Jeff Jacoby

Is there an idiom in Arabic for cutting off your nose to spite your face? Saudi Arabia's abrupt rejection on October 18 of the UN Security Council seat to which it had just been elected was described as "bizarre" and "baffling," a "perplexing" decision that that left diplomats "gasping" and was "met with incredulity." No member of the United Nations had ever done such a thing, and the Saudi government's explanation was about as subtle as an uppercut.

"The … double standards existing in the Security Council prevent it from performing its duties and assuming its responsibilities," the Foreign Ministry charged angrily, and the results have been "continued disruption of peace and security, the expansion of the injustices against peoples, the violation of rights, and the spread of conflicts and wars."

It was even more stinging in its indictment of the recent Security Council resolution that effectively immunized Syrian dictator Bashar Assad from Western retaliation for his poison-gas massacre in August:

"Allowing the ruling regime in Syria to kill its people and burn them with chemical weapons in front of the entire world and without any deterrent or punishment is clear proof and evidence of the UN Security Council's inability to perform its duties," the Saudis seethed.

Yet if Saudi Arabia really wanted to fix the Security Council's glaring flaws, why would it spurn the seat it had long coveted? Denying itself a voice and a vote on the UN's most influential body seems a poor strategy for reform. The Saudis' sudden about-face — which almost surely was ordered by King Abdullah himself — was certainly dramatic. But what was it supposed to accomplish?

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for