If you live in a sand castle high on a hill, running wildly in every direction might cause your castle to collapse and slide down into the valley. An internally contradictory foreign policy is the political version of running in every direction; adding an aggressive military component to that policy is the political version of behaving “wildly.”
If you believe the media, you will conclude that Saudi Arabia–the homeland of the infamous Salafi extremism that brought the world Islamic-sanctioned beheadings, the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, and al Qua’ida—has just launched a new military campaign against both its competitor for leadership of the Mideast (Iran) and the very ISIS extremists who constitute the most recent generation of Salafi jihad against every race, creed, and religion that disagrees with them. Since the Salafi fundamentalists of Saudi Arabia are very comfortably ensconced in the heart of the Saudi petro-elite that rules the country, one might think the media are pulling the wool over our eyes by claiming that the Saudi regime would launch military moves against both ISIS and Iran simultaneously. Perhaps not; perhaps the hapless media are simply reporting the confusion that appears to be running rampant in Riyadh.
The first contradiction in Saudi policy is religious. The Saudi state confers the authority to control education upon the religious fundamentalists whose ancestors teamed up with the House of Saud to create this new state out of the various desert tribes in the first place. To make it simple, these fundamentalists tend to view with favor much of the creed of ISIS and perhaps to finance its operations, albeit not necessarily personally committing out any extremist acts. But puritanical Sunni extremists building an empire of fear are hardly likely to be satisfied with getting payoffs under the table to exclude their religious homeland from their jihad, so a Saudi military policy to undermine Iran—the leader of the anti-ISIS campaign—directly undermines the security of the Saudi state. Iran is a political adversary of Saudi Arabia, a situation both normal and amenable to all manner of modification via neighborly diplomacy. ISIS is now the leader of a global jihad begun not by Saudi citizen bin Laden but by the Saudi state back in the 1980s, partly in cooperation with Washington’s anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan and partly as a wholly Saudi effort to conduct a (generally peaceful) crusade to spread the global influence both of the Saudi/Salafi version of Sunni Islam and, naturally, of the Saudi state per se. If Riyadh moves against Iran, it undercuts Iran’s efforts to defeat ISIS. If Riyadh moves against ISIS, it undermines its own existence as the fundamentalist religious center of global Islam, and simultaneously threatens to split the Saudi elite into its two internally contradictory halves (the petro-elite seeking secular political power in the modern world and the religious fundamentalists yearning for pretty much the same 13th century Caliphate whose vision dances in the eyes of ISIS.
The second contradiction is military: even if Riyadh could figure out a way to distinguish persuasively between its own fundamentalist version of Salafi Sunni Islam and that of ISIS while also making the case for marginalizing Iran in regional affairs, how could it win both wars simultaneously? Pursuing Goal A undermines Goal B. Certainly, Riyadh could hire a massive Pakistani mercenary army, following the model used to destroy the freedom movement of the tiny, unarmed population of Bahrain, but the population of Bahrain, already oppressed by their rulers, was insignificant in military terms in comparison with either ISIS or Iran. How many Pakistani mercenary deaths would it take to spark a revolt within the already divided Pakistani society? And, back to the first point, exactly what is the distinction between the official Riyadh version of Salafi Islam and the version practiced by ISIS? In making your response, consider the new Saudi military attack on the Houthis in Yemen, who have been fighting for their political rights for a generation; the Saudi repression of Bahraini democracy movement; Saudi treatment of women; the Saudi justice system’s treatment of everyone from criminals to female drivers to reform-minded bloggers; the theocratic control over the Saudi educational system; and Saudi treatment of their own Shi’i minority.
The competition between the Iranian and Saudi states for status and influence in the Mideast is a normal feature of international affairs; the region has room for both. The competition only appears zero-sum to the degree that arrogant and short-sighted politicians on both sides allow it, by their own incompetence, to cloak itself in the zero-sum death shroud. The two states share a security need for a peaceful Persian Gulf and an economic need for a peaceful Mideast in which they can both build pipelines across the desert to sell their precious hydrocarbons. Pragmatic politicians could readily devise a positive-sum arrangement that would enable the leaders of both states to wear the resplendent garments of successful leadership.
The competition between ISIS and the Saudi state, in contrast, truly is a zero-sum battle to the death. If the Saudi security state controls Saudi foreign policy and sets the goal of keeping Riyadh as the leader of the Sunni world, then it is hard to see how it can tolerate a competing ISIS caliphate. If the Saudi state is under the control of Sunni fundamentalists, then logically either Riyadh must swallow ISIS and run the new caliphate or ISIS must overthrow the Saudi state and swallow Saudi Arabia. Two Sunni states deriving their legitimacy from their claim to be the guardian of their religion’s purity would seem too much for the Mideast to contain. This contradiction could be resolved by the Saudi regime redesigning itself as a normal, modern, secular state, but that socio-political revolution still seems more than the Saudi elite can contemplate, thus leaving the ISIS-Saudi competition a fight to the finish that merits Riyadh’s full attention.
History is replete with examples of mildly repressive elites who burn down their own castles by undertaking aggressive and overambitious new campaigns that backfire by intensifying long-standing internal cracks in the socio-political edifice of the state. The very best chance that ISIS has of surviving may well be to provoke exactly the type of internally contradictory initiative that Riyadh, sitting in its castle of sand, is now embarking on.