Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the US State Department

Much of Middle Eastern politics these days is dominated by the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional leadership. One of the few novel things about Obama's foreign policy was a desire to move away from blind support of Saudi Arabia and prod both parties toward accommodation. Once the issue of the Iranian nuclear program had been dealt with, Obama wanted to move toward recognizing Iran as a normal nation and try to peacefully resolve their conflicts with the Saudis and others. Obama disliked the Saudi leadership and resented the assumption that he should always support them despite their horrible record on human rights and billions they have spent exporting fundamentalist Islam around the world.

The Trump administration has gone back to treating the Saudis as close allies and strongly taking their side in the rivalry with Iran. Other than his habit of storming around the world irritating everyone, this may be the most noteworthy thing about Trump's foreign policy so far. (I'm not convinced that his ramblings about NATO will amount to anything in the end.) He has gone back  to the Bush administration line that Iran is an "evil" nation we need to oppose at every turn. Which makes this little incident at the State Department yesterday interesting.
Dave Clark, a reporter for Agence France Presse, asked acting assistant secretary Stuart Jones a pointed question about President Trump criticizing Iranian democracy while standing next to officials of Saudi Arabia—not exactly a beacon of democracy itself. "How do you characterize Saudi Arabia's commitment to democracy?" he asked. Is democracy a barrier against extremism?
The response, as you can see in the video at the link, was 19 seconds of complete silence.

In truth Saudi Arabia is a family dictatorship and they have regularly opposed democracy in other countries as well (Iraq, Egypt). Iran's elections are far from perfect but at least they have elections. I'm not going to carry water for the Iranian regime, which is a corrupt, violent theocracy – but then so is Saudi Arabia's. It seems to me that our long-term interest is best served by making peace between them, and I don't understand why we should waste any effort helping one over the other.


Here is Rod Dreher on the same scene:
To be fair to him, there is no answer that is both honest and consistent with US policy. Which tells you something about US policy.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

Well we've supported the Saudis historically because 1) they have a reasonably competant military we could theoretically work with in the event of major regional war and 2) they sold us cheap oil.

However, both of those things are losing their relevance these days. The Saudi miliary is no longer quite so potent a regional power, and our reliance on foreign oil is drying up as we shift more and more to renewables.

I imagine Trump sides with the Saudis mostly out of habit, and out of spite against Obama. He clearly doesn't actually have any real grasp of the situation.