Saudi Arabia's Unhappy. So What?

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, is venting to journalists and foreign diplomats about his irritation at feckless Obama administration policies in the Middle East, ominously suggesting his country is at the point of making a "major shift" away from the United States. Prince Turki al-Faisal, former director of Saudi intelligence, joined in with an address to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, saying, "The current charade of international control over Bashar's chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious and designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down, but also to help Assad to butcher his people." The Saudi complaints include not attacking Syria, not providing weapons and support to Syrian rebels, American support for the elected Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, U.S. cuts of assistance to the military that overthrew that government, and a lack of consultation on negotiations with Iran.

The Saudis are not alone, of course, in their criticism. Every country in the region is exasperated, as are many Americans. As former Centcom commander Jim Mattis so memorably put it, "I defy anyone to tell me what U.S. strategy is in the Middle East." But the Saudis' unhappiness is not proof that U.S. policies are wrong. Obama administration policies are wrong, but not in the ways or for the reasons the Saudis excoriate them. And bringing U.S. policies into alignment with Saudi Arabia is likely to create a Middle East even less in America's interests than the Obama administration's bungling has.

Saudi Arabia wants a very different Middle East than we do. The Saudis oppose democracy. They oppose freedom of the press. They oppose freedom of conscience and practice of faiths other than Islam. They oppose women's equality before the law. They oppose the idea that individuals have rights and loan them in limited ways and for limited purposes to governments. They deny rights to their own Shiite citizens in Saudi Arabia, while advocating and enforcing the same in Bahrain. They denigrate domestic opposition as solely agents of Iran.

Not only do the Saudis oppose these fundamental values of American society, but they have funded and armed some of the most virulent jihadists. Rachel Bronson's superb history of U.S.-Saudi relations, Thicker Than Oil, makes clear that the United States was complicit in Saudi Arabia's fostering of the mujahideen in Afghanistan; the Saudis now want U.S. complicity in supporting jihadists in Syria and the return to power of the deep state in Egypt (a model they would perpetuate throughout the region).

Secretary of State John Kerry did a fine diplomatic turn in London on Tuesday, outlining the areas of U.S.-Saudi common interest, toning down the problem, and conveying a calm confidence that the two countries will continue to work together. The policy question is what form greater Saudi opposition to U.S. policies might take.

Arab diplomats have suggested that the Saudis would increase assistance to Islamist rebels in Syria, both to punish the United States and to defeat the Iranians. Defeating Iran in Syria and toppling Bashar al-Assad is a great outcome for American interests, provided what comes next isn't worse. And even if the Saudis put a new, Saudi-looking authoritarian regime in power in Damascus, the United States will not be without means to influence its choices. Israel has consistently demonstrated detailed knowledge and willingness to act to prevent such outcomes; the United States can likewise up its game. Russia and China are less, not more, likely to support Saudi polices in Syria without American heft. Nor will Syrians themselves, who seem disinclined to replace one repression with another, be without influence.

Would the Saudis unleash jihadists in Syria? There is precedent from Afghanistan in the 1980s. But the Saudis are themselves as much at risk as we are from that scourge, and since the attacks in 2005, they know it and have stepped up their domestic efforts against radical Islamists. More likely is a misperception by the Saudis that they can control rebels in Syria, an eventuality that would cause problems for the United States -- but the country is likely to incur those problems whether or not Saudi succor is the instigation.

The Saudis might discontinue or curtail intelligence and anti-terrorism cooperation. That is a serious threat to American security. But again, the Saudis are at risk and need U.S. intelligence as much as the United States needs theirs. Moreover, recent cooperation is the exception; more frequent has been limited cooperation while the Saudis fund activity we feel threatened by.

On Palestine and a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East, the Americans and the Saudis have long worked to different ends. The Saudi plan for Palestine has foundered because of Palestinian choices, not lack of American support; it is difficult to see a path to progress on either their or America's preferred policy. It's easy to see why the Saudis support a nuclear-free Middle East, since it would remove Israel's deterrent as well as Iran's program, but difficult to see why it would now get traction even with major investments on their part.

