One of the sad facts of maintaining a role as a world policeman is that you have to keep some pretty scurvy company. That's fine if you're all-in with your imperial ambitions, like ancient Rome. Then local cruelties, corruption, and barbarities are only a concern if they get in the way of tribute and securing a Hun-free border. But if you've built your nominal national identity as an un-empire that champions liberty, democracy, and the open society, those associations can become awkward. One week you're celebrating the freedom to speak freely and scrutinize rules and rulers without fear of retaliation, and then you find yourself, once again, voicing unconvincing shock that a long-time ally is retaliating against one of its citizens for speaking and scrutinizing.
So it is when you get chummy with Saudi Arabia, an authoritarian monarchy with a long history of doing all sorts of things the United States supposedly opposes.
Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashes for "insulting Islam" and already the unhappy recipient of 50 of them (pictured), is only the latest inconvenience in the decades-long U.S.-Saudi relationship. Badawi would have faced execution had he been found guilty of apostasy—unbelievably, brutal judicial flogging is a somewhat merciful outcome in his case. Assuming he survives. Hamza Kashgari also faced execution for tweeting disfavored religious thoughts, though he "only" spent two years in prison, without trial.
Saudi Arabia's medieval laws and penalties are deeply rooted in the country's official Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, which is a less than tolerant theology by any standard. It's an intolerance that not only taints the kingdom, but has been exported abroad. Writing just months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Cato Institute's Ted Galen Carpenter noted:
The Saudi government has been the principal financial backer of Afghanistan' s odious Taliban movement since at least 1996. It has also channeled funds to Hamas and other groups that have committed terrorist acts in Israel and other portions of the Middle East.
Worst of all, the Saudi monarchy has funded dubious schools and "charities" throughout the Islamic world. Those organizations have been hotbeds of anti-Western, and especially, anti-American, indoctrination. The schools, for example, not only indoctrinate students in a virulent and extreme form of Islam, but also teach them to hate secular Western values.
Carpenter insisted, "if Washington is serious…it ought to regard Saudi Arabia as a prime sponsor of international terrorism."
Since then, having been on the receiving of some terrorist acts spawned by the intolerance it employs at home and shares abroad, the Saudi government has hedged its bets a bit. It now funds some antiterrorism efforts and makes an effort to discourage terrorist ties. Which is a good thing.
But Saudi Arabia isn't just a country with an unpleasant government in a world full of too many such places. It remains a throwback kingdom that enjoys very tight relations with the government of the world's leading liberal democracy. The kingdom makes enormous purchases of arms directly from the United States government. The United States also provides training and support for the Saudi Arabian National Guard in the name of "regional stability."
The association makes the United States government look just a bit less than sincere when it touts peace, free speech, and elections. The contrast between the rhetoric and the reality of floggings and beheadings is hard to reconcile.
Americans in their private actions should be free to associate and do business with Saudis as they do with people who live under all sorts of regimes, nasty, decent, and in between. But now, as Saudi Arabia makes the transition to what Emma Ashford describes in The National Interest as a "new leader; same medieval state," the U.S. government should take the opportunity to end the policy of supporting a regime that sees beating as a merciful alternative to execution for those who voice the occasional words of dissent.