The Saudi-Israeli tandem may superficially still be “unfriendly” but the two countries are peddling in the same direction when it comes to dragging the U.S. into Mideast conflicts against Iran and Syria. But is that in the U.S. interest, asks Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland.
By Ivan Eland
One of the most influential Saudi Arabian princes, Turki al-Faisal — the former Saudi intelligence chief who clearly reflects the Saudi royal government’s view — recently criticized President Barack Obama for weakness in the Middle East. The Israeli government is similarly disenchanted with Obama’s regional performance.
Prince Turki’s comments are just the most recent installment of these governments trying to goad the United States into dubious actions in the region that would not be in U.S. interests. According to Prince Turki:
“We’ve seen several red lines put forward by the President, which went along and became pinkish as time grew, and eventually ended up completely white. When that kind of assurance comes from a leader of a country like the United States, we expect him to stand by it. There is an issue of confidence.”
He added that when a country has strong allies, “you should be able to give them the assurance that what you say is going to be what you do.”
The Saudis have been unnerved by Obama’s understandable and wise decision to avoid deep U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war. The Saudis were angry that Obama didn’t strike the al-Assad regime militarily after it was accused of using chemical weapons on its own people. Yet military strikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities could very well have released chemicals on the Syrian civilians the attacks were ostensibly designed to protect.
In fact, the Saudis, who have a horrendous human rights record of their own, likely don’t care, one way or the other, about harming Syrian civilians. In fact, despite their outsized reputation, chemical weapons usually account for only one percent of the people who die in the wars in which they have been used.
The Saudis, leaders of the Sunni Islamic bloc in the Middle East, want the United States to attack Syria to weaken the Shi’ite Syrian-Iranian axis — their arch rivals. That is why they also want the United States to bomb Iran over its nuclear program. Such a strike is less about the Iranian nuclear program and more about weakening a Shi’ite country that is more powerful than Syria.
Any U.S. air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities likely would not take out all of them, some of which are deeply buried and maybe even unknown to U.S. intelligence, and would probably motivate Iran to make the decision to rapidly obtain a nuclear weapon — a choice U.S. intelligence believes that Iran has not made.
Although the Sunni Arab bloc and Israel are unfriendly to each other, they both share an interest in weakening the Shi’ite Syria-Iran axis. And they both want the United States to do their dirty work for them. Pointless bombing, merely to weaken Syria or Iran for Saudi Arabia and Israel, would not serve U.S. national interests — let alone that the American people are exhausted with terrorism-inducing U.S. military entanglements in a Middle East that is in perpetual conflict.
So Obama has rightly avoided getting sucked deeper than he already is into the potential Syrian quagmire — the U.S. has provided some limited lethal and non-lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels — by cooperating with Russia to compel Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons stockpiles. What is amazing is that essentially Prince Turki is criticizing Obama for not bombing Assad anyway, even after the Syrian dictator capitulated in this unlikely manner.
Reflecting the Israeli view, the New York Times, quoted former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovich, as saying that because Obama had refrained from attacking Syria, neither Israel nor Iran believed any longer that he might strike Iran over its nuclear program. However, even if this is true, Iran has nevertheless come to the negotiating table and reached an interim agreement to freeze its nuclear program and even roll back at least one part of it.
Even military theorists know that if you can get your opponent to do what you want, or most thereof, without the use of force, then you should avoid using it. In the cases of both Syria and Iran, the Saudis and Israelis don’t really like the progress Obama has made by negotiation, because it ruins their not-so-hidden agenda of inciting the United States to attack, and thus weaken, their regional rivals.
Thus, U.S. military action against either Syria or Iran may be in the interest of Saudi Arabia and Israel, but it is not the interest of the United States or its people, who may be subjected to further blowback retaliatory acts of terrorism.
Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.