The biggest challenge facing the Saudi royals is internal, namely their lack of legitimacy. They can be expected to respond to future threats with no less brutality than that deployed by the Iranian regime against its opponents. Explained Saudi Interior Minister Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, effectively second in line to the throne: “What we won by the sword we will keep by the sword.”
If the regime is challenged, it undoubtedly would expect Washington’s support. And many Washington interests would advocate such a course. However, the administration could hardly endorse a regime which violates most every principle for which the U.S. stands. There’s not even a reform fig leaf for Washington to hide behind.
Riyadh’s intervention in Bahrain raises the stakes. The Pentagon has authorized the removal of military dependents and non-essential civilians from its Bahraini base, suggesting some doubt about the future of Khalifa family rule. If the latter survives only with the assistance of Saudi bayonets, Riyadh will have committed a form of aggression. What then of the West’s devotion to liberal international norms?
Through all this Iran looms ominously in the background. The Bush administration’s foolish invasion of Iraq eliminated one of the most important constraints on Tehran. Saudi Arabia has now handed Shiite Iran a powerful recruiting tool.
This potential disaster suggests the imperative of nuanced disengagement. The U.S. government should stop trying to constantly and publicly micromanage Middle Eastern developments; advice is best given sparingly and in private.
Moreover, the administration should drop the well-publicized pretense of a warm friendship between Washington and Riyadh. Cooperation on shared interests will remain important. However, U.S. officials need to put distance between America and the Saudi regime. Especially now that the latter is aggressively imposing its system on its much smaller neighbor.
Americans can hope that everything will work out in Bahrain. However, the odds are stacked against a happy outcome. Neither stability nor democracy likely will be the result.