mrs. Clinton have the moral right to run for the most important position, i.e. the Presidency? Without interesting debate and with the wacky occurrence of an agitator coupled with an actor like Donald Trump, aren’t these American elections the reflection of a regression for a nation like the United States?

The upcoming presidential election is indeed embarrassing for a democracy. I’m less concerned about Hillary Clinton’s weaknesses than I am about the strength of Trump, Cruz, Rubio, and others on the Republican side. The reasons are probably obvious: their appeal to the worst instincts and values of many Americans; their disregard for science and intellectual life in general; their racism and militarism; the ease with which they lie and avoid straightforward answers to questions; and their lack of experience at governing. It would be a catastrophe if any of these people were elected; but even if they are not—and I don’t believe they will be—the very fact that they have had some success at attracting voters is bad news for the country, now and in the future.

You advocate a consensus between China, the United States of America and Russia, while others call for war. Do you think the camp of consensus and cooperation between the nations in peace and respect can hold against the ambitions of the military-industrial complex?

It will be increasingly difficult to make the case for serious engagement between the US and China and Russia in the near future. China is increasingly seen as the principal US security concern, and Russia is already in the enemy camp. Russia will be even more difficult to engage than China because of Putin’s personality and ambitions, and especially because Russia lacks the kinds of official and unofficial (NGO and people-to-people) connections with the US that China has. The role of military-industrial complexes in all three countries is, of course, a major obstacle to cooperation. But narrow nationalism is also an obstacle that one can see operating, for example, in disputes in Ukraine, Syria, and the South China Sea.

You qualify Netanyahu enemy of peace. Why, in your opinion, the United States maintain so close ties with Israel?

As many observers have said over the years, US ties with Israel are the result of several enduring factors: the role of the US in the establishment of Israel in 1948; the pro-Israel lobby in Washington; and Israel’s geopolitical position in the Middle East. Even though US relations with Israel have been very strained by Netanyahu’s bullying behavior—which goes back to the time when he challenged Yitzhak Rabin after the Oslo Accords were signed—it is hard to imagine that security and other ties with Israel will fundamentally change. Simply put, there is no strong constituency in the US for the Palestinians, and even though many American Jews are critical of Israeli policies, there are not enough to compel a change of US policy by a president or a Congress. Netanyahu, of course, knows this, and exploits it, enabling him to avoid a genuine peace with the Palestinians while being able to count on US military support.

Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen

Who is the professor Mel Gurtov?

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and International Studies at Portland State University, Oregon, and Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international quarterly. Gurtov previously served on the staff of the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif. (1966-71), where he was a co-author of the Pentagon Papers, and at the University of California, Riverside (1971-86), where he was professor of political science. He has published over twenty books and numerous articles on East Asian affairs, U.S. foreign policy, and global politics from a human-interest perspective. His most recent books are Will This Be China’s Century? A Skeptic’s View (Lynne Rienner, 2013); Global Politics in the Human Interest, 5th ed. (Lynne Rienner, 2007); Superpower on Crusade: The Bush Doctrine in US Foreign Policy(Lynne Rienner, 2006); and Confronting the Bush Doctrine: Critical Perspectives from Asia-Pacific, co-edited with Peter Van Ness (Routledge, 2005).

Mel Gurtov regularly visits Asia, where he has been a visiting professor and Senior Fulbright Scholar—at Waseda University in Tokyo and Hankuk Foreign Studies University in Seoul—and has lectured at universities and research institutes in South Korea, Japan, and China. He is fluent in Chinese.

His blog on foreign affairs, “In the Human Interest,” is at:

Published in Oximity, January 16, 2016:

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