The Kingdom -- and Washington -- at Sea

06/30/2011 11:17 am ET | Updated Aug 30, 2011
  • Michael Brenner Senior Fellow, the Center for Transatlantic Relations; Professor of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh

The House of Saud is moving energetically with an audacious strategy that aims to configure the Middle East's political map to match its own conception of what the regional political order should look like. It has two prime ingredients: to stymie and then reverse the reform movement of the Arab spring; and mobilizing an alliance of the like interested to turn the vise on the clerical regime in Iran so as to starve it of resources and ultimately to topple it. Leaders in Riyadh are pulling out all stops in a campaign to enlist the United States as a charter member. Washington shows signs of sympathetic interest.

The strategy has been sketched in considerable detail by Prince Turki Al Faisal, an influential member of the royal family who directed the Saudi intelligence service for years as well as serving as Interior Minister and Ambassador to Washington. Speaking in London at a private meeting of senior military officers, he was reported by the WSJ as underscoring the imperative of counteracting growing Iranian influence and assertiveness by all means necessary. The keystone of the emerging Saudi strategy is concerted effort by the United States, Saudi Arabia and other conservative Sunni forces to coordinate on a sustained basis a multifaceted 'full court press' of Iran. A critical element is a plan to starve Iran of oil revenues by undercutting its position as a major oil exporter. The implied oil boycott would be accompanied by expanded Saudi production so at to keep international oil markets in equilibrium.

Since the prince's proposals for a coalition to pursue a reinvigorated program for 'squeezing' Iran is a trial balloon that reflects official thinking in Riyadh, then it is high time that the Obama White House recognize the risks and dangers of proceeding along these lines. For the past several months during which the House of Saud has nominated itself to lead a counter-revolution against the "Arab Spring,' Washington has given indications that it is not terribly disturbed by the prospect. Nor has it grasped the significance of the Saudis and their clients casting the issue in terms of Iranian meddling, those alleged provocations being portrayed as alarming evidence of the threat they face. They see that threat as rooted in an inescapable power contest between the rival Sunni and Shi'ite branches of Islam. Surely, an enlightened long-term American strategy would recognize that tacit acceptance of this view bodes ill for Gulf stability and American interests throughout the Middle East.

The circumstantial evidence suggests that the Obama people have no comprehensive strategy -- much less one that is enlightened and long-term. Instead, our policies bounce around like a pin-ball that is impelled by one of our four preoccupations: Israel, Iran, 'the war on terror' and oil. 'Terror' leads us to refrain from opposing Mr. Saleh in Yemen until we have lost all credibility with his successors while launching desperate incursions against AQAP in the hopes of doing irreparable damage before a newly constituted authority asserts its sovereignty. At that point, such authority may be less than happy about American high-handed actions on their territory. Still Washington is already weighing plans to flood the country with military aid once order is restored -- whatever that will mean. As to Iran, we mimic the Saudis in making impolitic (and unsubstantiated) statements about 'some' Iranian presence in Bahrain, misstating the status of its nuclear program, and blaming Tehran for mischief making in Afghanistan as well as Iraq. As for Israel, we seem devoted to ensuring that there will be no Palestinian settlement. Instead, we apparently are entertaining the idea of reconstituting our concert of kings and despots who, together with Israel, will struggle mightily to buttress the status quo throughout the region -- however great the future cost. Even Syria is being viewed a possible future member of this coalition once peeled away from the insidious influence of Tehran.

The Iranian obsession dictates our policies in Lebanon and in regard to Hezbollah as well. Currently Washington is doing everything with its power to topple the Hezbollah-led government in Beirut and to replace it with pliable Sunni and (some) Christian friends.

Similarly, the White House is exerting itself mightily to block Hamas' tentative modus vivendi with Fatah. Our immediate objective is to restore the status quo ante of Gaza under siege. To this end, we pressure the military interim government in Egypt not to allow more than a trickle of Gazans out of their cage. In sum, we subscribe wholly to the Israeli -- and now Saudi -- line that both Hezbollah and Hamas are spawn of the Persian devil to be shunned.

In effect, the United States is coming to define the region in terms of the apocalyptic sectarian battle between Sunnis and Shi'ites in the 7th century. Worse, Washington is taking sides. That is the abyss that ignorance and hubris has delivered us into.

What about oil -- the lifeblood of a modern economies and the sine qua non for global well-being? Logic suggests that stability should be our overriding concern -- as it is for all other consumers. How the Obama people expect stability to emerge from this hodge-podge of half-baked and ill conceived policies defies rational understanding.