Blogs: Paul Pillar

U.S. Sanctions Spite Europe, Not Just Iran

Hillary the Hawk

What Have the Saudis Done For Us Lately?

Paul Pillar

Current unhappiness of the Saudi regime about the United States involves matters on which the United States and Saudi Arabia do not share interests, and on which U.S. interests would not be served by deferring to Saudi wishes. Such deference would, among other things, complicate the counterterrorist mission. It would do so in Syria, where the Saudi fixation on overthrowing the Assad regime already has been a major complication in dealing with the problem of ISIS. It certainly is so in Yemen, where the Saudi-led military intervention has given a major boost to AQAP—Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that has attempted multiple attacks against the U.S. homeland.

The Saudi displeasure centers in particular on wanting the United States to take its side in regional rivalries, especially its rivalry with Iran. It is not in the U.S. interest to take either side in such a contest for local influence, any more than it is for the United States to succumb to the zero-summing proclivities of Pakistan and India in their rivalry in South Asia. If the United States were to take a side in the Persian Gulf rivalry, what would justify siding with the Saudis? It wouldn't be a matter of countering a destabilization of the region; in the most consequential war going on in the Middle East right now, it is the Saudis, not the Iranians, who are supporting rebels trying to overthrow the incumbent regime. It would not be a matter of countering the sheer destructiveness of external mucking into internal wars; the direct Saudi military intervention in Yemen has been much more destructive, to the point of generating a humanitarian crisis, than anything that can be attributed to indirect Iranian involvement in the form of aid to the Houthis. It would not be a matter of countering the projection of military power that props up a minority regime and suppresses popular sovereignty; it was the Saudis, not the Iranians, who rolled their tanks across the causeway into Bahrain. It would not be a matter of countering the spread of strategic ballistic missiles in the Middle East; the Saudis were way ahead of the Iranians in introducing such weapons when they purchased CSS-2 intermediate range ballistic missiles from China years ago.

Neither would it be a matter of siding with the regional contestant who shares more values with the United States. The family-run Saudi regime is one of the least democratic in the world, reigning over a society in which there is no freedom of religion and significant constraints on other personal liberties. Again by way of comparison, the Islamic Republic of Iran, for all its major domestic faults, is less distant from the West in these respects than Saudi Arabia is.

And siding with Riyadh in its local rivalries would not be a matter of doing so because of anything special that the United States is getting out of the relationship in return.

It is in the interests of both the United States and Saudi Arabia to have a businesslike relationship in which leaders and diplomats of the two countries regularly engage on the full range of issues that concern them. If the Saudis are unhappy that the relationship isn't any warmer, fuzzier, or more alliance-like than businesslike engagement, that is a reflection of the divisions of interests between the two countries, and of the fact that the Saudis need the United States more than the United States needs them. It also is a reflection of U.S. policy-makers having their priorities straight and not being confused by habitual labeling of “allies.” If there doesn't seem to be a lot of harmony in U.S.-Saudi relations these days, there is nothing particularly wrong with that. 

Image: Flickr/The White House

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Principle and Pragmatism, Here and Abroad

Paul Pillar

Current unhappiness of the Saudi regime about the United States involves matters on which the United States and Saudi Arabia do not share interests, and on which U.S. interests would not be served by deferring to Saudi wishes. Such deference would, among other things, complicate the counterterrorist mission. It would do so in Syria, where the Saudi fixation on overthrowing the Assad regime already has been a major complication in dealing with the problem of ISIS. It certainly is so in Yemen, where the Saudi-led military intervention has given a major boost to AQAP—Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that has attempted multiple attacks against the U.S. homeland.

The Saudi displeasure centers in particular on wanting the United States to take its side in regional rivalries, especially its rivalry with Iran. It is not in the U.S. interest to take either side in such a contest for local influence, any more than it is for the United States to succumb to the zero-summing proclivities of Pakistan and India in their rivalry in South Asia. If the United States were to take a side in the Persian Gulf rivalry, what would justify siding with the Saudis? It wouldn't be a matter of countering a destabilization of the region; in the most consequential war going on in the Middle East right now, it is the Saudis, not the Iranians, who are supporting rebels trying to overthrow the incumbent regime. It would not be a matter of countering the sheer destructiveness of external mucking into internal wars; the direct Saudi military intervention in Yemen has been much more destructive, to the point of generating a humanitarian crisis, than anything that can be attributed to indirect Iranian involvement in the form of aid to the Houthis. It would not be a matter of countering the projection of military power that props up a minority regime and suppresses popular sovereignty; it was the Saudis, not the Iranians, who rolled their tanks across the causeway into Bahrain. It would not be a matter of countering the spread of strategic ballistic missiles in the Middle East; the Saudis were way ahead of the Iranians in introducing such weapons when they purchased CSS-2 intermediate range ballistic missiles from China years ago.

