Winners and Whiners in the Middle East

11/05/2013 10:38 am ET
  • John Tirman Executive Director, MIT Center for International Studies

It never ceases to amaze me when traveling abroad precisely how the United States is viewed as a global power. I saw this again after participating in two very different gatherings in Istanbul last week, and reading over those same days Israel's and Saudi Arabia's complaints about U.S. policies.

The contrast between the people I met in Turkey and those I read about in the news could not be more vivid.

In one corner are the countries and peoples who see the United States realistically as embodying strong, liberal values, immense but selectively applied power, and many political limitations. One of the meetings I attended brought together women civil-society activists from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, who organize against religious extremism and for pluralism and tolerance. To say they're on an uphill climb is putting it mildly.

Through many stories I heard, some of them tragic, some inspiring, I didn't hear any complaints about the United States. They know that U.S. policy in the region is often flawed, too frequently supporting oppressive actors, but their focus as activists is the local, their wayward teenagers or mosque leaders or sectarian militants. They and their conveners, the remarkable International Civil Society Action Network (which I chair), know that sustainable change starts from the ground up, not in Washington.

Or consider the other meeting, this one filled with young Turkish academics at Istanbul Kulture University assessing the performance of their foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. They provided plenty of critical thinking about global and regional politics, their government, and the difficulties with Egypt, Syria, and Europe, but there was no moaning about Obama. Turkey's remarkable resilience and maturity was an unspoken subtext, and the notion that they needed to be somehow rescued by America would have struck them as a thoroughly discordant idea.

During the same week I read with admittedly increasing irritation about the cacophony of complaint emanating from the chief Whiner States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. No sooner had President Obama spoken with Iran President Rouhani on the phone, and the P5+1 had another, more productive meeting on nuclear weapons with Iran, than the engines of disapproval began overheating in Jerusalem and Riyadh. (And in Washington, of course, where lavishly funded lobbies and PR firms carry the two country's message unrelentingly.)

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu started carping about Rouhani as a wolf in sheep's clothing from the get-go, and has warned darkly of U.S. capitulation of Israel's security interests. This was of course predictable, being only a slight variation on Netanyahu's daily apocalyptic orations. (If Iran did get a nuclear weapon, a very unlikely possibility, it would make the score Iran 1, Israel 200.) Bibi never says that a nuclear deal might strengthen Israel's security -- which it would -- because Iran is such a splendid distraction from Israel's 46-year occupation of Palestine.

The new Whiner State is Saudi Arabia and a bunch of little Whiner States in the Gulf -- Qatar (which owns Al Jazeera), Kuwait (recall that we liberated them in 1991), and the UAE (a world leader in sex trafficking). I was reminded of Saudi's human rights record when a video depicting a "guest" worker in Saudi Arabia -- likely a Pakistani -- being beaten by his Saudi master for apparently saying something to the Saudi's wife. Such is life for millions of South Asian "guest" workers in the Arabian Gulf.

The Saudis spend lots of money to buy influence in Washington when they're not buying our weapons or sending weapons to jihadist insurgents in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and wherever holy war can spill blood. Now the Arab monarchies are bitching about Washington not doing their bidding in Syria (they want us to oust Assad by force) and, yes, capitulating their security interests in the Obama-Rouhani bromance. (This, in my view, is a consummation devoutly to be wished, but in truth the two have barely gotten to first base.) Several bush-league academics and princes have been dispatched to write op-eds in one of the best-coordinated collective hissy fits in recent memory.

Never mind that we protected them in Operation Desert Storm, too, or suffered their covert funding to al Qaeda, or withstood their promoting Sunni uprisings in Iraq against U.S. forces. They think Washington is selling them out and, taking a page from the Tea Partiers, not getting the respect they deserve from Obama. (Isn't it the one kind of country you can think of that really deserves respect -- a grotesque human rights violator under the sway of a rabidly reactionary ideology, feasting off labor and resources which they had virtually no role in producing? Yeah, right.)

The American Establishment is at long last beginning to recognize how absurd the Saudi arrogance and bluster is. "If there were a prize for Most Irresponsible Foreign Policy it would surely be awarded to Saudi Arabia," Fareed Zakaria wrote in Time magazine this week. "It is the nation most responsible for the rise of Islamic radicalism and militancy around the world. Over the past four decades, the kingdom's immense oil wealth has been used to underwrite the export of an extreme, intolerant and violent version of Islam preached by its Wahhabi clerics."

The cascade of criticism and ridicule stirred by the Saudis' loose-cannon diplomacy, much of it coming from moderate commentators and scholars like Zakaria, signals how badly the sheiks have miscalculated. But it's more than a PR disaster. It may indicate a shift in relationships and alliances in the region.

The Israelis and the Gulf monarchies, the new blame-America-firsters, have demonstrated beyond a doubt their pariah dependencies and immaturity. This alone could drive dramatic alterations in the contours of the region's politics, and especially how Washington views each. If we could align more closely with the others -- those who seek no special favor from the U.S., only a level playing field -- the Middle East could have a chance to nurture those elusive twins of peace and prosperity.

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