Knowingly or not, the Obama administration is alienating its oldest and strongest US ally in the Middle East. The relationship with Saudi Arabia, dating to the Franklin Roosevelt administration, has been the bedrock of the US stance in the region since World War II—even more so than the relationship with Israel.
A few weeks ago, we wrote that the US should expect some blowback from Saudi Arabia for Washington’s outreach to Iran and inaction in Syria, not to mention support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other policies toward the Middle East that have irked the Saudis. Today we heard an unusually candid statement from the usually low key Saudi Arabian security establishment announcing a “major shift” in relations with the United States on Middle East policy. “Relations with the U.S. have been deteriorating for a while,” a source close to Saudi policy-makers told Reuters, “as Saudi feels that the U.S. is growing closer with Iran and the U.S. also failed to support Saudi during the Bahrain uprising.”
There is a certain element of bluster and bargaining going on here. Precisely because their interests are so deeply entangled, it is very hard for the US and Saudi Arabia to make a clean break. And the Saudis probably still prefer an outcome in which the old relationship is restored.
But recent Saudi steps have been, by their standards, revolutionary: they are signaling as clearly as they can that they are bitterly angry and extremely worried. The main issue is Iran: the Saudis fear that the US is going to reach a deal with Iran that locks in the Shi’a Crescent (dominance by Iran and Iran-friendly regimes in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon) in exchange for a nuclear arrangement of some kind.
Any deal between the US and Iran would worry the Saudis. They hate and fear Iran much more than the Israelis do, and they are far more eager to see US power used against Tehran. The increasingly public and agitated nature of their diplomacy suggests that the White House has lost control of the dynamics of the relationship and that the Saudis are desperately worried about—and openly opposed to—the administration’s current opening to Iran.
The US has extremely good reasons to want a deal with Iran. But the Saudis are important too. (From an ideological or, as Americans would put it, “human rights” point of view, we don’t actually like either regime very much, but in the Middle East if you don’t occasionally do deals with people you don’t like then you won’t have deals with anybody at all.) Balancing the competing interests and claims of US allies in the region is the core of successful policy there. Doing this is one reason why successful diplomacy is so hard in the region; failing to do it usually results in setbacks.
The Obama administration suffered humiliating public blows and saw its whole Middle East policy blown badly off-course when it fumbled America’s relationship with Israel early in its first term. Is it about to lose its second term policies because it is heedlessly wrecking the relationship with the Saudis?
Throwing away solid relationships with other parties while chasing a possible “grand bargain” with Iran is a much riskier approach than the Obama administration seems to understand. We wish the White House success in the region, but we fear that, just as President Clinton wrecked America’s diplomacy in the Middle East when he got stars in his eyes and chased after an unattainable grand bargain between the Israelis and Palestinians in the closing months of his term, so President Obama could be following a mirage that will only lead him farther into a hostile and dangerous desert.
[US President Barack Obama listens to a translation alongside King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia during meetings in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, DC, June 29, 2010. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.]