Foreign leaders believe President Obama is an arrogant and unreliable ally. Conversely, President Obama believes he’s on an inexorable path toward history-book glory. But one striking facet of the president’s foreign policy is the reciprocal disdain now defining America’s relationships in the Middle East. Consider Saudi Arabia. Visiting the Sunni kingdom yesterday, President Obama received the diplomatic equivalent of a one-fingered salute. Breaking with Arab custom, King Salman failed to greet the American president at Riyadh airport. It was a deliberate and significant insult. And while pathetic, the slight epitomizes the crisis in U.S.–Saudi relations.
It’s a crisis with two key sources: President Obama’s policies toward Iran and Syria. In Syria, Putin, Assad, Iran, and ISIS have turned that country into a dystopian factory for Sunni despair. Repeatedly outmaneuvering President Obama, President Putin has smashed U.S. credibility. The diplomatic routine is reliably circular: President Obama pushes for cease-fire, Putin accepts, Putin then breaks the cease-fire and demands further U.S. concessions. President Obama then yields and breaks commitments he’s made to the Sunni monarchies.
Things are similar vis-à-vis the Iran nuclear deal. Iran has won hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and continues to develop ballistic missiles. President Obama may get his history-book entry, but how will it read? When the ballistic breakthrough comes, Iran will reconstitute its enrichment activities. Forget “sanctions snapback”: The EU won’t sacrifice lucrative Iranian business deals. Put simply, President Obama’s strategy toward Iran reflects an utter repudiation of realism. That infuriates the Saudis.
Of course, this is not to say that the House of Saud is a good ally to America or to our values. Indeed, whether it’s continued Saudi funding of a repellant Sunni supremacist ideology, the kingdom’s previous funding of al-Qaeda, its empowerment of grotesque woman-beaters who hide under veils of false moral virtue, or its systematic persecution of the nation’s Shia minority, the opposite is true. Nevertheless, America’s failure to constructively engage with Saudi Arabia would be a disaster. That’s because, absent U.S. influence, Saudi Arabia will inevitably slide into destructive sectarian paranoia — exactly what is occurring at this moment. As I’ve depressingly noted, rather than constraining extremism, President Obama’s Middle East strategy encourages the kingdom to resume its pre-2003 strategy of using jihadists as proxies. We must alter course.
#share#An America that cultivated the respect of Saudi Arabia rather than its disdain could, for example, encourage it to provide greater financial support to moderate Sunni political movements (instead of extremists) in Beirut, counterbalancing Hezbollah, and to undertake domestic reform efforts in the kingdom. The potential here is real: Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Muhammed bin Nayef, and its foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, are proven allies to America, sworn enemies of al-Qaeda, and leaders with the capacity to move Saudi Arabia toward reforms and a stable future. But if we do not engage with these moderates, their voices will be drowned out by the geriatric fundamentalists.
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Many hardline Wahhabists still lurk in Riyadh suburbs such as Diriyah, and they know that a political battle for the future of Saudi Arabia is inevitable. With oil prices declining steadily, the kingdom’s ability to buy the patronage of its people can’t last forever. Correspondingly, the kingdom will either reform and offer new opportunities to its people or it will collapse into religious fanaticism. Saudi Arabia is mostly desert, its economy is utterly dependent on government spending, and its society is insular and repressed — and 70 percent of its population is under 30. In short, unreformed, Saudi Arabia would give birth to a hundred Islamic States, armed with nuclear weapons.
From Baghdad to Beirut to Sana’a, Iran is now waging overt war on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep.
But for America to re-establish that respect, and to strengthen Saudi moderates, we will need to be bolder in checking Iran. From Baghdad to Beirut to Sana’a, Iran is now waging overt war on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep. Determined to establish gimp-proxy regimes across the region, the Iranian hardliners are intimidating moderate Sunni and Shia political movements into submission. Iran’s export of Shia insurgencies is viewed by King Salman as a battlefield encirclement and an existential threat. Just as ISIS’s rise was enabled by Sunni political disenfranchisement in Baghdad, Saudi extremism would be the natural consequence of an unchecked Iran.
America must engage with Saudi Arabia and help it tamp down the smoldering fires that threaten the regime. If we do nothing, it won’t be the Arabian Peninsula alone that burns. That fire will spread, as ISIS has, to our streets.