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Why the Middle East Policies Favored by Sanders and Warren Would Be Counterproductive

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a session of the Shura Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 19, 2018. (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via Reuters)
Saudi Arabia is perhaps the worst possible place to test a progressive foreign policy.

As Democrats prepare for their second round of presidential-primary debates this week, many of the contenders for the nomination are rolling out their foreign-policy platforms to try to pass the commander-in-chief test. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who are competing to emerge as the standard-bearer of the party’s progressives, are at the head of that pack and have already given major speeches about global affairs. Unfortunately, their Middle East policies would be disastrous for the United States and would empower the very autocracies they claim to oppose.

Sanders and Warren have landed on strikingly similar foreign-policy stances. Both candidates would reorient American foreign policy toward defending embattled democracies against autocracies that are meddling in elections worldwide and are harnessing social media to turbocharge their traditional propaganda and misinformation activities. Both also believe that it is vitally important to ensure that American foreign and domestic policies work in greater harmony to benefit the American people.

Sanders, who in the 2016 primary was completely untroubled by the similarity of his and Donald Trump’s NATO policies, has this time around chosen Saudi Arabia as his foreign-policy test case and as the issue on which he intends to draw a contrast with Trump. Accordingly, he’s gone after the House of Saud hammer and tongs, cosponsoring legislation to pare back U.S. support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen and announcing that “it is time for us to thoroughly re-evaluate that relationship” with Riyadh. Warren has followed suit.

That this stance is politically popular is not surprising. The American desire to embrace democratic ideals in their foreign policy and to oppose autocracy dates back at least as far as Thomas Jefferson’s sympathy for the French Revolution. Moreover, the Saudis have never been ideologically comfortable partners: Their regime’s principles are alien to most Americans, their support for Wahhabism is dangerous, and their human-rights record is gruesome. Even relatively moderate Democratic candidates such as former vice president Joe Biden have proclaimed their distaste for the Saudis.

The problem with the progressive approach championed by Sanders and Warren is that it will only make Saudi behavior worse, and cause an eruption of suffering across the Middle East that harms core U.S. interests.

The Saudis see their conflict with Iran as an existential struggle and will not give it up merely because of a scolding from Washington. They have historically preferred to operate in the background and let their proxies fight in their stead. That they have sent their own military into Yemen is clear evidence of how afraid they are of being encircled by Iran and its allies. If the United States were to visibly distance itself from the Saudis, the Iranians would not hesitate to step up their attacks. And if that happens, the entire Middle East could quickly become a Syria-like war zone.

In their desperation, the Saudis would turn to other partners for weapons and support. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has already cooperated with Russia on oil-production cuts and previous weapons sales, and he would have no problem deepening his relationship with the Kremlin if he needed to. China, which has sold weapons to the Saudis since the 1980s and recently opened a naval base in nearby Djibouti, is another logical partner. Gifting Russia and China a new strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia would, needless to say, not serve America’s interests well.

For some, expunging the taint of the Saudis from the U.S. alliance system may be worth the price. After all, as our reliance on Middle Eastern oil continues to decrease, the region has come to matter less for the United States, right?

Not if Sanders and Warren get their way. They both want to slash U.S. energy production, leaving the country more reliant on Saudi oil. After Warren announced her opposition to fracking on federal land, Sanders called and raised by announcing that he would “ban fracking nationwide.”

Since the summer of 2008, when oil traded close to $150 per barrel — currently, it’s sitting around $65 per barrel — U.S. fracking has brought around 8 million barrels per day of crude oil to global markets, or the same amount by which the global supply has increased. Today, the abundance is so great that even with chaos in major oil-producing countries such as Venezuela and Libya and a military standoff in the Persian Gulf, market analysts are concerned that the price of oil will stay too low. A fracking ban would undo all of that, pushing global production below summer-2008 levels and pushing prices up.

And who would be best positioned to reap the benefits of that massive cut in production? Saudi Arabia, and other energy-producing behemoths such as Russia.

Sanders and Warren are certainly correct that U.S. policymakers would do well to integrate domestic and foreign policy more closely. But if they think their Saudi proposals would accomplish that goal, they’re in for a rude awakening: The Middle East is where a progressive foreign policy goes to die.

Mike Watson is the associate director of the Center for the Future of Liberal Society at the Hudson Institute.

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