The Khashoggi affair has prompted the reevaluation of America foreign policy in the Middle East where realism, interests and American values collide. This is an opportunity to take a fresh look at our relationships with the Sunni Gulf States, as we confront the challenge of an aggressive Shi’ite Iran.
Is Saudi Arabia still an essential American ally?
Karen Elliott House, commenting in The Wall Street Journal
, said, “The (Khashoggi) controversy begs a larger question: Does Saudi Arabia still matter to the US? The surprising answer is: not much.”
Yet according to Michael Pregent, writing in Foreign Policy, “While Tehran continues to sow anti-American terrorism across the Middle East, Riyadh holds the key to regional stability.”
So which is it? Is Saudi Arabia an indispensable American ally, or is it less indispensable now that America is oil independent?
Michael Doran and Tony Badran of the Hudson Institute and Foundation for Defense of Democracies respectively, wrote in The New York Times, “Whatever Prince Mohammed’s faults may be, he actively supports the American regional order that the Iranians openly seek to destroy. Mr. Trump’s critics are asking us to believe that the priority for stabilizing the Middle East today is distancing the United States from one of its oldest allies and instead working to achieve a balance of power between Riyadh and Tehran.”
That hits the nail on the head, as Saudi Arabia’s importance as a counterweight to Iranian hegemony has eclipsed in importance its energy resources. It is indeed in America’s interest to foster stability in the regime, as any instability would embolden the Iranians and its proxies. No matter how illiberal this monarchy is, what could follow if the House of Saud collapsed could be ISIS on steroids.
There is blatant hypocrisy where those who are outraged by the killing of one Jamal Khashoggi and want to undermine the American relationship with the Saudis, are the same people who have been leading the charge to stop treating the Iranian regime as an enemy of us and of our humanitarian values. Iran’s many years of state sponsorship of terrorism, its role in the Syrian genocide and ethnic cleansing of Sunnis, and repression of disagreement within Iran don’t raise the same ire they have for Saudi Arabia.
John Bradley, writing in The Spectator last year, said we should “Forget our misguided friendship with Saudi Arabia: Iran is our natural ally. Wahhabism… is the gravest threat to Western security and values.”
He does have a point. The Sunni Gulf States’ support for exporting this most intolerant form of Sunni Islamism (Wahhabism) has irredeemably radicalized nuclear-armed Pakistan, Pakistanis in England, and even convicts in the American prison system. Yet, sadly, every American administration for the last century has chosen economic interests over any value-based foreign policy in dealing with the Gulf.
Hal Brands, the Henry Kissinger Professor at Johns Hopkins Advanced International Studies, wrote in Bloomberg that the Khashoggi “crisis has also revived a much older dilemma in American strategy: How to deal with allies that also happen to morally abhorrent, even murderous, dictatorships.”
Let’s be clear, we should strive for a foreign policy based on our American values. But in reality, to advance our interests, we are forced to deal with an Arab world that does not share our value system or have respect for Western democratic ideals. This is not condescension, but it is something that must be acknowledged in order to create a realistic American foreign policy going forward.
America cannot simply slap the wrist of the Saudis, as the Khashoggi fiasco has crossed a line we cannot ignore. A temporary suspension of arms shipments is a likely possibility among many options. It must be made clear to the Crown Prince (MBS) that we can only be a reliable ally if he doesn’t cross our red lines. An important first step is better communication at the highest levels on a regular basis.
But we would do well to remember the words of former UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick in her famous article “Dictators and Double Standards” in Commentary. “Traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies ... and that they are more compatible with US interests.”
Although the words were written nearly 40 years ago, they apply to today. Authoritarian regimes like the conservative Persian Gulf states are more aligned to our security interests than revolutionary jihadists like Iran, where ideology and hatred of the West outweigh economic benefits.
America held its nose and aligned with the evil Stalin in World War II to confront the greater danger of Nazism. Once that menace was eradicated, the US confronted Communism in a 45-year Cold War that we also won.
Being aligned over shared interests is by its nature temporary; only democracies can have true lasting friendships. However, in the Middle East, other than Israel, there are no democracies, only authoritarian and revolutionary regimes to choose from.
America for its interests, not values, needs to repair its relationship with Saudis. Five years from now we may take a different path, but for now the Iranians are America’s greatest strategic challenge in the Middle East and the Saudis do share our common interest against Iran.
America for the moment has some leverage on the Saudis, and now would be the time to trade a rehabilitation of MSB for a more open relationship with Israel beyond secretive intelligence and security coordination.
In addition, now is the time to use that leverage to restrain the Saudis’ export of radical Wahhabism. Although incredibly important, this is a heavy lift for the royal family that has been in cahoots with the Wahhabi clerics for decades, but a small change is possible if MBS is to return to his Vision 2030 strategy for a more modernized monarchy.
We rehabilitated the Saudis after 9/11; we should be able to again post-Khashoggi. It is certainly uncomfortable for our values to deal with any of these regimes, but it is pretty clearly in our interest in this case.
Swallow hard, this is the Middle East.The writer, director of the Middle East Political Information Network, regularly briefs Senate and House members and their foreign policy advisors. He is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill and The Forward.
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