The Iran Dilemma, the Saudi Dilemma, and the Iran–Saudi Dilemma

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, September 18, 2019. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via Reuters)The United States has enough firepower at its command that it can afford to wear its idealism on its sleeve.

Is the United States going to go to war against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia? Probably not.

Should it?

Probably not.

The Saudi regime is, to be plain about it, detestable. It is wildly corrupt and horrifyingly repressive, it tangles together sundry absolutisms and fanaticisms (religious, nationalist, monarchist) into a mess of diplomatic and military trouble, it is duplicitous, and — perhaps most dangerous of all — in spite of its aspirational absolutism, it cannot even control its own contradictory internal constituencies, which is why the Saudi elite cultivates Islamic terrorism with one hand while fighting it with the other. Americans invested a lot of hope and diplomatic currency in the belief that crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was going to turn out to be the great reformer that the West keeps hoping will emerge in the Islamic world, and he’s shaping up to be just another Arab caudillo, if a slicker and more intelligent specimen than the general run of them. There is not much there to hang American hopes on.

But the Iranians are worse. At least, that is the conventional point of view in Washington. The question of what is worth fighting for sometimes is distinct from the question of what is worth fighting against.

And that, fundamentally, has been the argument underpinning continued U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, which is put forward as the great counterweight to the forces of jihad and chaos in Tehran. It is classical great-gaming, the enemy-of-my-enemy thinking that — while not always wrong and occasionally even necessary — has led the United States into so much trouble in the Muslim world, with so many unintended consequences. The legend that the United States “created al-Qaeda” is not exactly true, in the way it usually is put forward, but it is not entirely an invention, either.

The rat bastards in Riyadh, we keep telling ourselves, are our rat bastards — mostly, and most of the time, when they are not murdering columnists for American newspapers or torturing human-rights advocates as a prelude to raping and murdering them or launching ill-advised wars on their neighbors. This so-called foreign-policy realism (which can be very unrealistic) is what is used to paper over both the domestic abuses of the Saudi state and, more important, its habit of acting in a way that is inconsistent with long-term American interests in the region. Of course the Saudi leaders are vicious, depraved, and fundamentally anti-American, the story goes, but they are not quite as vicious, depraved, or anti-American as their Iranian counterparts.

And now Saudi Arabia and Iran are on the edge of a confrontation over the drone attack on the Saudi Aramco plant in Abqaiq, theoretically carried out by Houthi rebels but almost certainly executed by Iranian forces. President Donald Trump, who vacillates between a kind of soft and notional non-interventionism and B-movie posturing, pronounced the United States “locked and loaded” in preparation for supporting the Saudis against Iran. Who knows whether he means that or what he intends to mean by it? Not the Saudis, not the Iranians, and not us, either. John Bolton, arguably the most experienced and steadiest foreign-policy hand in the Trump administration, was fired, via Twitter, a week ago. Trump talked a pretty good fight with Kim Jong-un before they became bosom buddies.

Donald Trump is president, and there’s a new Rambo movie coming out — anything could happen.

There is a case for going to war against Iran on the Saudis’ behalf, and it goes something like this: The Saudis and the Iranians already are on their way to inevitable open war, and it would be in the interests of the United States for our ally to prevail, which it is unlikely to do without American support. The Saudis, who have grown unaccustomed to sustained effort, have recently discovered how hard it is to pound a bunch of half-organized Yemeni millet farmers into submission, and the Iranians have a much more potent military. The question for Washington: What’s the point of having a Saudi factotum if you don’t intend to use it when the opportunity is presented?

That last question might be turned around on itself: If you aren’t willing to actually exploit the Saudi alliance against Iran when Iran offers an invitation, then what’s the point of indulging Riyadh to the extent we have? Why get in bed with the devil if you only want to cuddle?

Iran, the hawks say, keeps asking for it. Before the attack on the Saudi refinery, Iran was attacking oil tankers and shooting down U.S. aircraft. And now we’ve got an excuse to give them what they’re asking for. Of course, it’s complicated: Washington thinks Saudi Arabia is its instrument; Riyadh thinks the United States is its instrument. Both are probably a little bit right and a little bit wrong, and neither party can be very confident in the other. The potential for miscalculation and chaos is substantial.

The case against following Saudi Arabia into war against Iran is that it would endanger the United States and its allies, bring more instability and disorder into the region, and — most important — not only fail to secure real U.S. interests in the region but undermine them.

In the long term, the conflict in the Middle East that is most relevant to the United States and most intimately linked to our real national interests is not Saudi vs. Iran, Sunni vs. Shia, Arab vs. Persian (or vs. Turk or Kurd) or even nationalist vs. jihadist. The conflict in the Middle East that most importantly touches long-term American interests is between modernists, liberals, and democrats on one hand and nationalists and jihadists on the other.

