US should rethink Middle East policy to avoid war with Iran

Washington ExaminerDaniel DePetris: U.S. foreign policy should be designed with one constituency in mind: the American public. The public expects policymakers and lawmakers in Washington to always keep their interests, not global abstractions, front-of-mind and do what is best for the country’s national security. When decisions are made that unnecessarily complicate conflict resolution or shut the door on diplomacy (sanctioning the Iranian foreign minister, to take the most recent example) the public expects Washington to reassess, think about the long-term, and correct the mistake.

Just as important, the public trusts Washington to understand when the interests of the United States diverge from those of its friends around the world and when they align with competitors.

In the case of U.S. policy in the Middle East generally, and on Saudi Arabia specifically, Washington is performing woefully below expectations. Either out of naiveté, a fixation over confronting Iran, or both, the Trump administration continues to confuse the narrow U.S. interests in the region (preventing a major disruption to global oil prices and eliminating anti-American terrorist threats) with the far more expansive aims of Riyadh. It appears the White House assumes what is good for Saudi Arabia is good for the United States.

Trump is in many ways doing exactly what President George Washington warned about in his 1796 farewell address to the nation. “So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils,” Washington counseled. “Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists.” To conflate America’s foreign policy priorities with those of another nation, any nation, is to embark upon a dangerous road while expending national power on issues that benefit other nations and people more than the security and prosperity of the American public. Too often, U.S. security and prosperity suffer as a result.

For decades, Saudi Arabia has received the benefit of the doubt on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The old security-for-oil arrangement first struck between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz ibn Saud in 1945 aboard a Navy destroyer was perceived in the decades since as far too valuable to jettison. The strategic relationship was a practical one at its core and was more important during the Cold War: better to have a major Middle Eastern oil producer on Washington’s side than in Moscow’s corner. Allowing the Soviet Union to hold a veto on energy policy in the Persian Gulf would have been a geopolitical disaster at that particular time.

The foreign policy establishment, however, hasn’t woken up from the nostalgia of a past era. The Saudi kingdom is not nearly as valuable today as it arguably was in the 1970s, 1980s, or even the early 2000s. With no conceivable threat to dominate the Middle East and its oil supplies, and as American consumers rely less on Middle East crude, the principle that once governed the bilateral relationship has diminished significantly. While it would be irresponsible for any U.S. president to walk away from the relationship entirely (Washington and Riyadh continue to maintain an effective intelligence partnership), the domestic energy boom reinforces the rationale for U.S. policymakers to avoid picking sides in the region.

Saudi Arabia needs the U.S. far more than the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia.

The Trump administration has essentially adopted Saudi Arabia’s agenda. Despite the reckless behavior from the Kingdom’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (behavior that has included a bloody humanitarian quagmire in Yemen and the state-ordered killing of a Washington Post columnist) Trump has done nothing to distance the United States from Riyadh’s destructive conduct. In fact, the administration has drawn the Saudis closer than ever.

Bipartisan congressional resolutions withdrawing U.S. military assistance to Riyadh’s war in Yemen have been vetoed. Sensitive nuclear energy information has been provided to Saudi authorities with minimal congressional oversight. Billions of dollars in offensive weapons and munitions have seen sold to the Royal Saudi Air Force. And at one point, the president himself was cheering on the Saudi-organized economic blockade of neighboring Qatar.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Washington was the junior partner in the relationship.

Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the U.S., not Saudi Arabia, that should be dictating the terms of the relationship and holding Riyadh accountable when its conduct conflicts with U.S. interests — and we have the latitude to hold them accountable for their affronts to our liberal values. The most effective way for the White House to build that accountability is by separating itself from Saudi policies disconnected from the security and prosperity of America.

We gain nothing from U.S. participation in Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen; if anything, the conflict has only made the country more hospitable to al Qaeda and Islamic State militants. Nor is the U.S. served when Washington sells weapons to Riyadh, some of which are illegally diverted to the very extremist groups the U.S. is trying to combat. An implacably hostile confrontation with Iran undermines U.S. interests; after nearly two decades of U.S. military operations in the Middle East that have produced nothing but strategic drift and strained pocketbooks, the worst thing for Americans is another war.

Unfortunately, an unnecessary war with Iran is precisely what we’ll get if U.S. policymakers fail to recalibrate the U.S.-Saudi relationship and put America’s core national security interests first.

No two nations, not even allies with similar value systems, have identical interests. To assume there is such a thing as perfect harmony is to make a major mistake in judgment — one that could quickly lead to costly, burdensome commitments that weaken America.