Shadow Government

Sex, the Saudis, and selling out

Reports of a Saudi diplomat seeking asylum in the United States because his government learned that he was gay and had a relationship with a Jewish woman highlights the vast cultural gap and the uneasy partnership that exists between Washington and Riyadh. Since the onset of the Cold War, and, more recently, in the seemingly ...

Reports of a Saudi diplomat seeking asylum in the United States because his government learned that he was gay and had a relationship with a Jewish woman highlights the vast cultural gap and the uneasy partnership that exists between Washington and Riyadh. Since the onset of the Cold War, and, more recently, in the seemingly endless war on terrorism (or whatever euphemism is employed for the conflict with Islamic extremists), the United States has consistently given higher priority to its national security and economic interests than to the human rights and freedoms that it holds dear. This policy, which, with a few periodic exceptions, has been bipartisan for over a half century, invariably outrages those on the Left, who in any event have little sympathy for U.S. security or economic policies.

Most policymakers recognize the dilemma they face: yet, like Winston Churchill, who hated Communists but was prepared to ally himself with Stalin to defeat Hitler, they accept that circumstances will dictate whether, and for how long, one must, in Churchill’s famous term, "sleep with the devil." In the case of the Saudi diplomat, however, it is not merely a matter of deciding whether to accommodate an ally whose domestic laws differ so radically from ours. For Saudi Arabia is not at all unique in legislating against homosexuality.

Ali Ahmad Asseri, first secretary of the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles, certainly must have been aware that his liaisons not only would terminate his career, but could cost him his life. Yet Saudi Arabia is not the only state that punishes homosexuality with death; six others do as well, including not only Muslim partners involved in the conflict against Islamic extremists, such as Yemen, Mauretania and the United Arab Emirates, but also Nigeria, with its almost evenly mixed Muslim-Christian population. Moreover, it was not until 1872 that South Carolina became the last state of the Union to abolish the death penalty for sodomy, and sodomy laws remained on the books of many states until 2002.

Uganda’s legislature debated the death penalty for homosexuals as recently as last year; that country already has in its books a penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment for homosexual activity. Indeed, approximately 65 other states still have some punishment for homosexuality. Whatever one thinks of its policies, Riyadh is within its rights to demand the return of its diplomat; it is only doing what over 70 other countries would do.

Washington therefore faces an extremely serious dilemma. If it sends Asseri home, and he is killed, there will be outrage, not only in the United States but especially in Western Europe. On the other hand, if it grants him asylum, it will be opening the door for diplomats representing the majority of the world’s states who may declare themselves gay and then seek asylum in America. That may not be a precedent that the United States wishes to set for itself, especially in light of the strong feelings over an issue that continues to divide the American electorate.

An Iranian diplomat serving in Finland has just applied for political asylum in that country, while Norway recently granted political asylum to one of his colleagues serving in Oslo. Iran is hardly an ally of either state, however. Moreover, homosexuality does not appear to have been the issue in either case, nor is it in any event as politically charged in Scandinavia as it is in the United States.

Riyadh might yet be willing to turn a blind eye to its errant diplomat and allow him to seek asylum elsewhere; it would be interesting to see which, if any, Western European state would be prepared to take him. Alternately, Washington could reach an understanding with Saudi Arabia that Mr. Asseri will be sent home to be imprisoned without harsh treatment, rather than put to death. That may not be an ideal solution, but at least the man’s life would be spared.

Nevertheless, because homosexuality is such a controversial issue, nothing Washington does will satisfy everyone. On the other hand, it should be recalled that even many on the Left chose to remain silent and continued to advocate for aid to Uganda even as it debated the death penalty for gays. If Washington is indeed to pursue a mutlilateralist national security policy, it cannot expect its allies to share all or even some of its values. Those who reject unilateralism may therefore have to swallow hard, and, as they did a year ago over Uganda, gnash their teeth in silence should the United States and Saudi Arabia reach a less-than-perfect accommodation to determine Asseri’s fate.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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