For many years close ties with arch-conservative and sometime Salafi terrorist Saudi Arabia have imperiled long-term U.S. interests even as they facilitated a variety of poorly conceived U.S. short-term goals. Now, amid press reports of Saudi disenchantment, is it time for the U.S. to move toward a healthier equidistance, e.g., between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between Saudi Arabia and Turkey?
Press reports of Saudi disenchantment with the U.S. are timely: U.S. national interests are increasingly undermined by Saudi support for regional militarists, be they private Salafi groups or military dictatorships or Zionist expansionists. Washington would gain freedom of action and influence by declaring its independence and maneuvering as a friendly neutral willing to do business with moderate Turkey and whatever Shi’i or Sunni forces might be willing to curb their own particular violent impulses. Washington’s goal should be to guide Riyadh, Tehran, and Tel Aviv toward less threatening, more stabilizing domestic and foreign policies over the long term, even at the expense of obtaining tempting but very expensive little tactical favors that only further endanger long-range U.S. national security and push the U.S. into corners from which it cannot easily escape.
Gunboat diplomacy–whether conducted by Israeli aggression against Palestine and Lebanon, U.S. aggression against Iraq, or Saudi aggression against Yemen or Bahrain–at best achieves short-term gains in return for disproportionate long-term losses. Americans will pay heavily for supporting yet another Egyptian military dictatorship, for tolerating Saudi financing of a new Salafi rebel front in Syria, for refusing to see the many obvious opportunities to do useful business with Iran, for failing to give more enthusiastic support to Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s vision of a moderate Mideast, for allowing Zionists as conservative as the Saudi sheikhs to push Israel steadily toward militarism. It is time to tell Riyadh quietly that U.S. cooperation is not the same as U.S. kowtowing.
Disengagement from Saudi Arabia will not, however, be either safe or easy: in the context of an angry and desperate Pakistan whose domestic instability has been greatly worsened over the past decade of short-sighted U.S. drone attacks, the danger of a militant Sunni axis powered by Pakistani military power and Saudi money is all too real. This danger does not justify U.S. kowtowing to the Saudi sheikhs who now stand so clearly in the path of history, but it should serve as a caution for the U.S. to move carefully as it (one hopes) repositions itself to encourage the modernization of a Mideast far too dangerous to ignore.