The Saudi equivalent of a nuclear option is the price of oil, something the Saudis have been very helpful with in recent years. As Meghan O'Sullivan convincingly argues, their ability to do so is declining, and any sudden moves to impose costs will benefit Iran and stimulate non-OPEC suppliers, including the United States itself.

The Saudis (along with the United Arab Emirates) have already moved to bankroll the Egyptian military, supplanting by a factor of 12 the assistance the United States had provided. This could have a huge and deleterious effect on American interests if, for example, the Saudis and Egyptians eliminated preferential transit of the Suez Canal by U.S. military vessels. The U.S. ability to project military force would be dramatically curtailed.

We should never underestimate the trouble countries can make for us by withholding cooperation, even if they don't overtly work against our interests. American power is sustainable in the international order in part because so few countries actively oppose it. The United States should try to soothe Saudi concerns where it can, consulting more fulsomely on Iran in particular.

Too often, though, the U.S. assessment of enemy action overlooks that the United States, too, has choices to make that can impose costs: Without American intelligence, the GCC states would be subject to Iranian military harassment and less able to manage domestic extremists, and without American military support, they'd be substantially more vulnerable to a nuclear-armed Iran. And if there's one red line that President Obama has made credible, it's his willingness to abandon countries relying on American assistance.


Shadow Government

The Syrian Tragedy of 'So Much Damn Time Navel Gazing'

The New York Times has published a deeply reported and well-sourced account of the tortuous 2011-2013 path of the Obama administration's Syria policy. The money quote is attributed to a "former senior White house official" (which rather narrows the list of possibilities considerably): "We spent so much damn time navel gazing, and that's the tragedy of it."

The reporting reinforces the most important thing that we already knew: The equivocation at the heart of the administration's approach to Syria can be traced directly to the ambivalence within the Barack Obama himself. Yes, the rest of his administration was deeply divided, but they were cueing off the divisions within the president's own mind.

The reporting also tells us new things that even close observers of the process may not have known, including:

  • Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was an early opponent of the Petraeus plan floated in the summer of 2012 to arm the rebels. She subsequently came to support a more robust interventionist posture on Syria, but back when a more limited intervention might have worked, she apparently opposed it. Since Rice swore after the Rwanda tragedy not to be party to inaction when action might prevent mass atrocities, her opposition to an action plan backed by CIA Director David Petraeus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is striking.
  • The president conveyed to his team not merely ambivalence but outright disengagement. Here is how the NYT reporters tell it: "Even as the debate about arming the rebels took on a new urgency, Mr. Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings. But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum."
  • Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, the person whom the president met with at the last moment, right before the president did an abrupt about-face and postponed the airstrikes in order to kick the issue over to Congress, was also the most ardent opponent to intervention in Syria. I have heard from quite a few Obama supporters who blame the chief of staff for not adequately protecting the president from the embarrassing spectacle of the policy flip-flops after the massive chemical weapons attack last August. But according to the NYT, McDonough was an important advocate for the noninterventionist approach and not merely the one determined to make the process run smoothly.
  • At least privately, the president understood and conceded that the "lead from behind" Libya operation was a mixed bag, as Republican critics claimed. The Libya operation was an example of "mission creep," according to Obama. Rather than setting the precedent of what to do, it was seen at least in part as a caution of what to avoid.
  • When the president finally decided to authorize action to arm the rebels in the spring of 2013, the administration expected this to be a covert action. However, when reports of Bashar al-Assad's regime repeatedly crossing Obama's putative "red line" on chemical weapons became irrefutable in June 2013, the White House unexpectedly issued a public announcement about the operation and, in so doing, surprised the rest of the administration. 

Throughout the NYT's account, one is struck by the way the 2012 reelection campaign negatively influenced the evolution of policy on Syria. Ironically, sympathetic experts have traced the initial failure of the health-care reform website to a similar desire to delay tough choices until after reelection. The administration's struggles in getting the policy and the politics to work together, rather than at cross-purposes, have had a profound effect on foreign and domestic policy.

The NYT's account rings true to me. Similar accounts could be and were written about how previous administrations wrestled with difficult national security policy choices, including during the last two, which I served in. The article is a powerful corrective for anyone who thinks the choices are easy and is a useful reminder that often the best policies are merely the least worst ones available.

Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images