“Rethinking Saudi Arabia”: By Karen Elliott House” — But, Ms. House Needs To Rethink Her Views

“Rethinking Saudi Arabia”: By Karen Elliott House” — But, Ms. House Needs To Rethink Her Views


     Karen Elliott House, author of :“On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — And Future,” had an Op-Ed in this weekend’s (Dec. 1/2, 2018) Wall Street Journal (WSJ) with the title above. She begins: “The brutal October murder of sometime journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October, has sparked an international outcry, and a major foreign policy crisis for the Trump Administration. But, the controversy begs a larger question,” she says: “Does Saudi Arabia still matter to the U.S.? The surprising answer,” Ms. House argues is — “Not much. Coming to terms with that reality is the best way to deal with today’s tensions in the relationship. It is a first step toward a very different U.S. approach to the kingdom — one based not on the strategic needs of the past’ but, on a clear-eyed assessment of current and future American interests.”

     “The case for rethinking relations with Riyadh isn’t primarily a moral one,” Ms. House argues. “The U.S. has had to cooperate with unsavory regimes throughout history; Stalin was a necessary ally in defeating Hitler. And, repressive as he may be, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s 33 year-old de facto ruler, hardly matches Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, or Recep Tayyip Erdogan,when it comes to imprisoning citizens and persecuting journalists.”

     “But, that isn’t the point,” Ms. House wrote. “The Middle East has changed monumentally since President Franklin Roosevelt launched the alliance in 1943, declaring that, “the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States.” “That [position] is now far from clear,” she argues. “Indeed, the U.S.now risks being dragged into yet another bloody, indefinite war in the region, as its ally takes an increasingly reckless and aggressive posture towards its great rival, Iran.”

     “In the beginning, the alliance made clear strategic sense,” Ms. House wrote: “FDR sought to secure Saudi oil supplies to help win WWII, and to forge a prosperous peace. During the long years of the Cold War, U.S. presidents saw Islamic Saudi Arabia as a helpful ally against the atheistic Soviet Union’s expansion into the Persian Gulf. The relationship’s peak came in 1990-1991, when the U.S. sent some 400,000 troops to protect Saudi Arabia — and its oil reserves — after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein conquered Kuwait and menaced the neighboring kingdom. Wags joked that the Saudi national anthem was, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

     “In the wake of the Khashoggi killing and the CIA’s conclusion that it was ordered by Prince Mohammed himself, POTUS Trump has vowed to remain a “steadfast partner,” saying I’m not going to destroy the world economy, and I’m not going to destroy the economy of our country, being foolish with Saudi Arabia.” “But, that is highly dubious,” Ms. House contends. “Today, the world’s largest oil producer is the U.S., not Saudi Arabia. As for oil-dependent countries, the Saudis very much need to sell them oil.”

     “As U.S. dependence on oil from the Middle East has waned, so too have American foreign policy ambitions,” Ms. House observes. “Washington once thought that it could bring a wave of liberalization and democracy to the post 9/11 Middle East by toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and overthrowing Saddam Hussein. The U.S. has now abandoned such dreams, largely standing aside and watching — under both POTUS Barack Obama and Mr. Trump — as Syria’s dictator has murdered hundreds of thousands of his country’s citizens.”

     “Much has also changed in Saudi Arabia since the days when FDR and King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud sealed their pact,” Ms. House wrote. “Modern towers now dot the skylines of Saudi cities, and the country’s population has exploded, from fewer than a million, mostly poor nomads when the kingdom was formed in 1932, to some 22 million today, plus another nine million foreigners.”

     “Yet very little has changed in the fundamentals of the regime,” Ms. House contends: “The kingdom is still ruled by the autocratic al-Saud monarchy ; it has a one-dimensional oil economy; and the burgeoning Saudi populace remains largely dependent on government handouts. As oil revenue per capita has declined, the government has become increasingly unable to meet the growing demands of its Internet-connected youth. Some 50 percent of Saudis are under 25 years of age. From their phones, and screens, unemployed, and underemployed young Saudis consume the West’s blandishments, as well as the sermons of jihadist preachers and the enticements of global terrorists.”

     “First are common values, such as human rights, the rule of law and religious pluralism,” Ms. House wrote. “Americans share these with democracies around the world; but, not with the absolute Saudi monarchy. As the murder of Mr. Khashoggi and other recent events — including the imprisonment and torture of intellectuals, female activists and religious critics — show Saudi Arabia remains very far indeed from America’s values.”

     “Second,” Ms. House adds, “are common strategic interests. The bargain that FDR and Ibn Saud struck in the 1940s — Saudi oil for U.S. security guarantees — stemmed from a convergence of goals; so did U.S.-Saudi cooperation against the Soviet Union. Today however, the U.S. doesn’t need Saudi oil, while Saudi Arabia — despite having purchased billions of sophisticated U.S. weapons it mostly doesn’t need, and doesn’t know how to use on its own — has become even more dependent on U.S. protection. In October, Mr. [POTUS] Trump said that the kingdom might not last “for two weeks without us.”

