In protest against Saudi Arabia’s military-targeting procedures in Yemen, the White House is suspending some arms transfers to the Kingdom. But rhetoric aside, it’s a half-hearted move.
The U.S. will continue supporting refueling missions for Saudi jets that are striking Houthi-rebel targets. And the close relationship of the U.S. and Saudi militaries and intelligence services will continue.
The problem, however, is that this half-hearted approach will hurt American interests more than Saudi Arabia’s. The Saudis (both moderates and hardliners) will see the ban as a rejection of friendship in favor of scorn. In Western terms, that perception is delusional, but our perceptions don’t matter. What matters is that in Saudi culture, Obama’s decision will generate negative responses.
First off, it’s clear that Obama’s decision isn’t really about Saudi Arabia. Instead, it’s an Obama-style olive branch to the constituents who matter to his legacy: the liberal donor class and Iranian moderates. Obama knows that liberal non-governmental organizations in the U.S. are increasingly troubled by Saudi operations in Yemen. These groups, quite rightly, have noted that the Saudis, as they target Houthi rebels, are callously disregarding civilians. By banning some arms supplies, Obama thus presents an image of courage while he is, in fact, delaying major action. It’s liberal-legacy magic. On the Iranian angle, Obama believes that he can empower the moderates by showing that he is willing to criticize Iran’s existential enemy. Doing so, he hopes, shows that he’s willing to compromise and that he honestly desires a new era in U.S.–Iranian relations. Building greater trust between our two nations might dilute the powerful hatred of the Iranian hardliners.
Unfortunately, Obama’s wishes are the opposite of true realism. For a start, everyone knows that the Saudis don’t care about civilian casualties in Yemen. To be sure, the Saudi military is less barbaric than the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and intelligence service (who revel in civilian terrorism — see Lebanon), but they are no saints. The Saudi ruling class view Yemen as a sectarian battleground for Islam and the House of Saud. Civilian death is acceptable.
Understanding that sick perspective is key to understanding the conflict. The American relationship with Saudi requires a strategic calculation that Obama seems incapable of. We cannot allow the worst elements of the Saudi regime to define our policy. To do so would be to ensure that the House of Saud sinks into chaos. Saudi economic and demographic trends do not bode well. Saudi Arabia is a desert kingdom populated by a lot of angry young men who lack opportunities for social or economic advancement. As the oil runs dry (displaced by shale), Saudi Arabia’s population will be increasingly ripe for manipulation by geriatric Wahhabi clerics. Such men believe that women are at best a necessary scourge, and they view totalitarian xenophobia as their defining purpose. But while the Wahhabi hardliners are a real threat, their realist Saudi counterparts are also omnipresent. We must engage with the latter element to dilute the power of the former. This is realism — imperfect but positive.
Nevertheless, the extremists won’t be the only victors here. Russia will also score success from this. Russia’s grand strategy in the Middle East seeks the displacement of U.S. power and the ascendance of a Russian mercantilist empire that would absorb oil-rich states. By embarrassing the Saudi elites and failing to challenge Putin, Obama is pushing the region into Russian hands.
#related#But let me be clear: Saudi malfeasance is real. The Saudis have funded terrorists and continue to fund extremism. And their political culture is broken. But we should not ignore the need to deal with that political culture. And, in suspending arms shipments to the Saudis, Obama is doing just that. The move strikes at a Saudi nerve without doing any good for the United States.
Of course, Obama’s misunderstanding is not surprising. As we see in the ruins of Aleppo, American realism under this president has been subjugated to a fetishist pursuit of his legacy.
History will not record that legacy kindly.