Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Obama’s Faustian pact with the Saudis


September 30, 2014

You go to war with the allies you have, not the ones you wish for, to paraphrase former United States Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. US President Barack Obama’s war on the Islamic State is a good example. His Middle East coalition comprises five autocracies, four of which are monarchies.

To one degree or another, each represses dissent. Each, indirectly or inadvertently, has helped spawn groups such as the Islamic State, Khorasan, Jabhat Al Nusra and, of course, Al Qaeda. Each will reap longer-term profit from assisting the US in its hour of emergency. Things have worked this way in the Middle East for decades. At a moment like this, it would be naive to expect Mr Obama to change that.

At the heart of this Faustian pact is Saudi Arabia. Americans have not forgotten that 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept 11, 2001 were Saudi citizens. Nor have they forgotten the mistaken 2003 US pivot to Iraq.

Today, much like the day the Twin Towers fell, the most direct global threat to the US comes from Islamist terrorism — the Sunni variety, to be precise. None of the terrorist plots in the US and Europe since 9/11 have been devised by Shia groups. Yet the one ally that is off-limits to Mr Obama is Iran — Saudi Arabia’s Shia counterpart and its greatest foe.

Given his constraints, Mr Obama has cobbled together the best alliance of expediency he can find. But his mission targets a symptom rather than the causes of Salafi extremism. The trade-off has deep precedent.

In the 1980s, the US joined Pakistan, the Saudis and other Gulf states to back the mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. That war provided the crucible for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, both of which are resurgent today. The US also backed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its long and bloody war with Iran. That did not work out too well either.

In the 2000s, the US diverted itself into invading Iraq — no friend of Al Qaeda, but an enemy of the Gulf states.

In most of these cases, a US-led war succeeded in the short term, but sowed the seeds for greater problems later on. Why should the fight against the Islamic State be any different?

There are reasons to worry it could be worse this time. Ejecting the Soviets from Afghanistan and removing Saddam Hussein were conceptually simple. The US followed the old Arab adage: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. But in Syria, as one diplomat recently quipped, the enemy of America’s enemy is often also its enemy.


The most obvious beneficiary of Mr Obama’s war on the Islamic State is Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, whose officials are now bragging about co-ordinating air strikes with the Pentagon (denied by the latter). But the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are backing Mr Obama’s war with the opposite outcome in mind. Their hope is that the US will eventually turn its guns on Mr Assad. Their larger implicit aim is to kill prospects for a US nuclear deal with Iran, which is Syria’s unwavering patron.

Possibilities for US-Iran cooperation in the Middle East would open in the wake of a nuclear deal. As Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told CNN last week, nothing can happen without it. “First, take care of the child you have before you start thinking about the next one,” he said.

Saudi Arabia’s goal is to prevent such a deal from happening. Like Israel, it fears Iran would get the better of Mr Obama. The concern must be that Mr Obama has gained Saudi Arabia’s support in exchange for dragging his feet in nuclear talks with Iran. The White House strongly denies any link. But it is a trade-off that suddenly looks far more tempting.

Much has rightly been made of the urgent need to contain the Middle East’s spreading Sunni-Shia civil war. But the US risks something far greater than the chance to bring Iran in from the cold — prospects for democracy in the Middle East. The region’s future will ultimately hinge on what happens to the ranks of young men whose economic prospects are dim, but whose ability to express their frustrations peacefully are shut off.

Saudi Arabia has done as much as any country to back the military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — the only non-monarchy in Mr Obama’s coalition. The Saudis are as hostile to Islamic democracy as they are to its secular variety. Both challenge the House of Saud’s legitimacy.

Yet, signs of the Arab street’s alienation keep spreading. The Middle East leads the world in terms of its youth bulge. For growing democracies such as India, armies of young workers offer a potentially huge dividend. But for stagnant economies such as Egypt and Pakistan, they spell demographic nightmare. By continuing to suffocate freedom at home and next door, the Saudis only multiply the supply of recruits for groups such as the Islamic State. This is a trade-off the West cannot afford.

After a year from geopolitical hell, Mr Obama deservedly won praise last week for a clear-eyed speech to the United Nations. It was his first robust statement of liberal interventionism since becoming President. In it, he hinted strongly at declining US patience for the financial and ideological sponsors of intolerance in madrasahs and mosques around the world. These were the breeding grounds of terrorism.

But he was careful not to mention Saudi Arabia and others by name. How could he? They are US allies. At times of war especially, you do not bite the hand that feeds you. 



Edward Luce is the Washington columnist and commentator for the Financial Times.

No comments: