The danger to U.S. interests posed by the tight U.S. embrace of the Saudi sheiks is revealed by the case of a potential collapse of Syria.
U.S. national security is increasingly under threat by the failure of American policy-makers to keep pace with the evolution of the Mideast socio-political system. Iran’s rise as challenger to the U.S.-centric global system, Israel’s increasing intransigence, the short-sighted military response to al Qua’ida’s cultural challenge, and the Arab Spring constitute major sources of this suddenly accelerating evolutionary process. The bottom line is that the strategic pillars of U.S. Mideast policy are eroding faster than U.S. policy-makers are constructing replacements. One of these eroding pillars stands in the myth that it is in the national security interest of the U.S. to maintain a fundamentalist Sunni kleptocracy in charge of 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. A repressive kleptocracy that hands its educational system to violence-prone fundamentalists is a house of cards. Arming that house of cards both stimulates the weaknesses–the repression, the corruption, the cultivation of religious extremism, fanning the winds of change, and ensures that whatever replacement regime eventually arises will inherit awesome military power. Arming the house of cards is the first level on which U.S.-Saudi cooperation endangers U.S. interests.
The attitude that Saudi behavior is beyond criticism both abets and implicates the U.S. in 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. The second level of strategic clash of interests between Riyadh and Washington is Washington’s self-defeating acceptance of Saudi sectarianism.
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. 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.
American pandering to the Saudi sheiks, as though no other Saudi regime would ever choose to sell its oil on the world market, thus imposes a high national security cost rather than constituting the presumed bargain. But this high-level critique is subject to critique as imprecise, theoretically plausible but not clearly grounded in specific real situations or possessing a specific time-frame. So let us take the case of Syria in its current crisis: is Riyadh a plus or a minus for U.S. efforts to resolve the current Syrian crisis?
The kleptocratic billionaire sheiks’ deal with their fundamentalist Sunni partners has three components that cause problems for the U.S. Allowing the fundamentalists to control Saudi education means that a steady stream of radicals are being produced, of which some portion will either fund those who choose violence or actually become violence-prone themselves. Second, the tendency of Riyadh to permit violence-prone radicals to operate freely outside Saudi Arabia in return for leaving the sheiks in control of domestic politics creates instability throughout the region. Third is the tendency of Riyadh to use the radicals as weapons in its drive for international influence throughout the Muslim world by encouraging sectarian conflict. Just as Saudi influence intensified violence in U.S.-occupied Iraq, helping to stimulate sectarian civil war on top of efforts to liberate Iraq from U.S. occupation, and as Saudi military intervention in Bahrain turned a modernizing and peaceful democratic protest into sectarian oppression of the majority Shi’i population, Saudi involvement in a collapsed Syria would promote both the rise of a new dictatorship to shut Syria off from the Arab Spring and the rise of sectarian conflict as extremist Salafi elements gained influence within the Sunni population. This in turn would be seen as a direct challenge in Tehran, thus risking a further intensification and militarization of the broadening Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional influence.
The spread of sectarian warfare or even Iranian-Saudi proxy war might seem attractive to those American politicians under the sway of Israeli expansionists looking to set their various Muslim adversaries at each others’ throats. Military-industrial complex types will also salivate over opportunities for profitable arms sales. Nevertheless, over the long run sectarian chaos in the Mideast is a great threat to U.S. national security. The wasted American blood and treasure during the years of chaos in Iraq and the years of terror during the Lebanese civil war & war of resistance against Israel (recall the 200 Marines killed in their barracks in Beirut) are enough evidence that the U.S. should work to avoid sectarianism and warfare in the Mideast.
Sectarian warfare is not the only possible outcome of Saudi influence in Syria. Another possibility is simply a Saudi victory, which would install an oppressive dictatorship enforcing fundamentalist Sunni rules on a relatively moderate, secular population. Riyadh would clearly be delighted to thus screw tight the lid on the Arab Spring pressure cooker, but it may be too late to turn down the heat, and the next explosion of political demands might be a lot more violent than the current one if Arabs are taught the lesson that peaceful protest only gets you killed.
No doubt room for cooperation with Saudi Arabia to put a collapsed Syria back on its feet would exist. Managed to support the emergence of a modernizing middle class rather than to develop a playground for the rich through corrupt land deals, Saudi development funds could be useful, for example. But in general the interests of the Saudi billionaires in Syria conflict profoundly with those of the U.S. Allowing Saudi Arabia to transform Syria into a bulwark to defend the current repressive regime in Saudi Arabia will set the Mideast up for disastrous future blowback that will cost the U.S. dearly.