Pilgrimage to Riyadh

02/02/2015 11:25 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015
SAUL LOEB via Getty Images

Never in the course of American diplomacy have so many travelled so far for so little. The enormous entourage of dignitaries accompanying Barack Obama to Saudi Arabia last week broke all records. Added to the impressive delegation of his most senior advisers were former Presidents, former Secretaries of State, former National Security Advisers, former Secretaries of Defense, the CIA Director and a covey of Congressional leaders. The closest approximation was the pride assembled by Bill Clinton at the time of the Israeli-Palestinian signing of the (never implemented) Oslo accords in 1993 on the South Lawn of the White House. That theatrical production had each star turn announced as the personage walked solemnly into public view. At Riyadh, the introductions were made in private except for a handful of photo-ops for the great and near great.

The celebrity aspect of this ceremonial was obvious. The White House wanted to punctuate how important the Saudi-American partnership is at a time of transition in leadership of the House of Saud, a time when the Middle East is riven with conflict and crisis. Beyond that exclamation point it is hard to see what the purpose of the show was or what value could be extracted from it. Divining the logic of this administration's foreign policy is always a daunting challenge even when the cast is less grand.

This is not to devalue Washington's dealings with the Saudis. Indeed, they deserve close examination given the convulsions that are wracking the region. Unfortunately, those dealings have become so ritualized as to leave unscrutinized the core premises that have been their foundation since World War II - despite the dramatic shifts in global geopolitics. They include the following:

1. Cordial relations with the House of Saud are crucial to assuring access to abundant oil supplies from the Kingdom and the Gulf principalities.

2. That relationship is secured by the United States commitment to the political integrity of the Saudi regime through military protection from external threats and by refraining from doing anything that could undermine its domestic legitimacy. A corollary is that Washington will act as a stabilizing presence across the region.

3. This dovetailing of core national interests is the keystone of American grand strategy in the Middle East along with the Israeli tie.

4. The mullahs' regime in Iran represents a common enemy to be contained, defanged and hopefully eliminated.

5. Terrorist groups threaten both countries.

6. This communality of interests and outlook overrides different perspectives on the dangers of promoting fundamentalist Islamic movements, on democracy promotion and on the American invasion/occupation of Iraq.

American leaders have worked hard to supplement this realist basis for Saudi-US partnership with personal ties between heads of government. There is a pervasive belief that Saudi Arabia is unique in important respects and must be handled gingerly. Candor and "straight-talking" have not been a feature of their relationship. Both have been struggling to get their bearings in the current turbulent political environment. Mutual suspicions have taken seed as to whether the other can be counted on as in the past and as to the probity of its judgment. Neither sees strategic alternatives to the partnership and, therefore, is inclined to hold onto those premises about threats, risks and counters which have been the basis for a shared overall vision.

Under these circumstances, there is a special sensitivity about what the succession in Riyadh augers and a perceived need in Washington to confirm the partnership as quickly as possible. Hence this week's display. For American policy-makers, the Kingdom always has been something of a mystery. Now signs of possible disputes within the royal family adds to the sense of uncertainty.

Yet, for the attentive observer, the mystery that for so long was the thinking of the Saudi leadership has largely dissipated in recent years. Their reaction to stress and recurrent crises since 2001 has been revealing of their outlook, anxieties and modes of dealing with threat. Most noteworthy are the following. One, their paramount concern is potential challenges to the House of Saud's legitimacy - based as it is on the irregular process by which they became custodians of Islam's Holy Sites in the 1920s. Their compulsive commitment to the spread of Wahhabism reflects that preoccupation in two ways: it is a central article in the compact that they have made with Arabia's religious establishment, and it aims to confirm their status as the cynosure of the purest version of Islam. Two, it follows that their most acute fear is being outflanked on the fundamentalist end of the Islam's theological continuum.

Three, the Saudis see other threats to their rule as well: domestic challenges based on discontents with their arbitrary rule, the aggravation of that potential threat by externally generated democratic ideas, Shi'ite unrest inspired by the Iranians, military threats from Iraq (formerly) or Iran (currently and prospectively). Four, Saudi security has depended on juggling responses to these multiple threats with adroitness. The United States' availability to act as a stabilizing force in the region and their ultimate protector (as in 1990) has been one of their primary tools. Five, they managed to play this game skillfully despite contradictions associated with their American alliance AND their support for radical Islamist organizations that could and, in the case of al-Qaeda, actually did turn on them. So it is with ISIL now.

