Originally published at World Affairs Journal.
The American-Saudi alliance is in danger of collapsing.
The Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis is by far the largest threat to both Saudi and American interests in the Middle East now, yet the Obama administration is buddying up with Vladimir Putin on Syria and allowing itself to be suckered by the Iranian regime’s new president Hassan Rouhani.
Never mind the fact that Rouhani obviously isn’t a moderate and is powerless to negotiate sovereign issues in any case. The White House is so desperate to cut a deal with America’s enemies that the president will go along on even a farcical ride. As a result, the Saudi government is threatening to drastically “scale back” the relationship.
“I’ve worked in this field for a long time,” says Brooking Institution expert Mike Doran in London’s Telegraph, “and I’ve studied the history. I know of no analogous period. I’ve never seen so many disagreements on so many key fronts all at once. And I’ve never seen such a willingness on the part of the Saudis to publicly express their frustration. Iran is the number one issue — the only issue for Saudi policy makers. When you add up the whole Middle Eastern map — Syria, Iraq, Iran — it looks to the Saudis as if the US is throwing Sunni allies under the bus by trying to cut a deal with Iran and its allies.”
Foreign Policy 101 dictates that you reward your friends and punish your enemies. Attempts to get cute and reverse the traditional formula always lead to disaster. Yet Barack Obama thinks if he stiffs his friends, his enemies will become a little less hostile. That’s not how it works, but the Saudis have figured out what Obama is doing and are acting accordingly.
“They [the Americans] are going to be upset—and we can live with that,” said Mustafa Alani, a Saudi foreign policy analyst. “We are learning from our enemies now how to treat the United States.”
Before proceeding, let’s be clear about a couple of things. The Saudi regime is in a dimension beyond distasteful. It’s an absolute monarchy wedded to absolute theocracy. It’s worse than merely medieval. Human rights don’t exist. The regime—and, frankly, the culture—offends every moral and political sensibility I have in my being. I’d love to live in a world where junking our “friendship” with Riyadh would be the right call.
But the United States and Saudi Arabia are—or at least were until recently—on the same page geopolitically. For decades we have provided the Saudis with security in exchange for oil and stability, and we’ve backed them and the rest of the Gulf Arabs against our mutual enemies, Iran’s Islamic Republic regime and its allies.
The alliance isn’t deep. It’s transactional. It’s not at all like the American alliance with countries like Britain, Israel, Canada, and Japan. It’s based on interests alone, and that makes it temporary. If the Iranian regime were to be overthrown and replaced with even a half-assed democracy, chances are good that Washington would tilt toward Tehran and away from Riyadh. We could make the same deal with a democratic Iran that we currently have with the Gulf Arabs, only it would not be distasteful. It would be perfectly logical, and we wouldn’t have to compromise our values. I wouldn’t have to plug my nose when typing the word “ally” in same sentence as “Iran” if Iran were democratic.
But in the imperfect world we live in right now, Saudi Arabia is an interests-based ally of the United States. Or at least it was until the Obama administration all but surrendered to the Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah axis.
So the Saudis are alarmed. They’re right to be. Maybe threatening to downgrade relations will give Washington a reality check. That’s the idea, anyway.
Either way, if the Saudis want to get real, it’s time for them to suck it up and normalize relations with Israel for the same reason they forged an alliance with the United States. The Israelis and the Gulf Arabs have the exact same geopolitical interests right now. They have the exact same list of enemies. Who cares if Riyadh and Jerusalem can’t stand each other personally? Riyadh and Washington can’t stand each other personally either. That hasn’t stopped us from working together when our interests coincide.
Of course, an alliance with Israel would be a little more awkward (to say the least) while the Palestinians are still stateless, but so what? The Jordanian government worked it out and is in far better shape as a result.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has always been stupid and pointless, and at this late date it’s ludicrous. It’s a festering holdover from a previous era, and it makes progress difficult or impossible for just about everyone. If Sunni Arab governments make a peaceful and reasonable resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority, something might actually happen.
It’s logical, isn’t it? Israel poses no threat whatsoever to Gulf Arabs and never has. Israel poses no threat to any Arab country that doesn’t act with belligerence first. The Jordanians figured that out a long time ago. So did the Egyptian government even if Egypt’s population remains as clueless as ever. The Tunisians figured it out. The Moroccans get along with Israel just fine under the table.
The open secret right now is that the Gulf Arabs have also figured it out even as they’re loath to admit it in public. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he is not-so secretly working with all the Arab states in the Gulf region right now based on shared (anti-Iranian) interests.
Don’t be surprised. All the existing Sunni Arab governments moved on from the Arab-Israeli conflict decades ago. Aside from the Palestinian Authority during the Second Intifada, only the Iranian regime and its network of allies and proxies—Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah, and Hamas—have fought Israel at any time during the last thirty years or so. The only exception occurred when Saddam Hussein launched a couple of SCUD missiles at Tel Aviv during the first Persian Gulf War in an attempt to fracture the Arab-Western alliance against him.
The majority of Arab citizens would surely think my analysis is nonsense on stilts, but aside from the (non-Sunni) regime in Damascus, Arab governments are behaving precisely in line with it. They learned quite a while ago that it’s time to set the ridiculous Palestinian conflict aside and deal with real threats for a change. They’ve tried to turn it into a frozen conflict instead of resolving it, but still. At least they haven’t been poking it with a stick.
Washington is adrift at the moment, but we change administrations more often than the Middle East does, and we change policies even faster. We’ll be on the same page sooner or later.
Post-script: Don’t forget. I have books. And I have two more coming out next year. The first is a novel unlike anything I’ve written before, and the other is a collection of dispatches from the Middle East.
I get a royalty check every month that includes money from every single copy that sells, so please, help me pay my mortgage, fatten your bookshelf, and order some for your friends!
About the Author: Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor at World Affairs and City Journal and is the prize-winning author of Where the West Ends and The Road to Fatima Gate.
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