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On Middle East Policy, Washington Risks Angering Allies

Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s seasoned Foreign Minister, is angry. When he refused to give a scheduled speech at the United Nations general assembly last week, Reuters reports, it was an “uncharacteristically forthright” message to the United States. American foreign policy is angering the Saudis in dangerous ways.

“Engaged in what they see as a life-and-death struggle for the future of the Middle East with arch-rival Iran,” Reuters continues, “Saudi rulers are furious that the international body has taken no action over Syria, where they and Tehran back opposing sides.” Saudi rulers are “aghast” that the US has refused not to back rebels fighting President Assad, and “horrified” when President Obama began reaching out to Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. “Weak and naive” policies have “let down [America’s] Arab friends.” In Egypt, before President Morsi was overthrown, Washington and Riyadh also found each other on opposite sides, with the Obama administration choosing to back the Muslim Brothers, hated in the Kingdom. From Riyadh, these policies must look like a deliberate attempt to break with the traditional contours of America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Israel, like Saudi Arabia, is unsettled. “Officials and experts in Israel responded on Wednesday with a mixture of disappointment and alarm to the news that the United States planned to reduce its military aid to Egypt,” the New York Times reported on Wednesday. “Israel views the aid as part and parcel of its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, and essential to the maintenance of stability in the region.”

This could get worse. The Israelis are sincerely upset about the US cutting military aid to Egypt; one official told the Times that the US is “playing with fire,” and that the repercussions could go way beyond Israel-Egypt relations.

The risks in Washington’s Egypt, Syria, and Iran policies (not to mention its Libya policies) are much higher than many in the media seem to notice. How this plays out in the end is anyone’s guess, but so far, this Administration has not been very deft in this arena.

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  • Andrew Allison

    “this Administration has not been very deft in this arena.”? Utterly inept would be a better description.

    • Corlyss

      VM sometimes goes for British understatement.

      • Andrew Allison

        I hope you are correct, and that it’s not shading the truth so as to avoid giving undue offense to the Administration. As a foreign policy guru and historian, WRM must know what a disaster is unfolding in the mid-East and North Africa.

  • Anthony

    “Follow the money has become a catchphrase in both journalism and politics, seemingly applicable to almost any subject. But if you want to understand what really matters to Middle Eastern Muslims, a better rule might be be follow the violence.” For related and contextual material see: middle-east

    Also, “What the Saudis Really Care About”

    • Andrew Allison

      With respect, US foreign policy is not about what’s important to Middle Eastern Muslims but what’s important to the USA. The mind-boggling ineptitude of the current Administration makes Bush look like a genius.

  • Corlyss

    If anyone can make a Mideast “policy” out of the chaos of ad hoc mishmash, screw-ups, missteps, contradictions, and Utopian fallacies characteristic of Dear Leader’s rule, you’re a better man than I, Charlie Brown.

  • thrasymachus02

    Saudis are the scum of the earth. Dumping the Saudis is the first step towards sanity and morality in diplomacy.

    • Fred

      Yes, the Saudis are pestilent savages, but it’s in our interest to be allied with them at the moment. In international affairs, if you want a friend, get a dog. If you want an ally, look to your mutual interests.

  • wigwag

    Obama is making a mistake that could have potentially devastating consequences for the United States.

    What happens if Saudi Arabia decides to retaliate by pumping 2 million fewer barrels of oil each day than they are now? It’s all the same to them; they pump less and prices go up and they make just as much as they are making now. Is it all the same to us? I don’t think so.

    Has Obama stopped to think at all about the incredible benefits that accrue to the United States by having the dollar serve as the world’s reserve currency. One of the reasons it can play that role is because oil is priced in dollars. While there may be no alternative to the dollar at the moment, I suspect that the Saudis have long memories. A few years from now if credible alternatives exist, what might the results be of the Saudis pricing oil in a competing currency?

    Is it really in American interests for the Saudis to diversify their strategic portfolio? The space that opens up between the United States and Saudi Arabia will surely be filled by someone. Isn’t that “someone” likely to be Russia? What are the implications of the largest oil producer in the world (Russia) allying itself with the second largest oil producer in the world (Saudi Arabia)? I’m not sure, but I suspect it can’t be good.

    China’s role in the Middle East is already growing. In part, that’s inevitable as it plays an increasingly critical role in the world economy. Do we really want to accelerate China’s involvement in the Middle East by alienating the Saudis which will push them closer to the Chinese?

    The interests of Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab nations are becoming more and more closely aligned. They all oppose Iran; they are all aghast at what’s happening in Syria and they all have a common interest in fighting terrorism. As an added bonus, they all hate the Muslim Brotherhood (as well they should). Isn’t this potentially a very positive development that the United States should be capitalizing on? Couldn’t the ramifications be as broad as implicating peace between Israel and the Palestinians and stability in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and even Libya? Shouldn’t the United States be encouraging this phenomenon and trying to broker better relations between Saudi Arabia (and the Gulf States) and Israel rather than alienating all of our natural allies in the region?

    Has Obama thought any of this through?

    I doubt it.

    Does anyone in his Administration have a clue?

    It doesn’t seem like it.

  • boldface

    Add the Middle East to the long and growing list of instances of this Administration’s clueless incompetence.

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