In the end, that is the only contest worth winning for the United States.

The old rivalry between specific nationalisms (and pan-Arab nationalism) and the universalist pretensions of Islamic radicalism grows less and less relevant daily — nationalist dictators and Islamist ideologues long ago learned how to live with one another: Ask Recep Tayyip Erdogan. From the point of view of U.S. interests, Absolutist Variety 1 and Absolutist Variety 2 will end up looking a lot alike and functioning in an effectively identical manner. Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad may have looked like allies of convenience for about ten minutes inasmuch as they were socialist dictators in a more or less familiar and conventional Western mode, but that convenience was short-lived. A bomb with a relatively long fuse is preferable to a bomb with a short fuse, but it is still a bomb, and it still will need to be defused unless you want it to blow up in your face.

That’s the fundamental problem for libertarian non-interventionists and for the Trump school of “To hell with them all!” foreign policy: The United States has global interests and, hence, global vulnerabilities. There is no retreat from that fact. Even protected by our oceans, there is nowhere to run and hide for the hyperpower.

The great tragedy of U.S. policy in the Saudi–Iran rivalry, and of U.S. policy in the Middle East more generally, is that our predictable and orthodox strategy of trying to play one against the other has served only to entrench the corrupt autocrats, the nationalists, and the Islamists and jihadists on both sides, generally at the expense of the modernists, liberals, and democrats whose interests are most aligned with our own. Those liberal elements are greatly outnumbered and outmatched, lacking both friends and resources. There is a reason that Mohammed bin Salman is apparently the most that reformers can wish for.

They are not yet viable competitors for power in most of the Middle East, but they are not going to become viable without support. The United States should have been cultivating those relationships for years. Instead, we’ve gone in guns blazing and then looked around, willy-nilly, for friends and allies after we’ve already waded in. That strategy is a big part of what led to our failure — and we should admit that it has been a failure — in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have the power to knock over any regime in the world any time we want; apparently, we don’t have the power to think very carefully about what comes next.

Right now we’re thinking about Saudi Arabia and Iran. We should be thinking about Indonesia and Bangladesh.

And Midland, Texas.

Rethinking our approach to the Muslim world should begin with some straightforward arithmetic. While our national attention is commanded by a handful of desert strongmen and their petroleum-based juntas, most of the world’s Muslim population lives far, far away from the Saudi–Iranian fault line. About half the world’s Muslims live in Indonesia and the Indian subcontinent. Set aside Pakistan for the moment: Indonesia, India, and Bangladesh together are home to more Muslims than all of the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Turkey, and Iran — combined. India’s relatively small Muslim minority is more populous than any Muslim-majority country except Indonesia. France’s Muslim minority is more numerous than the Muslim populations of the United Arab Emirates or the Palestinian territories, and Russia has twice as many Muslims as France. The tiny Muslim population of the United States is more populous than Oman or Kuwait and twice the size of Qatar. California has more people than Saudi Arabia — and the United States is now producing about 50 percent more petroleum than Saudi Arabia.

But a great deal of our time and diplomatic attention is consumed by a few sparsely populated petro-emirates — and that investment of U.S. resources is, thanks to the great blessing of fracking, increasingly optional. It is not really true that the United States has become energy independent — much of our refining capacity is optimized for the “sour” crude we import from the Middle East rather than for the “light sweet” stuff we produce in West Texas and now export to the rest of the world — but we are today in a very different position than we were in the 1970s or even ten years ago. The troublesome parts of the Middle East need our markets more than we need their oil. If you want to keep things that way — and you want to strengthen the U.S. hand even more, and give the United States and its allies even more options — then you should welcome expanded oil and gas production — in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and in Europe, too.

For years, the U.S. focus on the Muslim world was determined by where the oil is. We now have the freedom of turning our attention to where the people are, and we should. But we have not made much of that opportunity: Our relations with Indonesia are mostly conducted at arm’s length; our interest there is desultory, and the country rarely intrudes on our national attention. (The U.S. press covers Joko Widodo with nothing of the fascination reserved for Mohammed bin Salman.) But there are significant stakes at play there. The Trump administration views India principally as an economic competitor rather than a country with substantially overlapping interests — it has China on one side and jihad on the other. Pakistan, long a de facto U.S. dependency, is slowly turning into Afghanistan, and the United States seems to have very little interest in trying to forestall that — and yet at the same time still apparently lacks the political will to forthrightly admit that any “nation-building” we might undertake there is not going to be worth the cost, and to cut loose Islamabad or at least to be prepared to cut it loose. The United States, always hostage to Washington’s pathological short-termism, has given very little thought to what a post-ayatollah Iran might look like, or to prepare for that eventuality when it comes to pass, which it will.

Pursuing regime change in Tehran would be a great deal more attractive if we had some idea of how we might ensure that the change would be for the better. If the United States has any meaningful relationships with the would-be reformers in Iran, Washington has been very quiet about it.

