US Interests and Pretenses in a Changing Middle East

In June 1974, cornered by Watergate, Richard Nixon set off on a quick tour of the Middle East. This is something presidents seem to do when they’re in trouble back home. In no foreign region is U.S. statecraft so inseparable from domestic politics. But the unpalatable realities of the Middle East have made it the unchallenged center of diplomatic hypocrisy and double standards. It is where the values-based foreign policies that our domestic politics demands go to die.

Pledging allegiance to Israel – regardless of its gross violations of Palestinian rights and neighboring states’ sovereignty – pries manna from heaven in the form of campaign donations from American Zionists and their fellow travelers. Similarly, given the American addiction to cheap energy, a quixotic desire for Saudi intervention to lower the price of gas at the pump springs eternal.

Domestic political calculations, not the strategic pursuit of national interests, have just led President Biden to affirm his fidelity to Zionism with a trip to Israel, the only country in the world where Donald Trump is more popular than he is. From Israel, the president traveled to Saudi Arabia, hat and emergency gas can in hand, to dine on symbolic crow as a guest of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom – to much domestic American applause – he had loudly denounced and pledged to make a “pariah.”

But no one should be surprised that he didn’t condemn the Saudi government for the murder of my friend, Jamal Khashoggi. Neither he nor any other president has ever held the Israeli government accountable for murdering Americans like Shireen Abu Akleh, Rachel Corrie, or the crew of the U.S.S. Liberty. Get real! Why should President Biden be more concerned about a dead citizen of Saudi Arabia than about dead Americans?

In Jeddah, the president bumped fists with MbS and made Israel’s case for a normalized relationship with its Arab neighbors despite its continuing cruelty to the Palestinian Arabs it oppresses. It doesn’t get more demeaning than this. When interests and pretenses collide, interests prevail. When foreign and domestic interests are in conflict, domestic interests come first. Nothing unusual about that. Let’s hear it for AIPAC and cheap gas!

If it’s obvious why President Biden needed Israel and Saudi Arabia at this moment, it’s less clear why they needed him. America has lost its grip on West Asia, which is now not its or any other great power’s fiefdom. Diminished leverage in the region makes Washington a less compelling partner than it once was. The United States no longer attempts to achieve peace for the Palestinians. Is cozying up to Iran’s enemies, refusing to deal with Iran itself, and continuing to trash the JCPOA a strategy, or just a posture dictated by domestic politics? It’s far from clear that shared fear of Iranian power and weaponry can sustain American influence in the region, as the so-called “peace process” and shared dread of godless Soviet communism once did.

Regardless of doubts about Washington’s reliability as a protector, Israel, the Arab participants in the eruption of Realpolitik known as the “Abraham Accords,” and Saudi Arabia all recognize that they have no real alternative to a US security umbrella. No other great power is able to assume or, indeed, has any desire to take up American defense burdens in the region. But what’s in it for Americans to soldier on?

There are, in fact, serious matters at stake for the United States in West Asia beyond the sole reason the president gave – to exclude Chinese and Russian influence there. Many factors dictate a sound American relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries. Among these:

  • The United States itself may no longer need Saudi oil, but everyone else does. Saudi Arabia supplies one-sixth of the world’s exported oil. Other Gulf Arab states close to Riyadh supply another eighth. The Kingdom leads OPEC, which exports almost fifty percent of world petroleum. OPEC plus Russia supplies just a bit under three-fifths. It’s the balance of supply and demand in the global market, not political pandering to angry American consumers, that determines energy prices, supports or undermines global prosperity, and helps determine rates of inflation. If you’re concerned about energy prices, you better be on speaking terms with Riyadh. Moscow too.

  • Washington has set aside reliance on diplomatic persuasion in favor of coercive policies based on dollar sovereignty. The United States now imposes sanctions on any and all countries that defy its policies. This practice and the lawless confiscation of a growing number of countries’ dollar reserves have put America at odds with much of the world. The dollar ceased to be convertible to gold in 1971. Since then, its centrality to global trade settlement and finance has been sustained by a Saudi commitment (which OPEC grudgingly follows) to price energy in dollars. Should the Saudis decide to accept other currencies for their oil, markets for other commodities would do the same. This would collapse the dollar, end the “exorbitant privilege” it affords the United States, and terminate US global primacy. This is not a small matter.

  • To get from Asia to Europe or vice versa, you need permission to transit Saudi airspace. So, US global strategic mobility is hostage to the Kingdom’s goodwill. The geopolitical cost of an unfriendly and uncooperative relationship with Riyadh would be immense.

