The Skeptics

Israel, Saudi Arabia and Russia: 3 Nations America's Next President Must Watch Closely

Whether one believes that the Obama administration’s foreign policy has been pathetically ineffective and overtly cautious or strategically smart and groundbreaking, there are a certain set of facts that are impossible to avoid.  America’s relationship with traditional allies in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe are either under strain or are changing; there are a number of crises that won’t be going away anytime soon; and America’s friends, allies, and partners will still expect the United States to lead the effort to resolve them.

Here are a few diplomatic relationships that the 45th Commander-in-Chief and the next Secretary of State will need to keep an eye on:

1.  Israel:  

The recent ten-year, $38 billion defense agreement between the United States and Israel that includes all of the latest bells and whistles is by all accounts and extraordinary act of friendship from Washington and a signal to Israeli officials across the political spectrum that the U.S. isn’t going anywhere.  The U.S.-Israel partnership is so close and so deep that any disagreement among political leaders or personality clashes between U.S. and Israeli officials aren’t ruinous enough to poison intelligence, defense, and economic cooperation that has lasted since Israel’s very foundation as a state.

What personality clashes can do, however, is make the environment far more negative by complicating progress. Eight years of Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have taken its toll, and one doesn’t need to be an expert on diplomacy or a historian of U.S.-Israel relations to understand that the two men’s butting heads over the Iran nuclear deal, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, and settlement building has worried a lot of people who are used to a unified front.  The next president will have a lot of baggage in Netanyahu, who has survived eight years dealing with a colleague in the U.S. that was far more progressive on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than he would have liked.  The Iran nuclear agreement is no longer as large of an issue as it was in 2014 and 2015, but the Palestinian issue will remain a soar spot in bilateral relations that a President Clinton or Trump will fast have to reconcile.  As longtime Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller has written, "Even though the next president will undoubtedly have a less contentious relationship with Bibi, whatever honeymoon a fresh start provides will likely be short-lived.”  

2. Saudi Arabia:  

The next president will have the same problem with Saudi Arabia as he or she will have with Israel:  a certain amount of tension and distrust that could get worse if contacts aren’t handled with deftness.  Yes, the Obama administration has sold a record $115 billion in defense articles and services to the Saudis during his two terms.  And U.S. diplomats have often gone to bat for the Saudis at the U.N. Security Council and Human Rights Council when the subject of Yemen comes up (watering down a Human Rights Council resolution that would have established an independent international inquiry on human rights abuses and potential war crimes during the Yemen conflict, for instance).

But not all is well. The Obama administration’s two-year long quest to negotiate with the Saudi’s arch rival in Iran over its nuclear program was only grudgingly accepted by Riyadh when the talks finally produced an agreement. Washington kept the Saudis in the dark during most of the discussions with the Iranians, adding insult to injury.  Obama’s tough-love approach hasn’t improved the tenure of the relationship either, even if the president brought up some good points about the Saudis being unhelpful in their region since Salman succeeded his half-brother Abdullah as king of the monarchy (just read this interview in the Atlantic).  How the next Commander-in-Chief navigates this partnership will be like dancing on the heads of snakes, as the former Yemeni president-turned-rebel troublemaker Ali Abdullah Saleh once said.  After all, how does one tell the Saudis what they really need to hear without upsetting them?

3.  Russia:  

U.S.-Russia relations are in disrepair. On Syria, Ukraine, NATO, human rights, cybersecurity, and everything else in between, Obama and Putin are about as frosty towards one another as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are when they faced off on three separate occasions in front of 80 million Americans. NATO’s deployment of troops, tanks, artillery, and intelligence personnel towards Eastern Europe, when coupled with Moscow’s decision to deploy nuclear capable missiles in Kaliningrad, are the kinds of decisions that one would expect U.S., European, and Russian leaders to make in the 1970s and 1980s, not in the year 2016.