National Security & Defense

Overkill in Riyadh

After sending no one to Paris, Obama sends a crowd to Saudi Arabia.

Did the king of Saudi Arabia just die, or was it Winston Churchill?

It is fitting that the United States send a delegation to express condolences upon the death of a Saudi king. We are reasonably close allies and have been since President Franklin Roosevelt met King Abd-al Aziz in 1945. The Saudis have influence over world oil markets and we share with them the desire to oppose Iranian expansionism and jihadi forces like the Islamic State.

So, send the vice president and secretary of state. Maybe add a Republican or two.

Or just send the president himself, to make the point that we value the relationship and want to continue or improve it.

But the Obama delegation is simply ridiculous. The New York Times describes it:

Joining the president will be his Republican opponent from 2008, Senator John McCain of Arizona, and several veterans of past Republican administrations, including two former secretaries of state, James A. Baker III and Condoleezza Rice, and two former national security advisers, Brent Scowcroft and Stephen J. Hadley. . . . Also Secretary of State John Kerry; John O. Brennan, the director of the C.I.A.; and Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of the United States Central Command. . . . Senator Mark Warner of Virginia and Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Ami Bera of California and Eliot L. Engel and Joseph Crowley of New York. . . . Mr. Obama’s delegation includes a number of current and former officials who have worked with Prince Mohammed and his colleagues on terrorism issues, including Mr. Brennan; Lisa Monaco, the president’s counterterrorism adviser; Joseph W. Westphal, the ambassador to Riyadh; Samuel Berger, a former national security adviser to President Bill Clinton; and Frances Fragos Townsend, a former counterterrorism adviser to President George W. Bush.

The late King Abdullah was a pious man and undertook certain reforms, like establishing one co-ed university. But this crowd of U.S. officials will be visiting a country where women like Ms. Townsend and Ms. Monaco and Dr. Rice and Ms. Pelosi would be jailed for the crime of driving a car. In his 15 years of ruling the place, the late king did nothing to change that. Two weeks ago a Saudi blogger was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and the first 50 were actually imposed. Will our delegation mention that? How about voting? When Abdullah began ruling (as crown prince, when King Fahd became senile) in 1995, Saudis could not vote in any national election because there were no parliamentary bodies, not even fake ones, to vote for. When he died 20 years later, there were still none. Abdullah was in his way a reformer (for example, appointing women to the consultative Shura Council), and was widely respected in the kingdom, but let’s not exaggerate. He was not a historic figure.

So what’s with this huge delegation? It’s a ridiculous case of overkill, perhaps an effort to make up for the number of high-level U.S. officials whom the president sent to join the march in Paris after the terrorist killings there: zero. The Obama White House cannot seem to get these things right — too much, too little, zero, overkill — even now in its seventh year.

Practically speaking, this huge delegation may get into the room with the new King Salman, but that room (most likely the majlis chamber in the royal palace in Riyadh) is gigantic and only the first couple of people seated near the president will even hear the conversation. The rest will sit there, stare at the bank of about 20 television screens the late king had installed, and start thinking about lunch.

Does the president think such a big delegation will scare Iran or the Islamic State? Does he think it will warm the hearts of all Saudis? Wrong and wrong again; it is more likely to leave the impression that Obama is very nervous about U.S.-Saudi relations. Yes, we are paying our respects to the late king, but the weight of the delegation is not measured in numbers. A small delegation consisting of Obama, Clinton, and Bush (ok, maybe Carter too) would have made a far greater impression. But perhaps the White House feared having those guys around would steal some of the Obama limelight.

— Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.


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