Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh
A staple of commentary about the fraught politics of the Middle East, especially the Gulf, is the wrenching torments of the Saudi royal family as they face unprecedented challenges. The essence of their plaint is that they are fending off a host of threats not of their own making and no longer can count on the United States as a reliable protector and moral supporter.
This theme has been picked up by analysts both in the region and here in the United States. The claim on our empathy is felt by many. Most often, the KSA and its empathizers have as their point of anxious departure the Iran nuclear deal, which is interpreted as some sort of American abandonment of their traditional ally.
Riyadh lobbied hard for a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic and was keenly disappointed by that landmark accord. President Obama’s visit to Riyadh was designed to alleviate these strains and to reinvigorate the supposed alliance. Apparently, he may follow up with a proposal for some sort of security understanding between NATO and the GCC.
There is a contrapuntal theme – but struck so sotto voce as to be almost inaudible. That is the line that conveys an antithetical conception of the problem and the challenge in apposition to the Saudi-centric narrative, which dominates the diplomatic and intellectual discourse.
With a measure of detachment, it becomes starkly clear that the conventional approach only makes sense from a parochial Saudi vantage point; indeed, that of the new leadership of the semi-senile King Salman and the ruthless, power-hungry Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed who have pursued a series of reckless policies since taking power. They went out of their way to demonstrate their anger at Obama by refraining from welcoming him on arrival at the airport in violation of all protocol.
The House of Saud’s overriding preoccupation is their parlous legitimacy as rulers of Arabia. It is the pivot of everything they do. They are keenly aware that it hinges on their acknowledged status as custodians of the Holy Sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina, which they seized by force in the 1920s without even a semblance of consultation.
Hence, the crucial alliance with the leaders of the Wahhabi movement. It is that blessing that endows the royal family with a semblance of authority. A number of propositions follow. They cannot afford to be outflanked at the fundamentalist end of the Sunni Islamic continuum.
Therefore, their aggressive promotion of an ultra-orthodox creed. Therefore, their strenuous efforts to coopt the proliferating jihadist movement that they themselves have encouraged. Therefore, the compulsion to present themselves as protector of the faithful against heretics (Shia) and all enemies of Islam. Therefore, their staunch opposition to the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring.
Therefore, their antipathy toward Iran whose own brand of Islamism threatens to foment unrest among Saudi Arabia’s large Shi’ite minority. Therefore, the goal of having the United States serve all of these ends by providing unqualified military backing regarding Iran, Assad’s secular regime, and the Houthis in Yemen.
Therefore, there resentment at Washington’s bringing to power in Iraq a Shi’ite dominated government. Therefore, their demand that the U.S. not cooperate with Shi’ite militias in the campaign against ISIL. Therefore, the ancillary goal of ensuring that the American’s cease their proselytization in the name of democracy in the Islamic world. Therefore, the aim of modeling the Saudi-American relationship on the Israeli model.
The current ruling Sudari branch of the royal family is more aggressive in pushing this strategy than were their predecessors while bent on establishing a Sudari line of succession. That claim gains strength if the Salmans can deliver on their audacious agenda.
Why does it serve United States’ interests to adopt the Saudi line that Iran is an implacably hostile force that sows instability throughout the Middle East and with whom any form of normalization is dangerous? Why does it serve our interests to act in a manner that strongly suggests that we have chosen the Sunni side in Islam’s sectarian confrontation?
Why does it serve our interests to participate in the bloody Saudi-led assault on Yemen which has led to a vast strengthening of the Al Qaeda branch which Washington long has judged to be the most menacing? Why do we tolerate the Saudi-led forces fighting side-by-side with Al Qaeda units? Why should we assiduously avoid even raising the issue of Saudi and friends’ backing of ISIL and their promotion of al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Shem in Syria – against the backdrop of aggressive projection of their anti-Western Wahhabist creed across the Islamic world?
Why should we give priority to removing Assad when his downfall will bring to power violent Salafist groups of the most extreme kind whom the KSA now see as shock troops in their war against Iranian led Shi’ism?
Other than narrow Saudi interests, the other stakeholder who sees advantage in the existing strategy is Israel – with whom the KAS now is in tacit alliance. Each demands obeisance from the United States despite their high degree of dependence on the American super-power.
Washington, in turns, accords them deference and appeasement. By any reasonable objective standard, that is illogical. Yet, there are no answers given to the questions asked above. They are not posed in political circles, they are ignored by the media, and the commentariat only rarely raises a timid hand.
The Obama administration restricts itself to making ad hominum declarations on individual issues that confuse more than they explain. If there is a coherent justification for what we are doing, and not doing, it is well-nigh time that we heard it. Preferably, before the President digs us an even deeper hole in Riyadh.
Instead, there is every indication that such a course reversal has been neither presented nor debated – much less accepted within the Obama administration. That is a sad commentary on this administration’s intellectual sclerosis and the President’s callowness. Always lacking the gumption to stand up to Netanyahu and the Israelis, he (and his successor) now must contend with a partnership that adds Saudi gold to the flow of influence in Washington.
The complexity of the dilemmas that the White House has created for itself is further exacerbated by the dismaying truth that most of the main actors are either emotionally unbalanced or monomaniacal fantasists: al-Baghdadi; the Salmans – father and son; Erdogan; Netanyahu.
The most level-headed and reasoned is Putin – whom Obama shuns in the conviction that a new Cold War is inescapable. Having designed a field of action sown with mines and offering no escape hatches, the temptation to temporize until retirement day may be irresistible.