The world's focus, which increasingly suffers from attention deficit disorder, has shifted to Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi has been named winner of that country's first-ever truly democratic presidential election. Already consigned to yesterday's forgotten news is the passing of Saudi Arabia's Prince Nayef, and the succession of his younger brothers Prince Salman and Prince Ahmed respectively, to the positions of Crown Prince and Interior Minister. The changes in Riyadh should not be so quickly forgotten, however, for they portend more of the same in Saudi Arabia, with potentially significant implications both for the balance of power in the Arabian Gulf and relations with the United States.
The passing of Prince Nayef, just nine months after the death of his older brother and predecessor as Crown Prince, Prince Sultan, is even more rapid than the turnover in the Soviet leadership during the period 1982-1985. At that time, Leonid Brezhnev was succeeded first by Yuri Andropov, and then when Andropov suddenly passed away just two years later, by Konstantin Chernenko, who died thirteen months after taking office. Prince Sultan also held the post of Defense Minister -- Prince Salman succeeded him in that role, and remains Defense Minister. Prince Salman, who is 76, and has already suffered a stroke, may nevertheless remain active for a decade or more; King Abdullah is 88, after all. Still one wonders how long the current generation of Saudi princes will remain at the helm of the country that was united and founded 80 years ago by their father, King Abdul Aziz.
Unlike Prince Nayef, whose cooperation with the United States against al Qaeda and related terrorists never got in the way of his conservative, indeed fundamentalist, unease regarding all things Western, Prince Salman has the reputation of being a more open-minded and forward-looking (though cautious) individual, evidently cut from the same cloth as King Abdullah. In addition, during his tenure at the Defense Ministry, he has presided over the largest-yet arms purchase from the United States, totaling $90 billion, up from an announced $60 billion at the end of 2011. These purchases include both aircrafts and ships, the latter to modernize the Eastern Fleet, headquartered at Jubail, in the heart of the Saudi oil rich Shia populated Eastern Province.
Both the air and naval deals had been contemplated for years, but nothing was finalized until Prince Salman took the helm of the Defense Ministry after Prince Sultan's passing. The decision to undertake both deals is crucial for the preservation of an American industrial base that is already reeling in the wake of U.S. Department of Defense budget cuts. It reflects the newly named Crown Prince's readiness to maintain the close military ties that characterize U.S.-Saudi relations. The French had tried every possible means, including visits by President Sarkozy, to win the navy contract.
Equally important, the fact that Prince Salman decided upon both contracts so quickly after assuming office points to a degree of decisiveness not seen in the Saudi defense ministry for some time. (The decision to send troops to Bahrain was made at a much higher level). This too bodes well for the United States.
Standing behind Prince Salman in the line of succession are Prince Ahmed, promoted to Interior Minister in succession to Prince Nayef, and who is in his early seventies and behind him, informed Saudis believe, Prince Mukhtar, who is in his sixties. The latter probably represents the transition to the next generation of Saudi leaders. With so much turmoil in the region, the smooth Saudi transition is to be welcomed. Hopefully when the time for another such transition takes place, it will be equally smooth.
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In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama jumped from issue to issue. At times, in all this leaping, he found himself on the opposite side of a stance he had taken minutes before.
Early on, he claimed success on his bailout of the auto industry (continuing a policy launched by Pres. Bush) and claimed it was a model that could be replicated:
"On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen...We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back. What's happening in Detroit can happen in other industries. It can happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh."
Then, minutes later:
"It's time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bailouts, no handouts, and no copouts. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody."
One of the most striking themes of a generally hodgepodge speech was strong skepticism about trade. The president fully embraced the "lump of labor" fallacy, in which one imagines a fixed number of jobs in the world that are simply slung back and forth across oceans.
"Let's remember how we got here. Long before the recession, jobs and manufacturing began leaving our shores…we have a huge opportunity, at this moment, to bring manufacturing back. But we have to seize it. Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed."
The strong implication is that the rest of the world has been booming, enjoying all those factory jobs they swiped from us. It's difficult to find that in the data. But the president promised to chase down foreign wrongdoers with a new Trade Enforcement Unit.
