Saudi-American Clash of Strategic Interests

In order to calculate U.S. self-interest, Washington decision-makers need to escape from denial about the alleged “common strategic interests” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
Denial is self-defeating: aspire to whatever goal you choose, but do yourself the favor of recognizing the potholes before you break an axle. Much blood is being spilled and much treasure wasted because of Washington’s proclivity to indulge in dangerous groupthink, its tendency to be in a state of denial about obvious dangers imperiling U.S. national security. Few examples are more egregious than the pretense that Saudi Arabia is a “friend.”
Yes, technically, the Saudis are “allies,” but that word simply means that at the moment, the Saudi elite finds cooperation with the U.S. to be beneficial. Of course it has beneficial aspects along with some that are highly injurious, but to call Saudi Arabia an “ally” implies nothing about the future, not does it in any way imply the absence of all manner of counterplot. When a secular, status-quo democracy is “befriended” by a repressive kleptocracy that rests its legitimacy on a deal that gives violence-prone fundamentalist crusaders control over domestic education and “morals” police plus a carte blanche for running an extremist sectarian international crusade, then that secular democracy should begin to worry.
Yet, respectable and recognized experts can make statements such as this blithely optimistic opening remark by Anthony Cordesman in a new summary of U.S.-Saudi ties:
Saudi Arabia and the United States may not share the same political system and culture, but they do share broad strategic interests.
Without citing the missing evidence of fundamental conflicts of strategic interest between the Saudi sectarian religious dictatorship and the U.S., Cordesman’s statement amounts to blind denial of the threat to U.S. national security posed by Saudi Arabia. The stunningly rapid collapse of the Shah, whose hoard of modern U.S. weapons proved useless in maintaining his dictatorship over an angry population, should have taught Washington that piling weapons designed for a world war against traditional Soviet-style forces into the lap of a pre-modern dictator just sets the U.S. up for future problems. Arming the house of cards and encouraging Saudi kleptocracy is the first level on which U.S.-Saudi cooperation endangers U.S. interests.
The second level is the sectarian implications of the Saudi elite campaign not just to repress Shi’a but to promote a hard-line version of Sunni beliefs. One of the core pillars of Saudi foreign policy is the encouragement of a militant version of Islam that has already led directly to al Qua’ida and is provoking sectarian conflict in Bahrain by converting popular aspirations for democracy into repression of the majority not because it wants freedom but because it happens to be Shi’i. This policy only provokes Tehran sectarian hard-liners to take an even harder line and empowers them by demonstrating that they really are under attack. Provoking sectarian conflict in the Mideast is a great cover for Saudi kleptocracy (not to mention Israeli expansion), but it is not in the interests of a weakened U.S. that desperately needs a breathing space to escape from regional misadventures and get its own rotting house back in order. Leading Saudi analyst Madawi al-Rasheed notes the dilemma for Washington:

The fusion of oil interests and Wahhabi Islam became a form of blackmail of the west, extracting from it an eternal silence over the regime’s abuse of human rights.

When Riyadh’s sectarian chickens come home, many will roost on the U.S., and this is definitely not in the interest of U.S. national security.

The third level of strategic clash of interests between Riyadh and the U.S. is the counter-revolutionary policy of the Saudis, whose insistence on standing in the path of Arab socio-political history risks alienating the rising generation of leaders throughout the Arab world from a U.S. that claims to support democratization. In this context, Cordesman’s statement that “in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United States agree that Yemeni stability and reform are critical in limiting Iran’s influence” is simply beyond belief. From both Riyadh’s vicious campaign against Bahraini democracy advocates [thanks to Augustus Norton for bring attention to the Saudi-Bahraini war against doctors] and the public terms of the deal it is advocating in Yemen, which would leave the structure of the Saleh dictatorship entirely intact, it seems clear that Riyadh is in fact utterly dedicated to preventing reform in Yemen, and that it wants “stability” only in the narrowest, most short-term (and short-sighted) sense of clamping the lid on as tight as possible. The socio-political fire, fed by Arab revolt, is roaring hot; fuel, delivered daily by Saleh’s murderous security goons, is plentiful. What happens to a pressure cooker with the heat on full, lots of fuel, and the lid screwed tight? “Stability” is not the word that comes to mind.
Surely, cooperation with the Saudis offers certain enticements, but they are just a part of the whole meal, most of which will prove indigestible. Policy-makers can of course weigh the potential advantages and disadvantages of eating with the Saudis, but pretending a mixture of sweet desserts and rotten meat constitutes a royal banquet will only get them an upset stomach. Half the truth is that short-term interests in common with the Saudis are mixed with serious conflicts of interest; the other half of the truth is that U.S. antagonism toward Iran (which comes at a given when you buy into the myth that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. share common strategic interests) is so much of a knee-jerk reaction that it prevents recognition of the host of interests in common between the U.S. and Iran. Put honestly, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is a “friend” of the U.S.; neither should be labeled an “ally.” Each, like the U.S., works in its own interests; each, like the U.S., follows numerous policies that serve only the interests of narrow elite factions. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have goals that the U.S. should view with a jaundiced eye, but on specific issues, cooperation with each on an issue-by-issue basis could be highly beneficial. Americans will remain blind to all that, however, as long as they remain trapped in a state of denial.
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