The Saudis’ Temper Tantrum

Totten – seconded by Roger Cohenwarns that “American-Saudi alliance is in danger of collapsing”:

Foreign Policy 101 dictates that you reward your friends and punish your enemies. Attempts to get cute and reverse the traditional formula always lead to disaster. Yet Barack Obama thinks if he stiffs his friends, his enemies will become a little less hostile. That’s not how it works, but the Saudis have figured out what Obama is doing and are acting accordingly. …

The Saudi regime is in a dimension beyond distasteful. It’s an absolute monarchy wedded to absolute theocracy. It’s worse than merely medieval. Human rights don’t exist. The regime—and, frankly, the culture—offends every moral and political sensibility I have in my being. I’d love to live in a world where junking our “friendship” with Riyadh would be the right call.

But the United States and Saudi Arabia are—or at least were until recently—on the same page geopolitically. For decades we have provided the Saudis with security in exchange for oil and stability, and we’ve backed them and the rest of the Gulf Arabs against our mutual enemies, Iran’s Islamic Republic regime and its allies.

The alliance isn’t deep. It’s transactional.

But the possible deal with Iran would upset all that – for good reasons, from the American point of view, it seems t0 me. If the US were to develop a transactional relationship with Iran on the lines of the Saudi relationship, it would transform the regional dynamics that the Saudis have used to promote their Sunni brand of Islamism. It would give the US a more balanced relationship with both Sunni and Shiite strands of Islamism, and enlarge our spectrum of policy choices. It could also give us more leverage over Israel’s destabilizing right-wing, and potentially unleash democracy over the long run, as Iranians, many of whom despise their regime, slowly develop more of a prosperous middle class, empowered by new media and eager to join the world of the West. The Saudi temper tantrum seems to me a sign of a monarchy that views the Shi’a as inferior, and sees Persians a threat to Arabs. I can see why they see things that way. But why should we?

Kaplan, unlike Totten, doubts that the Saudis are going to walk:

First, they have nowhere else to go.

The Saudi army and air force are structured along the lines of the American military, which provides them with tremendous amounts of weaponry, support, and training. The French and Russians could offer some assistance, but not nearly as much—and their political interests and alliances wouldn’t align so neatly with the Saudis’ either.

In fact, Bandar’s stratagem may reflect a growing awareness of Saudi weakness.Figures released earlier this month reveal that the United States has overtaken Saudi Arabia as the world’s biggest supplier of petroleum. To put it another way: The Saudis need our arms more than we need their oil.

Walt’s perspective on America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel:

[T]he United States is not about to abandon its current allies or entirely reverse its long-standing regional commitments, and widening our circle of contacts won’t immediately force others to leap to do our bidding. Nor do I think it should. But a bit more distance from Tel Aviv and Riyadh, and an open channel of communication between Washington and Tehran would maximize U.S. influence and leverage over time. It’s also a useful hedge against unpredictable events: when you become too strongly committed to any particular ally (as the U.S. was once committed to the Shah of Iran), you suffer more damage if anything happens to them.

Because the United States is not a Middle Eastern power — a geographic reality we sometimes forget — and because its primary goal is the preservation of a regional balance of power, it has the luxury of playing “hard to get.” That’s why it’s not such a bad thing if our present regional allies are a bit miffed at U.S. these days. Remember: they are weaker than the United States is and they face more urgent threats than we do. And if they want to keep getting U.S. protection and support and they are concerned that our attention might be waning a wee bit, they might start doing more to keep U.S. happy.