     “Even with respect to oil, U.S. and Saudi interests have diverged.” Ms. House contends. “Desperate for revenue to meet the needs of its restive population and maintain domestic stability, the Saudis want to keep oil prices high. Mr. [POTUS] Trump, for his own economic and political reasons, wants them low.”

    “Still more worrisome for the U.S.,” Ms. House argues, “is the kingdom’s new foreign policy. For decades, Riyadh preferred to work behind the scenes in the Middle East, using checkbook diplomacy to ease potential problems, and buy off foes. But now, emboldened by Mr. [POTUS] Trump, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Prince Mohammed has abandoned that legacy in a so far largely counterproductive effort to confront and contain Iran.”

     “The Saudis have precipitated a a nasty dispute with Qatar; now host to America’s most important regional base,” Ms. House wrote. “That rift is pushing Qatar closer to Iran, and sowing dissension among the small Gulf sheikhdoms, whose cooperation the U.S. needs to protect vital oil-shipping lanes.”

     “On the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia is mired in a bloody civil war in Yemen, creating a humanitarian disaster as it uses weapons against local allies of Iran,” Ms. House wrote. “There is a very real risk of escalation into an all-out Saudi-Iranian war: Saudi officials warn that Prince Mohammed might be tempted to bomb Tehran, if Iranian proxies in Yemen managed to land a missile and inflict heavy casualties in the crowded Saudi capital. (So far, U.S. air defenses have prevented that.)”

     “The U.S. and Saudi Arabia do share an interest in containing Iran, a repressive Shiite theocracy with hopes of regional dominance,” Ms. House wrote. “But, Saudi Arabia’s new regional activism — including meddling in Lebanese politics — has helped Iran to expand its influence at no cost. Worse, the war in Yemen, like Saudi military spending generally, has drained resources that the kingdom could have devoted to urgently needed economic reform.”

     “Saudi Arabia has also proved a fickle ally in recent years,” Ms. House argues. “Russia is again meddling in the Middle East, and the Saudis, far from seeking to block Moscow’s thrusts as they did during the Cold War, are increasingly cooperating with Mr. Putin. Riyadh has coordinated with Moscow on oil production and pricing; the kingdom now talks (not terribly convincingly) of buying Russian weapons, and has done little to check Russian or Iranian intervention in Syria.”

     “President Trump and Mr. Kushner seem to hope the Saudis will help lead the Arab world to make peace with Israel,” Ms. House argues. “Many presidents have dreamed that dream. But, the kingdom’s legitimacy rests on the royal family’s role as custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca, and Medina. The House of Saud cannot abandon Muslim claims to Islam’s third holiest site, Jerusalem, and no Israeli government is likely to yield any piece of Jerusalem for an Israeli-Palestinian peace-deal. Mr. Kushner’s friendship with Prince Mohammed won’t change any of these realities.”

     “The third factor undergirding sturdy alliances is mutually beneficial transactional ties,” Ms. House wrote. “Mr. [POTUS] Trump has pointed to what he calls $110 billion in Saudi weapons purchases, which he says create “hundreds of thousands of jobs” for Americans. This is a vast exaggeration,” Ms. House claims. “The total value of Saudi arms purchases under Mr. [POTUS} Trump is $14.5B; the rest of his number represents the Saudis’ reported intentions, which may well remain unfulfilled, or be dangled to entice future presidents.”

     “Still, the Saudis could hardly take their military business elsewhere at this point,” Ms. House says. “Buying mediocre Russian or Chinese arms systems that won’t work with Riyadh’s U.S.-based arsenal would hurt Saudi security. The old game of “Sell it to us, or we’ll buy from Moscow” should have ended with the Cold War.”

     “The most persuasive argument for Saudi Arabia’s continuing importance to the U.S. is a negative one,” Ms. House argues: “Without the ruling al-Saud family, things inside the kingdom could get much worse. The House of Saud could be replaced by a version of [the] Islamic State, or by chaos of the sort that is engulfing Syria. Either scenario would further destabilize the Middle East, rattle markets, and endanger Israel.”

     “But, this “too big to fail” rationale is like arguing that an already hollow marriage could get worse, if one spouse became insane or homicidal,” Ms. House wrote. “That may be an argument against divorce; but, it is hardly a basis for a durable, happy union. The U.S. should be worried about its ally’s stability and future prospects, but this points to a policy of encouraging Saudi Arabia’s internal reform, not its reckless regional gambits.”

