Obama Panders to Gulf State Sheiks

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States have given crucial support to Al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists, but President Obama will pander to them anyway at a Camp David summit, a sign of a muddled foreign policy, say Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett.

By Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Defying escalating rhetoric that Iran is “gobbling up the Middle East,” President Barack Obama told the New York Times recently that “the biggest threat” to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states may not come from Iran, but “from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”

Yet, displaying how deeply mired in Washington hype his administration remains, Obama has called on GCC leaders to parade with him at Camp David this week as if Iran is their biggest threat.

Saudi King Salman meets with President Barack Obama at Erga Palace during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Saudi King Salman meets with President Barack Obama at Erga Palace during a state visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Saudi King Salman has refused to join in this spectacle, underscoring that, in foreign policy, friendship and interest should not be conflated. Obama, by contrast, studiously overlooks this reality that, today, U.S. and Saudi interests on a number of key issues not only diverge, but conflict.

By refusing to deal with GCC states on the basis of interest, rather than friendship, Obama actually helps some of them continue pursuing policies deeply damaging to U.S. interests.

However much GCC elites evoke specters of Iranian “aggressiveness”, framed either in essentialist caricatures of “Persian expansionism” or depictions of the Islamic Republic’s allegedly radical Shi’a sectarianism, Iran is not the source of their insecurity. In reality, GCC leaders have felt existentially threatened since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq upended a regional order based on Sunni Arab autocracies linked, in various ways, to Washington.

With U.S. encouragement, Saudi Arabia and other GCC states had supported Iraq’s Saddam Hussein financially in the 1980s, as he pursued aggressive war (including extensive chemical weapons use) against Iran. While Saddam eventually threatened GCC states, his overthrow in 2003 created major challenges for some of them, especially Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh could not endorse a more representative post-Saddam Iraqi polity that would, by definition, empower Shi’a, make Sunnis a permanent minority, and boost Iran’s influence.  So, the Saudis urged militant Sunni jihadis, of a sort they had long supported, some of whom had created and remained involved with al-Qa’ida , to go to Iraq and help Sunni tribal militias and remnants of Saddam’s army destabilize the new Iraqi state, including by attacking U.S. occupation forces.

This trifecta of former members of Saddam’s military, Iraqi Sunni fighters, and foreign jihadis would eventually give rise to the political/military/religious phenomenon now known as the Islamic State.

In the meantime, GCC anxiety over the erosion of a regional order based on pro-U.S. Sunni autocracies grew more acute as, from 2011, demands mounted in overwhelmingly Sunni Arab societies for expanded political participation and protection from, not collusion with, a U.S. “war on terror” that has killed hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims.

In this context, the “threat” to the GCC from today’s Iran is not that it is “Persian” or Shi’a, but that it is simultaneously Islamic and republican, that it seeks to integrate principles and institutions of Islamic governance with participatory politics and elections while maintaining a strong commitment to foreign policy independence.

Paving the Way for Jihadis

GCC leaders are relatively unconcerned about reform calls from secular liberals, judging (rightly) that this agenda elicits limited support in Arab societies. But they worry deeply about Sunni movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, willing to compete for power in elections.

For GCC rulers, these groups are profoundly threatening, for if Muslim-majority Arab publics can elect Islamic governments, the historically most potent argument for monarchy in Arabia, that it is essential to propagating true Islam, goes out the window.

To forestall this, Riyadh and its partners have declared the Brothers “terrorists” in GCC jurisdictions, and have worked to quash them around the region, as with Saudi and Emirati backing for the July 2013 coup against Egypt’s elected Brotherhood government.

By undermining the Brothers as a vehicle for expanding Sunni political engagement, Saudi Arabia and its allies leave jihadi groups like al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State as the only options for Sunni Arabs dissatisfied with the status quo. They make things worse by building up violent jihadis as alternatives to the Brothers, in Libya, Syria, and, now, Yemen, with Washington’s collaboration, and with disastrous humanitarian and political consequences.

What has unfolded in Libya since 2011, the state’s destruction, civil war, a U.S. ambassador’s murder, and incubation of a major jihadi hub that had not existed before, is hardly due to Iranian perfidy. It is the result of a military campaign, led by America and Saudi Arabia, to bring down the Gaddafi government, and, in the process, show that it wasn’t only pro-Western autocrats who were vulnerable to overthrow.

Many of this campaign’s devastating effects flow from Riyadh’s use of the Libya war to revive jihadi cadres worn down by years of fighting U.S. forces in Iraq, cadres the Saudis then deployed in Syria.

Saudi intervention ensured that jihadis, many non-Syrian, would dominate Syrian opposition ranks, undercutting any potential role for the Brotherhood in leading anti-Assad forces. It also turned what began in Syria as indigenously generated protests over particular grievances into a heavily militarized (and illegal) campaign against the recognized government of a UN member state, but with a popular base too small either to bring down that government or to negotiate a settlement with it.