He claimed previous efforts at trade enforcement, such as his tariffs on Chinese tire imports, had saved American jobs (1,000, in that case). This is interesting on several counts. First, he made the claim in the context of saying that "I will not stand by when our competitors don't play by the rules." Yet the Chinese tire tariffs case never even alleged wrongdoing on the part of the Chinese. They were just selling at low prices.
Second, other observers have generally found no evidence those tariffs did anything to help American workers. The U.S. China Business Council, in a study, concluded:
"U.S. imports of the low-end tires involved in the case have actually increased substantially since the tariffs were imposed -- but have shifted from China to other countries. And, there is no objective evidence that the tariff boosted U.S. tire manufacturing jobs."
A Wall Street Journal report last week reached a similar conclusion. In order to be fair, the Journal offered the administration the chance to rebut, but reported: "Spokespeople at the ITC, the Commerce Department, and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative say they have no comprehensive analysis yet of the broad effect that the tariff has had." That was last week. So how did the President determine that 1,000 jobs were saved?
The third point on this illuminating case is that -- even if his numbers were right -- the president thinks it would be a successful policy to charge tens of millions of Americans more for their tires if it protected 1,000 jobs. That's a fairly stark statement in favor of protectionism.
So much for what the president did say. What about the things he did not say? He made no mention of his vaunted Trans-Pacific Partnership. Recall that two months ago, in Hawaii, this was a pillar of his administration's turn back to Asia. It is a highly ambitious undertaking and would require a huge administration effort, in close collaboration with Congress, if it were to conclude this year. The State of the Union is traditionally where an administration sets out its priorities for the year ahead. Yet not a mention.
Nor did the president say anything about the economic crisis in Europe. One hears that the White House considers it the biggest threat looming over a nascent U.S. recovery. If the president were truly trying to describe the State of the Union, Europe's predicament would seem to deserve some serious mention.
But it would fit awkwardly in a campaign speech and was thus, presumably, omitted. The topic, after all, seems to highlight the potential dangers of excessive borrowing, as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels demonstrated in his response:
"In our economic stagnation and indebtedness, we are only a short distance behind Greece, Spain, and other European countries now facing economic catastrophe. But ours is a fortunate land. Because the world uses our dollar for trade, we have a short grace period to deal with our dangers. But time is running out, if we are to avoid the fate of Europe, and those once-great nations of history that fell from the position of world leadership."
That's certainly not an image the president wanted to invoke, as he moved on to a grab bag of new spending proposals and as his administration delays the release of his budget.
Thus, the state of our union: we're in campaign mode.
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Iran's alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington was brazen, sloppy, but, regrettably, entirely plausible. While its tactics vary, the Iranian regime has engaged in direct terrorist attacks in the past, and recent events in the Middle East and changes to Iran's own military command and control structure have raised the likelihood of such attacks. The Obama Administration will be careful to avoid a war of escalation with the regime, but should resist the temptation to confine its response to sanctions.
On its face, the details of the Iranian plot seem amateurish and provoke deep skepticism. An Iranian-American who claims his cousin is a "big general" in Iran makes contact with what he thinks is a Mexican drug gang to blow up a Washington restaurant in a frantic effort to assassinate the Saudi ambassador, heedless of the innocents who will surely perish or the risk of US retaliation. This hardly seems to fit the modus operandi of the Quds Force, the external operations arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Quds Force has recently tended to operate below the radar, through trusted proxies such as Hezbollah, and while its activities are global, it concentrates its most nefarious activities in Iran's immediate environs, most notably Iraq.
Nevertheless, this conventional wisdom glosses over a significant variability in the IRGC's tactics. In Iraq, Quds Force commanders have been caught red-handed aiding militants. This includes Mohsen Chizari, the Quds Force operations chief who was caught and released by US and Iraqi forces in Baghdad in 2006 and was more recently designated by recent US sanctions for aiding the Assad regime's crackdown. Further in the past, the IRGC did the dirty work itself in bombing the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994. One of the Iranians wanted for that attack is Iran's current defense minister, and another ran unsuccessfully against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the presidency in 2009.
