Peppered with coarse language, unburdened by sophisticated analysis, Donald Trump’s stump speeches nevertheless promised to shake up the neoliberal and neoconservative interventionist consensus with new ideas: maybe allies should pull their weight, perhaps the U.S. could coexist with Russia, and, most of all, maybe the Middle East is a giant, strategic sinkhole. Alas, one year into his administration, it is increasingly evident that when it comes to southwest Asia, Americans can expect more of the same. Look for U.S. policy to trudge along aimlessly in a treacherous region, carried along only by inertia — and, well, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The U.S.-Saudi alliance is an old one, dating back to FDR’s cordial meeting with the Saudi king on the deck of the USS Quincy in 1945. The broad contours of the relationship have remained remarkably consistent ever since: the U.S. guarantees Saudi sovereignty and security in return for free-flowing oil and wide support for American interests in the region. The association has weathered many storms, from Egyptian president Nasser’s Arab nationalism to Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait to the terror attacks of 9/11, most of whose perpetrators traveled on Saudi passports.
It’s always been a partnership grounded in shared interests more than common values. The United States remains a diverse, representative liberal democracy while Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that publicly beheads women for crimes such as adultery and “sorcery.” Nevertheless, geopolitics is complex, and the U.S. and other major global players have often seen fit to do business with nefarious regimes.
These days, however, American and Saudi security interests rarely align, and the United States is slowly approaching energy independence. But the partnership has seemingly taken on a life of its own as administration after administration allows Saudi princes to tug Uncle Sam into counterproductive quagmires.
In Yemen, Saudi terror bombing has helped create large swaths of ungoverned space, where Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—one of the group’s deadliest franchises—is growing ever more powerful. The Saudis couldn’t pull off the operation without American-made munitions and the U.S. Air Force’s airborne tankers. In Lebanon, Saudi coercion threatens to bring down a fragile government and plunge the country once again into sectarian civil war.
And in Syria, the Kingdom has long supported Islamist militias anathema to American interests, even as Saudi leaders lobby the U.S. to confront and bring down the Assad regime. And U.S. efforts on that front have been embarrassingly unsuccessful. The uncomfortable truth is that Assad—and his Russian benefactors—have already won in Syria. Continuing to placate Saudi Arabia’s insistence that Assad step down will only prolong American military presence in Syria—a dangerous stalemate that could turn into a new occupation imbroglio. I played the long-term occupation game as a scout platoon leader in Iraq circa 2007, and that folly should not be repeated in Syria. With ISIS essentially gone, it’s time to bug out, no matter what the Saudi Kingdom thinks.
Saudi behavior, of course, is driven by the country’s intense antipathy to Iran. And, while it is certainly in U.S. interests to check any regional hegemon or the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Iran is simply not the military powerhouse the Saudis make it out to be. For all the hysteria of the Saudis and Trump administration hawks, the Islamic republic is no match for the Kingdom in a conventional war; that’s why Tehran has preferred to use proxies and radicals instead of directly challenging its adversaries. Iranian nuclear ambitions and America’s diplomatic attempts to check such aspirations are also a response to Saudi military superiority.
Backing the Saudis, in fact, undermines U.S. progress toward narrow diplomatic goals and broader ones of popular persuasion. In Yemen, as elsewhere, once Washington takes sides, it becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate political end-states that work to America’s advantage. And as Saudi bombing inflicts tens of thousands of civilian casualties and a brutal blockade contributes to Yemeni starvation, the perception – and reality – of U.S. backing bolsters the Iranian narrative and places the U.S. on the wrong side of the global information war. Signing record arms-sale deals with the Saudis—as Trump did this past year—only contributes to the bad optics. That’s no way to turn the region’s moderates against apocalyptic jihadis.
Again, the only existential U.S. concern in the region is transnational terror. Why pour fuel on that fire by enabling a Saudi campaign, contributing to a veritable famine and record-breaking cholera outbreak in the poorest Arab nation?
It is long past time to distance ourselves from Saudi actions inconsistent with American values and interests. What America needs is sober strategy that avoids counterproductive ethical and strategic decisions that draw the U.S. military ever further into the Mideast abyss. In this case, doing good is consistent with doing well.