  • The most extreme Islamist movements bracket the United States and Saudi Arabia as enemies. Intelligence from the Kingdom remains essential to effective US defense against terrorist attack.

  • Saudi custody of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina gives it worldwide soft power. Saudi Islam has shown that it has the potential to be either a font of Muslim extremism and anti-Americanism or its most effective antidote. After supporting religious intolerance for decades, Saudi Arabia now actively combats Islamist causes. This cannot be taken for granted.

  • Saudi Arabia is the largest single foreign purchaser of both American and British defense equipment and services. Many production lines in the US and U.K. would shut down if the Kingdom bought elsewhere. Lots of jobs would be lost.

The US relationship with Saudi Arabia is, of course, not the only challenge to US strategic interests in the region. Consider these other issues:

  • Current US policies toward Iran invite it to emulate North Korea, which responded to “maximum pressure” by developing a nuclear deterrent to attack by the United States, thus creating a previously nonexistent threat to the American homeland.
  • The forty-year-old Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in which Saudi Arabia is primus inter pares, is on the mend, but just as feckless as ever.

  • US forces have illegally invaded Syria and are engaged there in dangerous maneuvers against Russian, Turkish, Iranian, and Lebanese as well as Syrian forces. These confrontations risk wider wars – and not just in the region.

  • The post-Saddam order the assembled battalions of the Blob unilaterally imposed on Iraq earlier this century is unstable and crumbling. Iraq’s future alignments are in doubt. The Biden administration does not appear to have an answer to this.

  • Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE, among others, are attempting to dilute their strategic overdependence on the United States. They do not share Washington’s global obsessions, are alarmed by its erratic politics, resent its efforts to coerce them into placing dubious US interests above their own, and will not downgrade relations with China and Russia to please America.

  • Israel continues to terrorize and dispossess its captive Arab populations and to violate the sovereignty of neighboring states. The Zionist state is increasingly dismissive of US advice to restrain its violent behavior. It appears to believe that it has a blank check from America. Maybe it does. Others in the region want the US to make them safe from Israel, not Israel safe from them.

It’s a truism that failure provides more lessons than success. West Asia is a region in which abundant policy failures offer a cornucopia of insights into warfare and diplomacy. Few of these would come as a surprise to classical Arab, British, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mongol, Persian, Portuguese, Roman, Russian, Spanish, or Turkish students of statecraft. But the United States no longer teaches geography or foreign history in its schools, has ever fewer foreign correspondents, glorifies war, and seems to view diplomacy as nothing more than foreplay before a military assault. Our habit of plotting foreign policies as vectors of ill-informed popular perceptions and passions belies reality. By reality I mean what is out there whether Americans perceive it and believe in it or not. Not bothering to figure out how foreigners see things enables Washington to avoid having to ponder how they might react to its decisions. Americans now feel free to indulge solipsistic fantasies that justify foreign policies so out of line with trends and events abroad that they gain more blowback than traction.

We are now in the post-post-World War II, post-post Bretton Woods, and post-post-Cold War periods. Let’s call this “the new world disorder.” Neither the world nor the United States is what it was in the formative years of our leaders’ and their key subordinates’ experience. They and we need to come to grips with radically altered realities. Acting as if nothing much has changed is the equivalent of playing chess blindfolded with your ears blocked. It’s a sure path to geopolitical checkmate or worse.

The Biden trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia is proof that passionate attachments and moral outrage directed at foreigners may be freebies on the campaign trail but can be a serious challenge and embarrassment to anyone who actually gets elected, takes office, and has to govern. Venomous denunciations of foreign leaders now have consequences. A bit of rhetorical restraint is in order.

About twenty years ago, I was present when a well-meaning visitor asked then Crown Prince `Abdullah bin `Abdulaziz Al-Sa`ud to provide Israelis with useful private advice on how to make peace with others in the region. `Abdullah replied, “tell them, if they want to be loved, they should do something lovable.” That was good advice for Israel then. And it’s good advice for the United States and others now.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. chairs Projects International, Inc. He is a retired US defense official, diplomat, and interpreter, the recipient of numerous high honors and awards, a popular public speaker, and the author of five books. He was a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, ambassador to Saudi Arabia (during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm), acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, and Chargé d’affaires at both Bangkok and Beijing. He began his diplomatic career in India but specialized in Chinese affairs. (He was the principal American interpreter during President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972.) Reprinted with permission from his blog.