Today, The New York Times reported:
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/28/wo...t/28saudi.htmlSaudi Arabia is flexing its financial and diplomatic might across the Middle East in a wide-ranging bid to contain the tide of change, shield fellow monarchs from popular discontent and avert the overthrow of any more leaders struggling to calm turbulent republics.
From Egypt, where the Saudis dispensed $4 billion in aid last week to shore up the ruling military council, to Yemen, where it is trying to ease out the president, to the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco, which it has invited to join a union of Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia is scrambling to forestall more radical change and block Iran’s influence.
These latest measures illustrate that Saudi Arabia understands its critical interests and remains willing and able to take measures to sustain those interests. Tragically, such decisive leadership may also reflect a kind of leadership vacuum that has been created by an inconsistent and overly idealistic U.S. policy in the region.
Over the course of the past few years, over two Administrations, one has witnessed the U.S. adopting a posture that Israeli-Palestinian peace is at the crux of the region’s problems (it isn’t) and, in the face of historic experience concerning the intractability of ethnic conflicts, artificial timelines for a complete resolution of the historic dispute. One has also witness increasing U.S. pressure being placed on Israel (a reliable strategic ally) when, in fact, Palestinian intransigence has blocked progress. Afterward, that pressure spread to Egypt where the U.S. essentially made clear that it wanted to see a friendly President ushered from power even when the contours of the post-Mubarak Egypt were somewhat murky, even if the “revolution” was not as radical as the Iranian one.
For Saudi Arabia, Iran’s growing power has been a major concern. Bahrain, with its proximity to Saudi Arabia and its majority Shia population constituted a “red line” of sorts. That the U.S. failed to provide reaffirmation of support for Bahrain’s embattled moderate Sunni government raised alarms in Riyadh. That the U.S. seemed to lack awareness of the potential balance of power implications at stake and seemed to embrace an assumption that all of the popular movements in the region were benevolent and liberal in nature made the situation even more urgent. Saudi Arabia, as it did in Iraq in lending support to some of the embattled Sunnis, joined with the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council in moving to secure the survival of Bahrain’s government. With a strategic conception of the perils associated with a potentially radical overturning of established political institutions and power relationships and the linkages involved, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a more ambitious “counterrevolution” of sorts aimed at promoting stability or, at least, a more orderly transition that allows moderate regimes to evolve toward a more representative approach to governance.
Until the U.S. rediscovers a balance between its interests and ideals—U.S. policy has shifted excessively toward its ideals—and puts concrete substance ahead of hopes and best case assumptions, the U.S. may find Saudi Arabia’s new posture unsatisfactory. Given its vast distance from the region, the U.S. has much larger room for maneuver. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, has much less room for error. Events are occurring on its doorstep. The shadow of Iran’s growing power and continuing revolutionary activities via its proxies looms over Saudi Arabia and other moderate Sunni governments. The U.S. was able to absorb the Iranian revolution of 1979 with far fewer consequences than Iran’s neighbors. Similarly, if Bahrain became an Iranian satellite, the U.S. would suffer far lower costs than Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the U.S. remains the world’s foremost military power, hence it would not have to live with the kind of threat that would confront Saudi Arabia.
In short, Saudi Arabia’s strategic approach to recent events in the Middle East is rational and consistent with its critical interests. At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s posture may actually bolster U.S. regional interests, if its strategy succeeds in forestalling opportunities that could be exploited by a rising Iran and its proxies.