Neither would it be a matter of siding with the regional contestant who shares more values with the United States. The family-run Saudi regime is one of the least democratic in the world, reigning over a society in which there is no freedom of religion and significant constraints on other personal liberties. Again by way of comparison, the Islamic Republic of Iran, for all its major domestic faults, is less distant from the West in these respects than Saudi Arabia is.

And siding with Riyadh in its local rivalries would not be a matter of doing so because of anything special that the United States is getting out of the relationship in return.

It is in the interests of both the United States and Saudi Arabia to have a businesslike relationship in which leaders and diplomats of the two countries regularly engage on the full range of issues that concern them. If the Saudis are unhappy that the relationship isn't any warmer, fuzzier, or more alliance-like than businesslike engagement, that is a reflection of the divisions of interests between the two countries, and of the fact that the Saudis need the United States more than the United States needs them. It also is a reflection of U.S. policy-makers having their priorities straight and not being confused by habitual labeling of “allies.” If there doesn't seem to be a lot of harmony in U.S.-Saudi relations these days, there is nothing particularly wrong with that. 

Image: Flickr/The White House

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President Obama Should Visit Hiroshima

Paul Pillar

Current unhappiness of the Saudi regime about the United States involves matters on which the United States and Saudi Arabia do not share interests, and on which U.S. interests would not be served by deferring to Saudi wishes. Such deference would, among other things, complicate the counterterrorist mission. It would do so in Syria, where the Saudi fixation on overthrowing the Assad regime already has been a major complication in dealing with the problem of ISIS. It certainly is so in Yemen, where the Saudi-led military intervention has given a major boost to AQAP—Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group that has attempted multiple attacks against the U.S. homeland.

The Saudi displeasure centers in particular on wanting the United States to take its side in regional rivalries, especially its rivalry with Iran. It is not in the U.S. interest to take either side in such a contest for local influence, any more than it is for the United States to succumb to the zero-summing proclivities of Pakistan and India in their rivalry in South Asia. If the United States were to take a side in the Persian Gulf rivalry, what would justify siding with the Saudis? It wouldn't be a matter of countering a destabilization of the region; in the most consequential war going on in the Middle East right now, it is the Saudis, not the Iranians, who are supporting rebels trying to overthrow the incumbent regime. It would not be a matter of countering the sheer destructiveness of external mucking into internal wars; the direct Saudi military intervention in Yemen has been much more destructive, to the point of generating a humanitarian crisis, than anything that can be attributed to indirect Iranian involvement in the form of aid to the Houthis. It would not be a matter of countering the projection of military power that props up a minority regime and suppresses popular sovereignty; it was the Saudis, not the Iranians, who rolled their tanks across the causeway into Bahrain. It would not be a matter of countering the spread of strategic ballistic missiles in the Middle East; the Saudis were way ahead of the Iranians in introducing such weapons when they purchased CSS-2 intermediate range ballistic missiles from China years ago.

Neither would it be a matter of siding with the regional contestant who shares more values with the United States. The family-run Saudi regime is one of the least democratic in the world, reigning over a society in which there is no freedom of religion and significant constraints on other personal liberties. Again by way of comparison, the Islamic Republic of Iran, for all its major domestic faults, is less distant from the West in these respects than Saudi Arabia is.

And siding with Riyadh in its local rivalries would not be a matter of doing so because of anything special that the United States is getting out of the relationship in return.

It is in the interests of both the United States and Saudi Arabia to have a businesslike relationship in which leaders and diplomats of the two countries regularly engage on the full range of issues that concern them. If the Saudis are unhappy that the relationship isn't any warmer, fuzzier, or more alliance-like than businesslike engagement, that is a reflection of the divisions of interests between the two countries, and of the fact that the Saudis need the United States more than the United States needs them. It also is a reflection of U.S. policy-makers having their priorities straight and not being confused by habitual labeling of “allies.” If there doesn't seem to be a lot of harmony in U.S.-Saudi relations these days, there is nothing particularly wrong with that. 

Image: Flickr/The White House

Pages

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