US-Saudi relations a case study in foreign policy complexity

06/21/2017 03:49 pm ET

We usually look at American foreign policy in the context of large strategic concerns, global politics and questions about the United States' role in the world. But we can get a different perspective by examining a specific bilateral relationship between the U.S. and another country.

A good example is our relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has been the subject of much analysis in the wake of President Donald Trump's visit to Riyadh last month.

Founded in 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a population of about 30 million people. It is the fifth-largest country in the Middle East by population and the largest by area. Thanks largely to oil wealth, its per-capita GDP is comparable to that of the U.S.

It has considerable worldwide influence, both because it has 16 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and because it is considered the birthplace of Islam and home of two of the religion's holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. It punches above its weight in global affairs.

The relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia is often described as a partnership. The partnership has been based on a deal: We would get access to affordable oil, and the Saudis would get our help in preserving the security of the kingdom. That fundamental understanding served both countries well for a period of time.

We now share many economic, security and geopolitical concerns with Saudi Arabia and have grown closer over the years, but there is a long history of ups and downs in the relationship. A low point came with the 9/11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The attacks strained the partnership for a period of time. The Saudi leadership did not like the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which had very little do with al-Qaida.

I recall a number of meetings with Saudi officials during my years in Washington. The meetings were cordial but a bit stiff. The relationship was not an easy, free-flowing one. The Saudis are very sensitive to interference in their internal affairs, and they are eager to advance their own interests.

Now Trump has given us an interesting twist. He's gone all out in aligning U.S. interests with Saudi Arabia and taking a confrontational approach toward Iran, Saudi Arabia's nemesis and rival for influence in the region. This reverses our previous approach of staying relatively neutral.

While security challenges defined the U.S.-Saudi relationship in the past, we now pay more attention to Saudi Arabia's domestic and foreign policies and its place as a regional power. We have a common interest in opposing terrorism. We follow closely any succession in Saudi leadership and changes in the monarchy, as we did this week when King Salman named his son as the new crown prince. We are always interested in their plans for reform, and oil production.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has developed a more aggressive foreign policy, launching air strikes against anti-government rebels in Yemen and engaging in proxy conflicts with Iran and Syria. Saudi Arabia spends billions of dollars to spread an ultraconservative brand of Islam, helping ISIS and other extremists. Internally, it has a lot of problems, including corruption, unemployment and the slow pace of reform. We are deeply concerned that it doesn't pay enough attention to human rights abuses or provide opportunities for all its people.

Trump's alignment of the U.S. with Saudi Arabia and against Iran carries real risks. It makes it appear that we're taking sides in the great divide in the Islamic world, supporting the Sunnis and opposing the Shiites. We have traditionally avoided this conflict, treating it as an Islamic question that we can't solve and shouldn't try to. Taking sides, I think, is a mistake.

It's true that Iran is a source of many serious problems with its support for terrorist organizations and the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. But it is a major force in the region, and it has shown some signs of reform, including the landslide election last month of moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

Saudi Arabia doesn't know what a ballot box looks like. It makes no pretense of democracy. It is a rigid monarchy in which a few thousand people are in an elite category and the rest of the people in the country lack basic rights and opportunities. I've become very skeptical of Saudi assurances that they will undertake political, social and economic reforms. They've been saying that for decades, and I don't see much change. I get the sense that, when they talk about reforms, they don't have any intention of following through.

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is a country we can admire without reservation or support uncritically. So I'm much more comfortable with an American foreign policy that does not align itself with either but works with them when our interests coincide and opposes them when our interests diverge.

Working through this relationship, with all of its pluses and minuses, is a real challenge for U.S. diplomacy, and it illustrates how complex foreign policy can be. We have difficult bilateral relations with numerous countries, situations in which our interests both coincide and diverge. Multiply the case of Saudi Arabia many times over and you get some sense of the challenges facing American foreign policy.

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