Despite their obvious and lasting differences, current Saudi and Israeli decision-makers share a distaste for Barack Obama and a deep connection with partisan allies in Washington and their own political prospects at home, and equate the outcomes with their own national interests. The recent and unprecedented Saudi decision to refuse its first-ever seat on the United Nations Security Council, and to downgrade cooperation with the United States, is as baffling as it is significant. The current Israeli government innately mistrusts and disrespects Obama policies, even as it supports his initiatives.
Let's jettison the humbling assumption that the dysfunctional battles of U.S. domestic politics matter more than intrigue and positioning within -- and by -- the countries we seek to influence. Granted, America can't get its act together: Democrats and Republicans can't even agree on paying our bills, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham remain obsessed with the Benghazi raid, and now the president can't get Congress to support the use of force... anywhere.
That simple explanation doesn't do justice to history or current reality. Israel and Saudi Arabia, have domestic considerations of their own, at home and in Washington, which C-SPAN, Fox and CNN are not available to showcase 24/7. In explaining Israeli and Saudi unease with Washington's policy on Syria, Iran, Egypt and Palestine, Republicans smugly claim the president has squandered our two best friendships in the region, accepting foreign bluster at face value and rarely acknowledging the GOP's own close political, ideological and financial links to those now controlling those countries.
Yes, the administration initially overplayed Israel's obligations in the peace process. But on Iran, the president has held steady and is not relaxing sanctions (nor expanding them) while he engages Iran on the nuclear file. On Syria, he could have fired cruise missiles before American or British politicians had a chance to weigh in, but since Afghanistan and Iraq, the dynamic of U.S. intervention remains... complicated. Obama was compelled to keep backing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak until he teetered, but excusing the military coup that toppled his successor would be untenable. And yet, for certain Saudis, these acts are apparently unforgivable.
The Saudi regime is premised upon notions of political Islam which are no less radical than those of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, with the goal of turning the entire Islamic world to its own shade of Sunni tribalism and all the while treating outsiders as supplicants. It is no coincidence that Osama bin Laden was born of Saudi privilege, that Al Qaeda once operated freely within the Kingdom, that nearly all 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, or that the Saudi-backed militias fighting to "liberate" Syria are primarily allied with or sympathetic to Al Qaeda.
For U.S. policy in the Middle East, whether Republican or Democratic, there are no easy choices or obvious wins. Americans are still broke and broken at home, and our international clout remains thin following our trillion-dollar Mideast misadventure. Nevertheless, the president has managed to tighten multilateral sanctions against Iran, and to brave the risky yet inescapable regime change in Libya -- under NATO's flag and with the grudging consent of Russia and China. The Palestinian and Syrian tracks are both largely stalemated, each for its own reasons. Iran and Syria are each poised to concede their weapons of mass destruction in exchange for the freedom to continue massacring their own citizens and foreigners, respectively, through conventional means and terrorism. Egypt was the explosion waiting to happen, and thanks to Mubarak's complete neglect of any democratic transition, we are faced with a devil's choice between military-backed puppets and Iranian-sponsored Islamists, all while continuing to send cash.
Libya, Egypt and Syria were never going to be easy transitions, which is why successive U.S. administrations were careful not to be the cause of any overthrow or civil war. Iran could prove no less cataclysmic, which is why the consistent emphasis by American hardliners on "regime change" in Tehran is both unwise and unappealing.
The last-minute Saudi rejection of its hard-fought Council seat highlights the easily forgotten truth, that both theocratic systems -- the Shiite in Iran and the Wahhabist in Saudi Arabia -- are not "conservative," they are radically fundamentalist. Iran's revolution turned centuries of submissive theology on their head with a triumphalist and defiant political ideology, and the Saudi oil wealth has enabled an equally absolutist if quieter all-encompassing state apparatus which brooks no open dissent. For so long, the Saudis have seemed to act in a careful, conservative manner, and then last week they ditched all protocol, caution and ROI by spurning the very prize they had long sought, and with an explicit expression of frustration and scorn.
Saudi and Israeli pushback has as much to do with clash of national interests as with domestic politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Saudi Princes Bandar and Turki have tried for years to turn their mastery of international affairs into real power back in Riyadh, and apparently an aging and frustrated King Abdullah sees their opportunism as a way to keep his potential successors guessing and off guard. If Saudi Arabia is finally putting its foot down on Palestine after 65 years of lip service, it may as well include the 1919 Versailles Treaty on its list of grievances.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu certainly has inherited an ideological bunker mentality of a Jewish state responding to perpetual existential threats with ideological purity and territorial expanse. But especially now, with his broad governing coalition leaning to the right of his own longstanding positions, he has every incentive to seek and exploit all potential and perceived dangers to Israel's stability and existence -- with no room for nuance. This means picking new fights with the Obama administration, and siding with his partisan American counterparts, even as he formally supports every one of the president's Middle East policies.
The third domestic swamp, in which both Saudi and Israeli leaders are fully ensconced, is that of U.S. politics. The biggest plug for Saudi designs in the Middle East -- that the United States should launch a nuclear strike against Iran -- came last week from none other than Vegas casino boss Sheldon Adelson, the single largest donor to both the Republicans and to Netanyahu's Likud.
The Saudi royals and Israel's Likud are tightly bound to the GOP establishment. "Bandar Bush" was no random nickname, and Netanyahu's team was trash-talking Obama even before his 2008 nomination as the Democratic candidate for president. Neither one has an interest in lifting the Democratic Party brand, whether for Obama or any future nominee.
Iran and Syria are substantive threats to stability, which is hardly lost on President Obama. Certainly, the "Arab Spring" threatens the very status quo which undergirds Netanyahu and the Saudi court, each in their own way. But in figuring out how Washington should respond to the audacious Saudi turnabout, or Netanyahu's alternate tempestuous warnings and feet-dragging, it may help to realize that much of their anger and resistance depends upon internal politics and gamesmanship in all three capitals. "National interest" may be a convenient coincidence.