Recent developments may have spurred the IRGC to return to such tactics. While Iran initially seemed buoyed by the uprisings in the Arab world, which it touted as anti-American, Islamic revolutions, the regime was stung by events in Bahrain. The GCC, led by Saudi Arabia, successfully intervened in Bahrain to shore up the Khalifa monarchy against a largely Shiite uprising, while Iran -- which sees itself as defender of Shiite communities worldwide and occasionally asserts an old Persian territorial claim to Bahrain -- stood by impotently. This humiliation may have convinced the regime of the need to act. And the Saudi ambassador may have been seen in Tehran as a fitting target, as he is a close confidant of King Abdullah and a key conduit between Saudi Arabia and the United States, two powers whose hands the paranoid Iranian regime sees in all of its troubles.
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The floodgates of Arab diplomatic restraint on Syria have finally been breached. In the past few days, both the Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab League issued their first official statements on the situation, expressing alarm at the Syrian government's excessive use of force and calling for an immediate end to violence. Even more important, the Gulf's most influential leader, Saudi Arabia's plainspoken King Abdullah, followed up with his own personal blast at the Assad regime, declaring that "What is happening in Syria is not acceptable to Saudi Arabia" and calling for a stop to "the killing machine." For good measure, the King recalled his ambassador from Damascus, a step immediately echoed by Kuwait and Bahrain. (Fellow GCC member, Qatar, actually closed its embassy last month).
True, none of the various statements called on Assad to step down. All urged the regime to implement meaningful reforms immediately. But don't be fooled. For the extraordinarily cautious Abdullah to move out against Assad so aggressively -- after almost five months of sitting idly on the sidelines -- is a sure sign that he's betting the Syrian tyrant's days are numbered.
The final straw for the Saudis appeared to be Assad's Ramadan Rampage, during which Syrian troops have laid waste to the cities of Hama and Deir az-Zour. Up to 300 civilians may have been slaughtered, making it by far the deadliest week of the five month old uprising, where the death toll now stands in excess of 2,000 souls. And no doubt most distressing of all for the Saudi monarch is the fact that the vast majority of the victims are fellow Sunnis.
Weeks ago, a senior Saudi official told me that, from the beginning of the Syrian upheaval, the King has believed that regime change would be highly beneficial to Saudi interests, particularly vis a vis the Iranian threat. "The King knows that other than the collapse of the Islamic Republic itself, nothing would weaken Iran more than losing Syria."
When pressed on why, then, the Saudis' response to the crisis had been so passive, my interlocutor essentially pinned the blame on uncertainty over U.S. policy. Risk-averse under the best of circumstances, the Saudis, he said, were especially loathe to take on the Iranian-Syrian axis on such an existential issue absent assurances of America's determination to see Assad gone. At least at that point in early July, the Saudis still claimed to "have no idea what outcome Obama really wants in Syria and what his strategy is to achieve it."
Little noticed amidst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) support for a U.N. no-fly zone in Libya on March 13th was another endorsement for the use of military force: deployment of GCC military and police forces to Bahrain. The choice of Gulf governments to have as their first military operation the repression of peaceful advocacy for political change is ominous.
For the past two decades, American governments have encouraged the countries of the GCC to make good on the "cooperation" part of their organization. The overwhelming tendency of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar has instead been to criticize American policies in public while supporting them in private. Only with the alarming progress of Iran's nuclear programs has cooperation between GCC states advanced to include any significant military cooperation.
The GCC's Peninsula Shield Force was created to "deter, and respond to, military aggression against any of the GCC member countries." But the Bahraini government is not subject to military aggression -- it is under "attack" by its own citizens, peacefully protesting for political rights.
In fairness, the government of Bahrain has offered an expansion of political rights in response to the protests. But as autocrats from the Shah of Iran to Hosni Mubarak could attest, offers that would earlier have mollified reformers can embolden resistance once the invisible line from reform to revolution has been crossed.
