What the President Really Thinks About Saudi Arabia
President Obama's shifting thinking on our allies in Riyadh is misguided.
Gone are the days when the long-smoldering friction between President Obama and the leaders of Saudi Arabia was some (not-so-well kept) Washington secret. Obama has made it clear that he has little taste for America’s erstwhile Saudi allies. For their part, the Saudis, in the form of a letter by the oft-outspoken Prince Turki bin Faisal, have shot back that they resent being dissed by the president of a country they have supported for decades.
As in most spats, there is some truth on both sides. The Saudis minimize the impact that their export of Wahhabism, primarily through the schools and madrasas they support, has contributed to radicalizing many Muslims across the world, from Southeast Asia to northern Virginia. The President has minimized, or totally overlooked, a host of Saudi efforts that have bolstered Washington’s political, military, and economic objectives in the Middle East and beyond. These include: supporting American anti-Soviet policies during the Cold War; providing financial support for economically strapped American allies, such as Jordan and Morocco; coordinating with American efforts to rid Afghanistan of the Soviets; participating militarily in Operation Desert Storm, which liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s tender mercies in 1991; hosting American troops throughout the 1990s; taking the lead in offering Israel peace, in the form of the Arab Peace Initiative (to which, unfortunately, Israel gave scant consideration); and funding the opposition to both Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State.
The list of ways in which the Saudis have supported American interests is actually longer and is simply too exhaustive for Obama to dismiss the them, and, for that matter, their Gulf partners, as “free riders.” Even worse, his disdain for Riyadh in particular is simply solidifying the distrust of America’s other Arab allies, who have yet to get over Washington’s callous indifference to the fate of long time ally Hosni Mubarak. It is noteworthy that Prince Turki mentioned Mubarak in his letter, but President Obama does not mention his former Egyptian counterpart in any of the quotes that appear in Jeffrey Goldberg’s Atlantic article.
What has most upset the Saudis, however, is the President’s notion that they must “share” the Gulf with Iran. It is one thing for Washington to negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program; the Gulf states may not have liked the American approach, much less the actual agreement, but they understand what motivated Washington to seek an accord. It is quite another thing for the President to equate Saudi Arabia, indeed all the Gulf states, with their Iranian rival. Iran has not cut back on its support for terrorists, be they Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, or others operating in Bahrain and elsewhere. Nor has Tehran lessened its anti-Israel rhetoric or its support for Palestinian suicide bombers. And it is not the Gulf countries that have tested ballistic missiles with “death to Israel” written in Hebrew. Yet Obama is quite prepared to have them “share” the region with its most destabilizing regime.
Perhaps the Saudis and their Gulf partners can take solace in the fact that they are not the only targets of Obama’s spleen. He has called the Europeans free riders too. And it is well known that he has no patience for the Israelis.
The Goldberg piece makes it clear that the American president would rather walk away from the Middle East and leave it to its own devices. Unfortunately, doing so will not promote the peaceful, stable world Mr. Obama dreams of. To the contrary: burying America’s head in the Middle Eastern sand guarantees not only more conflict in the region itself, but an increase in the flood of refugees that is wreaking havoc in Europe. But then, Obama seems equally less than interested in Europe’s travails. Maybe what Goldberg termed the Obama Doctrine should be renamed the Ostrich Doctrine — this would certainly describe how many outside the United States view what passes for policy in Washington.
Photo Credit: MANDEL NGAN / Staff