We have a much fuller relationship with the Saudis. But we have done less than we might have to cultivate reformers there, too. Saudi Arabia has half the population of Italy, but Saudis compose the fourth-largest group of foreign students at U.S. universities. It is, on balance, a good thing to have those Saudis studying here. But what sort of men do you imagine the fathers of those Saudi students to be? Taxi drivers and dissidents, political reformers and members of minority groups? No, not likely. U.S. universities love Saudi money and have shown themselves more than willing to play a little ball in return for it, but Washington can and should use those student visas as a tool of foreign policy. If the United States wants to strengthen the liberal and democratic forces in Saudi Arabia (or in China, a subject for another day) and to encourage reform in Riyadh, the prestige value of an elite U.S. education provides a powerful instrument for doing so.

Relationships with the Saudis might bring in the money, but there is more than money at stake here.

Where can we find allies?

The leaders in the United Arab Emirates are ready to do business, and the emergence of Dubai and Abu Dhabi as global cities offers a great many under-exploited opportunities for exchange and collaboration. Theirs is an imperfect model of liberal reform, to be sure. But we should get ourselves accustomed to the fact that decent and accountable government comes in many different forms, and that the Middle East is not headed for a series of Madisonian settlements. Most of Europe lacks the kind of constitutional free-speech and free-press protections we take for granted here in the United States. Germany and Austria routinely ban books and prohibit certain kinds of political parties, but they are not authoritarian backwaters: They are decent, accountable, liberal democracies that do some things differently from the way we do them here. The UAE has a long way to go before we can say the same, but that should be our guiding light. And what we have seen there should be encouraging.

The same cautious optimism should inform our relationships with countries as different as Indonesia and Turkey, where Erdogan is not the only game in town. We have opportunities in India and Indonesia. We still have an opportunity in Pakistan, but one that will require a deeper and more demanding commitment than we have shown ourselves able to undertake in recent years. We do not have much in the way of real relationships with Iran’s reformers, but some of our European allies do. We should engage as broadly as we can, without any illusions, and use all that a fruitful relationship with the United States has to offer to tip the scales, wherever possible, to those who share our values. We should do this because liberalism, democracy, the rights of women and minorities, and the rule of law are important and necessary — and because the people and institutions who are with us on those are the only ones who are really with us at all. That’s real realism. The-enemy-of-my-enemy method offers only temporary and conditional alliances.

Rather than complain and resent it when the French maintain something very close to normal relations with Tehran, we should be quietly piggybacking on their dealings there. Emmanuel Macron almost certainly has a better sense of real conditions on the ground in Tehran than Donald Trump does. Relationships matter. But memories of gloire notwithstanding, France is simply not in a position to provide the kind of leadership that the United States can. Our European allies, in fact, often have closer and more productive relationships with Muslim leaders and communities from the Palestinian territories to Indonesia. And that is what we need.

There is no question that American military power remains, for the moment, unchallengeable. There is no army, no nation-state, and no enemy in the world that can stand up to it, and to attempt it would be suicide. But what good is all that strength if all we can do is knock down this or that regime and then stand there looking stupid as something nearly as bad or worse springs up in its place? The non-interventionists have a point to the extent that they insist that the United States should not be so quick to respond to threats or insults with the 82nd Airborne. But non-interventionism is close to the opposite of what we actually need. What’s needed and has been needed for a long while is interventionism, big-time. Every time some brave soul in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, the UAE, Indonesia, Egypt, Syria, etc., stands up and says, “Yes, women should have the vote, the right to property, and the right to work and to travel; yes, we should have a free press and freedom of religion; yes, we should have the rule of law and independent courts; no, we should not execute homosexuals or so-called blasphemers,” there should be ten Americans standing behind him saying, “Amen!” and one of them should be the president of the United States. The United States has enough firepower at its command that it can afford to wear its idealism on its sleeve.

George W. Bush was wrong in his insistence that the love of freedom has been divinely planted in every human heart. Some human hearts thrum to darker passions. The people of the Middle East and of the Muslim world more broadly may not be waving American flags like the protesters in Hong Kong, but they do not want to be poor, miserable, and misruled — and even the bitterly anti-American among them do not wish to live in a world permanently held hostage by the Saudi–Iran rivalry and by the American participation in it. The Riyadh–Tehran confrontation is a defining feature of political life in the region in part because that is how the United States sees things, and how the United States sees things matters. It is time for the United States to take a broader view, and a longer one.

As it stands, the Saudi–Iranian confrontation presents the United States with a lose-lose proposition: No matter what we do, somebody is going to win. Maybe it will be our rat bastards — but they’re still rat bastards. That isn’t good enough. We can do better. But we can’t do it easily, we can’t do it on the cheap, and we can’t do it in a week.

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