The monarchies of the GCC states claim agitation for political change is the product of Iranian influence, an effort by to radicalize and destabilize their countries. And they may not be wrong about Iranian efforts: Shi'ia Iran has long sought to delegitimize those Sunni regimes, supported seizure of the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia in 1979, infiltrated Iraq to foment anti-government violence, and openly supported destruction by Hamas and Hezbollah. But the GCC governments deceive themselves about the depth of popular support for political change in their countries.
It is not clear if Bahraini government initiatives have come too late for political change to be successful in defanging the revolution. But it is clear that even as they support international action to assist rebels in Libya, the autocrats of the Gulf Cooperation Council will cooperate to repress peaceful dissent in their own countries, and that will make their governments more brittle and unreliable as partners for the United States. It matters that GCC governments acted in concert, because it now aligns them all against peaceful political change. And they will be utilizing American and European military equipment and training to repress their own citizens. That really is a victory for Iran.
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Events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and to a lesser extent Jordan have led both administration officials and the chattering classes to conclude that democracy is on the march in the Middle East. Having once again been caught by surprise by events overseas -- one wonders where our intelligence agencies have been hiding -- the Obama administration is now trying to push itself into the forefront of those seeking democratic change in the region.
Yet it was not democracy that led a young Tunisian to immolate himself and, apart from English-speaking educated intellectuals, it does not appear that democracy is what most people have been demonstrating about. Instead, what they are seeking, first and foremost, is economic opportunity unfettered by corruption and favoritism. Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire because he was prevented from earning a modest living. Three Egyptians have burned themselves because of lack of job opportunities.
Secondly, Tunisians and Egyptian appear to be seeking responsive government, which is quite different from Western notions of democracy. In fact, it is arguable that they and other demonstrators in the Arab world would be quite comfortable living under a Chinese-style system, where there is a high and consistent level of economic growth and standards of living continue to rise. Would Tunisia have overthrown Ben Ali if its economy grew, as it had in the 1990s, and if the President's family curbed their greed? Would Mubarak be in the trouble he is now if he had a far greater percentage of the population benefitting from Egypt's economic growth?
It is noteworthy that for all the talk of upheavals in the Arab world, there has so far been little unrest in the traditional Gulf emirates or in Saudi Arabia. The rulers of the smaller Gulf States have long made it their policy to distribute wealth widely among their citizens. (Non-citizens don't count, of course. And if they made any trouble they would be deported.) Despite predictions of their imminent demise over the past two decades, the Saudis likewise have so far remained quiet. The al-Saud family recognized some ten years ago that it needed to spread more wealth to ensure the support of its increasingly younger population; so far so good.
Even Bahrain, which might have been expected to be the scene of riots, given the secondary status of the majority Sh'ia population, has not witnessed any major demonstrations. Again, most of the Bahraini Sh'ia appear to recognize that a stable Bahrain means more wealth for them too -- even if they do not achieve economic parity with the dominant Sunnis. They also know that Saudi tanks are not far from the causeway that links their state to its much larger and more powerful neighbor, and that those tanks would be quick to cross into the island kingdom if the ruling family came under siege.
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It is widely believed that the massive $60 billion U.S. arms deal with Saudi Arabia is directed against Iran. After all, Israel did not object to the deal. As one analyst told China's Xinhua News Agency, Jerusalem, of all places, was simply adhering to the ancient principle of: "My enemy's enemy is my friend."
It is indeed possible that the deal -- which includes up to 84 new F-15s, upgrading of Riyadh's current force of 70 F-15s, and up to 1,000 so-called "bunker buster" bombs -- is meant to enhance the Saudi deterrent against Iran. But that presupposes that Iran will still be moving ahead with its nuclear weapons program in 2015, when the first new F-15s will be delivered to the desert kingdom, but will not yet have actually fielded the bomb. Should Iran already have acquired nuclear weapons together with viable systems for delivering them prior to that date, it is difficult to see how the Saudi purchases would effectively deter Tehran from anything other than a conventional attack on the Saudi Kingdom. On the other hand, should Iran have dropped its nuclear program -- whether as a result of either international pressure or an internal upheaval -- the Saudi purchase would appear to be somewhat beside the point.
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Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.