It is Saudi policy, not Iran’s support for Syria’s government against an externally-fueled insurgency that, as Syrian oppositionists themselves admitcouldn’t defeat him at the ballot box, that is responsible for Syria’s agony.

Cost of Reckless Strategy

The most glaringly negative consequence of Riyadh’s posture toward both post-Saddam Iraq and the Arab Awakening has been the Islamic State’s explosive ascendance, marked by impressive territorial gains in both Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State’s proclamation of a religiously legitimate caliphate represents a much bigger problem for Saudi Arabia than for the United States.

Yet, while Riyadh has ostensibly joined Washington’s anti-Islamic State “coalition,” it is doubling down on its jihadi proxy strategy. After using the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Jabhat an-Nusra to destroy non-jihadi opposition forces in Syria, Riyadh has persuaded Qatar and Turkey, previously the Syrian Brotherhood’s biggest backers, to help it promote a new, Jabhat an-Nusra-led jihadi alliance that recently captured a major Syrian city.

In Yemen, Saudi airstrikes have helped al-Qa’ida make territorial gains, and to eclipse even further the Brotherhood’s Yemeni affiliates.

Saudi Arabia pursues these policies, however risky (even reckless) they seem to outsiders, because decision-makers in Riyadh judge that they maximize the ruling family’s chances of holding onto power.

The United States, for its part, should continue cooperating with Saudi Arabia where U.S. and Saudi interests overlap. But U.S. interests also require that Washington undertake strategically-grounded diplomacy with all major regional players, including, above all, a rising Iran.

And Washington certainly should be able to confront the Saudis and others in the GCC when they pursue policies contrary to U.S. interests. Like too many of his predecessors, Obama has yet to learn how to do this.

Flynt Leverett served as a Middle East expert on George W. Bush’s National Security Council staff until the Iraq War and worked previously at the State Department and at the Central Intelligence Agency. Hillary Mann Leverett was the NSC expert on Iran and from 2001 to 2003  was one of only a few U.S. diplomats authorized to negotiate with the Iranians over Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Iraq. They are authors of  Going to Tehran. [This story first appeared at The Wire, a new publication in India. See here.]

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3 comments for “Obama Panders to Gulf State Sheiks

  1. Peter Loeb
    May 18, 2015 at 04:52

    THANKS TO ASSORTED LEVERETTS AND ANTHONY SHAKER

    There is much to add but much that exceeds my competence.

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston MA, USA

  2. Anthony Shaker
    May 13, 2015 at 14:24

    Thanks for your expert recapitulation…and your description of the Saudi yoke, which by the way is nearing its end.

    Saudi Arabia has created vast armies of terrorists whose only mission is to demolish states, in keeping with the US rampage of the Middle East after 9-11. In Yemen they are attacking Saudi Arabia’s foes and handing the region to dubious elements allied with the Saudis. Israel, too, is dying for a foothold in the Gulf of Aden to get nearer to Iran.

    Saudi Arabia is the sole reason for the prolonged instability in Iraq, besides the sheer incompetence of the US. It has broken Syria, but Syria at least now stands a good chance of rebuilding from scratch. Its durability bodes well for the Syrian people, because the United States’ unending pincer manoeuvers against Iran, especially since the 1990s on both the diplomatic and military fronts, and in coordination with Israel and the GCC, had subotaged the steady growth of Syria’s economy and polity. Economically, it had been faring well before 2011, rivalling Turkety in its fabrics industry–now systematically dismantled in the city of Aleppo and hauled off Turkey in a brazen act of plunder. It was doing well despite the long drought that had drawn untold numbers of peasants and bedouins (not all Syrians) into its cities.

    Those impoverished segments of the urban population have not exactly swelled the terrorist armies, but their economic distress created the social conditions for the spark that set the country afire thanks to the foreign-sponsored terrorists. We now know that trained Saudi-controlled and Israeli-supported terrorists had been lying in wait all that time.

    Since the 1990s, Israel and the US have been in league with Saudi Arabia on the Syria file after Israel refused to state openly, during the Oslo negotiations, that it would agree to return the Golan Heights. Syria naturally refused to sign, angering Saudi Arabia, which was eager to bring Israel in from the cold and to forget about Palestine, which in any case Saudi Arabia had sold long ago to the British.

    We forget that the Middle East began seriously to unravel under the witless Clinton presidency. God help us all if Hillary Clinton takes the helm after Obama. I think I would prefer a nut job to the shrill dare she hurled Putin around the time of the first Friends of Syria conference: “Putin you’re on the wrong side of history!” she bellowed.

    She is clever enough to destroy, big time, but not clever enough to save her country from its approaching shipwreck.

  3. dfnslblty
    May 13, 2015 at 10:27

    Thankyou for exposing the charade.
    usa force s not correct in any manner, and true diplomacy is totally absent.
    usa citizen are lied to by their representatives – elected and not – and by corporations.
    Keep writing and investigating!

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