Rethinking U.S. Mideast policy requires a divorce from Washington's mistresses in Riyadh and Tel Aviv. In both Saudi Arabia and Israel, not to mention the rest of the region, far better partners can be found.
The U.S. bases its Mideast policy on two pillars: the expansionist faction in Israel and the kleptocratic/fundamentalist faction in Saudi Arabia. Since Iran challenges the first by denying Israel’s right to regional military hegemony and the second by denying Saudi Arabia’s right to lead all the world’s Muslims, both so-called American allies are promoting U.S.-Iranian confrontation, the last problem the U.S. needs as it retreats from Iraq and Afghanistan in the midst of an historically nasty recession.
But even aside from the danger of being led by the nose to pick a fight with Iran, U.S. national interests conflict with the interests of the Saudi and Israeli ruling factions. The Saudi sheiks both promote Salafi extremism and sectarian conflict within Islam as well as stand in the path of long overdue Arab democratization, while the Israeli expansionists provoke widespread regional tension by refusing to live within Israel’s legally recognized borders.
Continued reliance on the advice of extremist factions in Saudi Arabia and Israel will lead to a future not unlike the dismal past:
- endless threat of war with Iran, which only empowers the most extreme factions in that politically fractured and insecure country;
- Muslim sectarian conflict like that seen in Lebanon and Algeria in the 1980s, Afghanistan and Iraq and Palestine over the last decade;
- thoughtless arming of regimes of questionable stability, who will then be tempted into militancy (e.g., Israel's attack on Lebanon in 2006, on Gaza in 2009; Saudi Arabia's intervention into Yemen in 2008, into Bahrain in 2011).
US-Saudi and US-Israeli cooperation are reasonable US foreign policy goals…but not with the political factions currently in charge. US long-term policy should be to minimize interactions with these factions whose policies are so damaging to US national interests and to encourage the rise to power of leaders with goals more in tune with US national interests.
Obama's rhetoric and even some of Washington's recent advice both suggest that Washington is, ever so gingerly, beginning to think politically incorrect thoughts about the traditional two-party worship of the dangerously short-sighted factions running Saudi Arabia and Israel. That is all to the good, but one might wonder how far conceptualization of a Mideast with different Saudi and Israeli rulers may have gone in the White House. Indeed, has anyone in Washington thought through how beneficial for the U.S. more moderate and flexible leadership in those two states might be?
Actually, it turns out that some who once held policy-making power have had the courage to do so and the nation's conscience is stirring, but a fully thought out reform of U.S. Mideast policy remains a step for the future. In such a future, Israel would exist within its 1967 borders, while the new Palestinian state would be progressing economically and politically under the guidance and protection of some benign external entity, e.g., a Muslim coordinating body led by Turkey and perhaps Egypt. In such a future, the Saudi educational system would be under the control of a modernizing and democratizing government rather than fundamentalist religious leaders. In such a future, Washington would consult broadly and seriously with not just Israel and Saudi Arabia but also Turkey and Egypt and Iran, evaluating the perceptions, preferences, and rights of each before making major Mideast policy decisions. All that will be a long time coming, but the first step down the road to an effective and rational Mideast policy is imagining what it could be.
Turning Without Sliding Off the Road
Changing course on the political road is not easy; ice is everywhere. Jumping on the brakes or slamming the gas probably will not be a good idea. But that does not mean anything is impossible. Refusing to talk to other actors is surely the stupidest, most self-defeating possible policy: it just makes you the voluntary prisoner of your allies. Insisting on being in charge every minute is also pretty counter-productive. Sometimes another person can open doors where you would just stub your toe.
Everything in the Mideast is in flux. Everyone needs to be listened to. The Turks with their new centric policy of working with all sides and the incoming new faces in the Egyptian government are drop dead obvious interlocutors, but the principle extends both downward into the Muslim Brotherhood and outward to Iran. To meet with an adversary and say, "So, what do you make of this Arab Spring thing?" can only provide valuable information. The inexcusable sin would be to repeat the disastrous head-in-the-sand policy that left the U.S. out of the loop when the Shah was suddenly put on the defensive by an unknown expatriate mullah in Paris.
A few low-key power lunches in Washington, all expenses paid for participants, with, for example, Egyptian youth leaders, Hamas, a group of Iranian political science professors sent by their government, concerned Israeli academics would be worth their weight in gold for Washington types who don't get out (of official circles) much.
U.S. Overreliance on reactionary Saudi, right-wing Israeli pillars encourages both ruling elites to spurn compromise, risking sudden collapse as they become ever more out of touch with evolving reality -
- encouraging Saudi reaction-->collapse of Saudi regime from internal contradictions
- encouraging Israeli right-wing obstructionism-->collapse of Israel in civil war