Six, the mix of the profane with the sacred threads in Saudi strategy has become increasingly combustible over the past thirteen years. As a consequence, their characteristic composure is dissolving under pressure. They have become rattled and mistake prone. Moreover, they hesitate to make the critical decisions that entail the setting of priorities and the acceptance in certain spheres of a level of uncertainty previously considered unacceptable. These are most evident in their implacable opposition to any understanding with Iran and lobbying for American military action whose ramifications very well could be highly dangerous to their rule.

The crowning of Prince Salman complicates matters. It means the return to power of the conservative Sudaïri branch of the Saud family. As has been pointed out by Alain Chouet, Salman was among the coterie who spearheaded the overall anti-shia, anti-Iran and anti-democratic initiatives of the Kingdom during his long tenure as Governor of Riyadh. Indeed, there is reason to believe that in the 90's he played a major role in the Saudi support given jihadi organizations - perhaps including Ben Laden. Moreover, he always has been an arch defender of the royal family's privileges and exclusive hold on power.

Washington has not helped matters by refraining from confronting the Saudis with these realities - despite the United States' own position and interests in the region being at stake. We tend to treat the Saudi leaders like debutantes with fragile psyches. In fact, they are as tough-minded and ruthless as anyone. Blunt comments recently from Prince Turki bin Faisal, long-time director general of Al Mukhabarat Al A'amah, Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency and former Ambassador to the U.S., along with others over the past couple of years, should have made that clear. There is no reason to carry circumlocution to the point where we cannot manage to get across a message vital to us and to them. At the end of the day, they are just "another bunch of politicians" to be treated with discretion but not as the holy of holies. Of course, to do so requires the kind of decisiveness on the part of American leaders that too is most noticeable by its absence. Our strategic disarray serves to perpetuate the Saudi's strategic disarray -and vice versa.

The critical points that need to be conveyed are these:

1. Encouragement of and support for jihadist groups who declare the United States to be the enemy of Islam is intolerable. They have spun out of anyone's control - constituting a manifest danger to America, its regional interests and all regimes with a stake in the status quo - the House of Saud above all. It is past time that Riyadh appraise with a finer filter whom they succor and to rein in private Saudi citizens who continue to back them.

2. ISIl and its associates is mainly a problem for Sunni regimes. For us they are a nuisance; for the Saudis et al they are a life-and-death matter. They have three choices: (1) give full support to military and political efforts to suppress ISI, including thorough-going cooperation with the Shi'ite controlled government in Baghdad; (2) appease ISIL by one means or another and risk being cannibalized by it; (3) leave it to Iran to deal with them. It is past time to choose.

3. Reaching a "modus vivendi" with Iran is preferable to continued hostility and confrontation. The strategic logic of a modus vivendi has constituted a sensible "third way" for all parties, ever since the nuclear issue has raised the tension level between the two sides.

Washington itself has invested far too little intellectual and diplomatic energy in encouraging the Saudis to re-conceptualize their strategic perspective accordingly. Rather, we have concentrated on gestures to assuage Saudi fears. One reason, of course, is that our urging a modus vivendi depends on our own readiness to pursue a modus vivendi with the IRI which domestic political circumstances and impoverished strategic thinking in the Obama administration militates against. In addition, we never seem to have understood how powerful the sectarian/historical dimension of the Saudi led Sunni vs Persian led Shi'ite Islamic civil war is in reinforcing the power competition. By siding with the Saudis et al on the latter, we are encouraging indirectly the former.

The Obama administration do not see how a nuclear accord with Iran could be a critical stepping stone toward easing these tensions. The implications for thinking about threat, response and risk within the House of Saud are correspondingly slighted. The Saudi leaders' dedication to eliminating the clerical regime in Tehran is underestimated and the tangled worries in Riyadh about the external threat, the legitimacy of their own rule, and the challenge from the Salafists they cannot control are not the subject of any comprehensive American policy.

We never were ready to bomb Iran back to the Neolithic Age because the Saudis ran out of valium. The United States and Iran are military allies in the campaign to rid Iraq of ISIL. It is time to put 2 and 2 together, to revise our attitude toward Riyadh and Teheran both. They will not agree on terms for co-existence on their own. For Washington to catalyze it would be a notable historic achievement.

Are there signs that Obama and his advisers are moving in this direction? Sadly, none at all. They remain locked into the sterile thinking that deepens everyone's dilemma and risks renewed conflagrations. What Washington desperately needs is some inspiration and creativity. Obama might consider summoning the shade of T.E. Lawrence - or perhaps Peter O'Toole. That is as promising as summoning all those flesh-and-blood luminaries on Air Force 1.