America Would Benefit from a Balance of Power in the Persian Gulf
MbS also launched last year’s de facto blockade of Qatar, which divided the Gulf—the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain joined Riyadh, while Oman and Kuwait remained neutral—and pushed Doha toward both Iran and Turkey. Although the KSA claimed to be targeting terrorism, historically it has been one of the most important sources of money and people for terrorists, especially those targeting America. President Trump tweeted his support for Riyadh, but the Departments of State and Defense tilted toward Qatar.
More recently MbS invited the Lebanese prime minister to Saudi Arabia, then effectively kidnapped him and forced him to proclaim his resignation. International pressure forced the kingdom to release Saad Hariri, after which he recanted his resignation. The KSA threatened to destroy that nation’s fragile peace in an attempt to weaken the Shia Hezbollah movement, backed by Iran, but ended up strengthening Riyadh’s opponents.
MbS’ pursuit of Mideast hegemony would be antithetical to U.S. interests at most any time. Adding to his recklessness is the fact his primary target is Iran. Admittedly, the latter poses an existential threat to a royal form of government which makes no sense in the modern age. Although Tehran’s Islamic dictatorship begs for a popular revolution, at least the existing Iranian government is based on principle, though highly flawed. People are willing to die for Islam. But for a pampered royal elite which believes itself to be entitled to power, position, wealth, and more? Not so much.
So the crown prince hopes to convince—or, more likely, manipulate—the Trump administration to do Riyadh’s dirty work and attack Iran. Indeed, MbS’s government charged Tehran with alleged committing an act of war by allegedly arming Yemen with missiles which were being fired at Riyadh. The claim was unsupported. Moreover, Saudi Arabia was routinely bombing Yemen, including the capital of Sanaa, and had killed thousands of civilians. Contending that Yemenis had no right to fight back was, well, obscene. Such is the Saudi code of war.
The United States needs to put distance between it and a regime that undermines both U.S. values and interests. Best for America would be rough parity between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Despite fear-mongering promoted by both the Saudi and Israeli governments, Tehran so far poses little threat to anyone, especially the United States.
Iran’s military forces and outlays dramatically trail those of Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Although Republican politicians routinely tar Tehran as a terrorist regime, Riyadh has done far more to underwrite terrorist movements, which almost always are Sunni rather than Shia. Before President Trump foolishly united much of Iran’s population behind the sectarian Islamist regime, President Barack Obama’s outreach and nuclear agreement had created the possibility of a better future, encouraging a long-term political battle between younger, professional and urban Iranians and discredited if still powerful Islamic fundamentalists.
As for Iran’s alleged geopolitical gains, none impress: greater influence in the political wreckage known as the Assad government; temporary increase in clout with one Yemeni faction in a nation riven by civil war which has never known peace and stability; and maintenance of an indirect role in Lebanon’s badly fractured society through Hezbollah, but with little practical international effect. Most significant may be Iran’s increased clout in Iraq, which, of course, was a gift from George W. Bush, who removed Saddam Hussein from power. That predictably enhanced the role of Iraq’s majority Shia neighbor, in which many of today’s Iraqi elite sheltered during Hussein’s dictatorship. Still, most Iraqis have no interest in being governed by Tehran.
The Trump administration would well start by ending U.S. support for the KSA’s murderous and purposeless war in Yemen. The president should indicate that Saudi Arabia’s efforts would better be directed against any remaining pockets of ISIS fighters. He also should back Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson by criticizing Riyadh’s foolish attempt to turn Qatar into a puppet state. Assuming MbS is serious about battling Islamic extremism, Washington should suggest that the crown prince end his nation’s support for intolerant Wahhabism abroad while doing more to clean up textbooks and sermons at home.
Rather than inadvertently aid Iran’s radicals by legitimizing their meme of eternal American hostility, the United States should expand prospective opportunities for a reformed Iran, encouraging political struggle within. And Washington should push the kingdom and UAE to do the same, essentially following the softer line offered by Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. If MbS wants to start a war with Iran, he should know he will be on his own.
During the Cold War Washington’s close embrace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made a certain strategic sense, though the enthusiasm exhibited by American policymakers never did. Today a far more limited, arms-length relationship is needed. Despite acclaim for MbS as a far-sighted reformer, his chief talents appear to be accumulating and abusing power. Perhaps he will mature over time, but American policy should not be dependent on such a transformation.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon).