Don't Take Sides in Other People's Quarrels
It would be just as much of a mistake for the United States to tilt in favor of Iran in this conflict as it is to tilt in favor of Saudi Arabia. Taking either side in this rivalry, as with many other international rivalries, entails several disadvantages for the United States.
The fundamental disadvantage is that taking sides means the United States committing itself to objectives and interests that are someone else's, and not its own. An objective such as getting the upper hand in a local contest for influence may be a very rational objective for a local power to pursue, but that is not the same as what is in U.S. interests. Some of the objectives and policies, as is true with Saudi Arabia, may not even be very rational for the local power itself. Internal political weaknesses and rigidity may lie behind some of the local power's policies, as is true of the apparent Saudi inability to recognize the long-term threat that radical Salafism poses to Saudi Arabia itself and to shape policy accordingly. Sheer emotion may underlie other policies, as with how the Saudi obsession with toppling Syrian president Bashar Assad is related to possible Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who had close ties with Saudi Arabia.
Another disadvantage for the United States of taking sides in a conflict is that doing so immediately subjects the United States to resentment and disapproval because of whatever baggage has come to be associated with the conflict, in addition to whatever the immediate issues ostensibly are. The current state of Saudi-Iranian relations are a function not just of last week's execution of the Shia activist cleric but of several other things. One of the most prominent sore points in recent months, for example, has been the fatal stampede at last year's hajj, in which hundreds of Iranian pilgrims died. Iranians have been understandably infuriated with Saudi Arabia for letting this incident happen. Anyone taking Saudi Arabia's side on anything at issue with Iran right now may seem to be insensitive to this tragedy.
Related to the point about associated baggage is the strong sectarian flavor of the conflict. For the United States to be seen taking sides in a conflict between Sunni and Shia, amid the highly charged sectarian tensions along this fault line in the Middle East, can only be a lose-lose proposition for Washington. The United States is much more likely to be seen as an enemy of some part of Islam than as a friend of some other part of it.
A further disadvantage of taking sides is that it reduces the opportunities for U.S. diplomacy, which serves U.S. interests best when the United States can do business with anybody and everybody. Shrewd U.S. diplomacy exploits local rivalries to obtain leverage and to play different rivals against each other for the United States' own advantage. Stupid U.S. diplomacy would cut in half the number of other countries the United States can effectively deal with by declaring half of them to be on the “wrong” side of local conflicts. Diplomacy does not work well when one is using only carrots with some countries and only sticks with others.
Finally, one should always be wary of the danger of getting sucked into larger conflicts because of involvement with the spats of lesser states. The European crisis in the summer of 1914 is the classic case of this. An equivalent of World War I is unlikely to break out in the Middle East, but this is just one of the costs and risks that constitute good reasons for the United States not to make as its own the quarrels of others, no matter how deeply ingrained is the habit of talking about certain states as allies and certain others as adversaries.
Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor to the National Interest. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/sayyed shahab-o- din vajedi.