     “Though Prince Mohammed says his priority remains Vision 2020 reforms, he seems to find it more gratifying to strut the world stage, than to mud-wrestle with a society spoiled by 70 years of handouts,” Ms. House wrote. “The hard work of replacing a state-run economy with a thriving, private sector has barely begun in Saudi Arabia.”

     “Rather than out-sourcing U.S. decisions in the region to Riyadh, Mr. [POTUS] Trump and the new Congress would be wiser to help the Saudi leadership focus on getting its own house in order,” Ms. House notes. “A positive, realistic U.S. policy would encourage U.S. private-sector investment and help transfer much-needed American business and technical know-how to the kingdom’s nascent private sector. Now only would this align better with U.S. values, but it might also help to discourage the crown prince from engaging in provocative behavior against Iran. An economically thriving, stable Saudi Arabia is the best bulwark against Iranian intentions in the Gulf.”

     “What the U.S. shouldn’t do, is tag along for Saudi adventures in Yemen and elsewhere, or encourage Saudi fantasies of matching Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” Ms. House argues. “Nor, should the U.S. be blackmailed into supporting the sullied crown prince, regardless of his excesses. Prince Mohammed is likely to remain in power after the Khashoggi furor fades, but plenty of other princes could fill his shoes — and might well prove more reliable and prudent.”

     “In 1964, other Saudi royals dethroned Prince Mohammed’s uncle, King Saud, who had bankrupted the kingdom and sparked infighting within the royal family,”  Ms. House wrote. “As one senior prince explained at the time, “We preferred to sacrifice Saud rather than the country.”

     Ms. House Needs To Rethink Her Views On Saudi Arabia And U.S. Strategy/GoalsTaking Down The Taliban And Saddam Hussein Was NOT About Spreading Democracy

     Lots to think about here.  I definitely disagree with Ms. House that “the U.S. toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and overthrew Saddam Hussein,” as part of an overall strategy to foster a more liberal/democratic Middle East. The U.S. toppled the Taliban because they gave aid and comfort to Osama bin Laden and the U.S. was determined to eliminate Afghanistan and the Taliban as a sanctuary for future ‘bin Laden’s…..period. The U.S overthrew Saddam Hussein because Washington was convinced that he had weapons of mass destruction. Having already had one 9/11 on his watch, POTUS Bush/43 was determined not to have another potential catastrophic event on his watch…….period. Neither strategy was related to — promoting a more liberal Middle East…if that was a byproduct of eliminating the threat — then that would have been icing on the cake, so to speak.

Saudi Arabia Is Not “Dragging” The U.S. Into A Confrontation With Iran – Tehran Is Doing A Fine Job Of That On Its Own

     With respect to Saudi Arabia, yes, things have changed — especially post-9/11. But, the notion that Riyadh is somehow aiding and abetting a U.S./Iran confrontation is fatuous. Clearly, the kingdom would shed no tears if the U.S. launched a military strike against Iran. But, Washington does not need Saudi encouragement to do so. Tehran is doing just fine on its own — in providing the casus celli for a potential military strike. Iran remains the world’s top perpetrator of terrorism; and, the regime has sponsored the bombings and killings of thousands of Americans since the Mullahs assumed power in 1976.

There Is Broad Consensus In Riyadh That It Is Imperative To Fight Iran In Yemen — Rather Than The Streets Of Riyadh

     With respect to Yemen, as one of my readers pointed out, “yes the war in Yemen is expensive; but, that is incomparably less dangerous than giving Iran control of Yemen. Riyadh is not interested in Yemen because Prince bin Salman is “impulsive,” but, because there is broad consensus within the kingdom that it is better to confront Iran in Yemen than in Saudi Arabia.” He added, Riyadh was forced to become militarily involved in Yemen, when then POTUS Obama and his national security team began to court the Mulahs in Tehran, and even supported the Muslim Brotherhood — at the expense of Riyadh and Tel Aviv.

“Prince bin Salman Is ‘Not the sole embodiment of Saudi Arabia Anymore Than POTUS Obama, or POTUS Trump Are Of The United States”

     As former Secretary of State, statesman Henry Kissinger has written: “leaders are important; but, far less important than a country’s basic geostrategic interests, which ultimately have far more influence than whims of any president or king.”

Oil Is Not The Only Reason Prince bin Salman And The Kingdom Is Strategically Important

     As the reader of my blog pointed out, “Saudi Arabia is the leader of the world’s 1.5B Muslims. Prince bin Salman is “the central partner” in a broader U.S./Middle East alliance to confront militant Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood from growing its tentacles and presence in the region — an outcome that would be perilous for the United States, Israel, and the West, not to mention the kingdom itself.

U.S. Strategic Interests Vastly Outweigh The Transgressions Of A Would-Be King

     There is much more at stake here than a grotesque, state-sanctioned murder. Militant Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their pursuit of a nuclear weapon…………’Trump’s all………….!   RCP, fortunascorner.com

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