THE BLOG

White House to House of Saud

The House of Saud is badly rattled -- fearful of internal unrest, fearful of Shi'ite subversion, multifaceted fear of Persia, fear of being let down by Washington.  Out of this maelstrom of anxiety has come a dedication to breaking the momentum of reform movements across the region.  It has taken up the sword to be champion of a counter-revolutionary coalition.  In some places, that means being the reactionary power.  Its will to resist is hardened by feelings of being betrayed by the United States, which has not given its longstanding partners, like Hosni Mubarak, full backing.  Hurt feelings are aggravated by the belief that Washington's reckless invasion in Iraq has upset a satisfactory status quo and opened the door to threats of various kinds.   Obama's response has been a campaign to placate the irate Saudis.  It conforms to the way he deals with all strong, willful parties -- with predictable lamentable results.  Appeasement was the purpose of Robert Gates' visit to Riyadh last week.  A feature of this approach is to say not a word about Bahrain and to moderate rhetorical as well as already equivocal actions in support of Middle Eastern democracy.  An attempt to ease strains with an important ally is reasonable.  Being on the defensive with tings of apologia is not reasonable.  Here are five points that should be made to the House of Saud:  
  1. We act in our best interests just as you do.  While we share core interests, there is some divergence in how we view the ingredients for long term stability in the region, and in how we view opportunities created by the reform movements.  That is in the nature of international life.
  2. It is part of our national identity to present ourselves as the cynosure of democratic political principles and that image is one of our assets.  This is no different from you seeing your country as Guardian of the Holy Sites of Islam and your self-defined interest in underwriting a transnational network of madrassas that promote Wahabism.  In many of those schools, virulently anti-Western and particularly anti-American views are propagated.  We have refrained from making this a contentious issue.  Correspondingly, you do not have a valid grievance because we promote democracy on a discriminating basis.
  3. The heated verbal combat with Iran is counter productive.  It heightens tensions without adding anything that can advance our convergent objectives in containing Iranian influence.  You have supported some egregious acts on the Shia in Bahrain. Indeed, your agents have been implicated in the desecration of Shi'ite mosques, shrines and cemeteries.  The United States sees a region wide sectarian confrontation between Sunnis and Shia as jeopardizing major interests of the United States in a stable region, in countering terrorism and in holding in check extremist elements.  We would like you to consider how some of your own interests may be similarly jeopardized.
  4. You have in the past taken some constructive initiatives in attempting to mediate between Fatah and Hamas, between Hezbollah and the Sunni-Christian coalition.  We undercut your efforts.  That was an error.  Let's now work together in a renewed strategy to further political accommodation in both places. 
  5. This is business, not personal.
  Alas, we're not very good at this sort of diplomacy.