To say in a blog post here, today, that I am concerned about our President Trump’s misunderstanding of foreign policy would not be to break new ground. Since the beginning of the Trump presidency, critics and apologists alike have seized upon this lack of experience, either to raise the alarm bells or to suggest that this rough departure from “business as usual” is somehow guaranteed to be better.
Yet despite the present relative lack of bloodshed, tanks ordered to move or bombs dropped, President Trump’s recent embrace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is perhaps his most dangerous foreign policy moment yet. Dangerous because of its implications, its message, and more significantly, because he seems not to understand where he has stepped.
His gilded foray into the palaces of the Kingdom last month effectively places the United States at the center of a war that is centuries older than our own country. By embracing the Kingdom without restraint, without asking anything of Saudis in return except continued access to the resources that we take for granted, the U.S. has sent a clear and intended message to Iran that we have chosen a side in the Sunni versus Shia battle raging across the Middle East. Much like the Christians, there is a major, historical split within Islam. To side with one and make an enemy of the other is to gamble at a very high risk.
We have isolated Iran just at the moment that it had begun to reach out to the rest of the world. The recent presidential election result of Rouhani winning office in Iran showed clear support among the populace for the nuclear deal achieved under Obama that brought a moment of peace—a moment to breathe, even—to the dangerous arms race Iran was playing. President Trump’s visit to and apparent affection for the King of Saudi Arabia is an attempt to reset a foreign policy from the Obama years and yet another attempt to isolate Iran as a pariah state.
Among other things to consider when assessing the region, Trump needs to look at the number of prisoners each nation has and come to grips with women’s role in societies of each nation. Neither one excels and certainly both Iran and Saudi Arabia have lengthy reports each year in human rights observer reports. Iran, not the government but the people of Iran, may be the only nation in the Middle East that like and admire the American way. Iranians in the U.S. have settled rather quietly, securely and happily.
The subsequent and almost immediate isolation of Qatar by a Saudi led coalition of countries was the first sign of the implications of this new policy. In his first trip abroad, Trump made it clear to the Saudis that he would seek no demands, execute no pressure—and with that carte blanche in hand, the Saudis took off the gloves. As well in Bahrain, where dissidents will now be judged in military courts rather than civilian. Minority rule in Bahrain is hard on its Shia majority.
Moving first to isolate Qatar, something the Saudis have sought to do since Qatar first began to assert a claim to dominance in the region in the late 1990’s, the Saudis accused the tiny nation of support for Iran and cut diplomatic ties. Days later, Iran suffered its first terrorist attack in decades, with dual attacks on Parliament and at the mausoleum of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Yemen has been driven in a famine by Saudi and American warplanes. Three forces now rule a fractured Yemen: ISIS, the exile government and the Houthis who are in rebellion. Saudi bombs fall on the Houthis.
None of this is to paint a picture of a rosy, democratic, open state in Iran. None of this is to look the other way as the Saudi regime tortures its people, starves children in Yemen, and brutally helps in crushing political unrest in nearby Bahrain.
Trump’s decision to love one and not the other steps in a long bitter and terrible struggle of the division of Sunni and Shia split over 1,200 years ago. It is a split that he has neither tried to understand, nor accepted as significant.
The only solution now, as it has always been, as it may always be in the face of such a rift, is to drop “the love of Saudi Arabia and hate of Iran “policy. Calm in the face of the tension, taking no sides, dealing with both as important, significant to our own foreign policy and interests, dangerous to the region, to their own people, to our own. A response of smart diplomacy, well planned and well-constructed. The long game, you might even say. Kissing the many dictators of the world could bring on a fatal illness.
My belief is that Saudi Arabia has a dangerous and dim future for its people, with little or no hope for those that live under that monarchy. I do believe there is hope for Iran’s 80 million educated citizens. The nuclear deal was smart and savvy and now backed up with an election result. Both nations have half their populations under the age of 20. Both have youth populations that are underemployed. Change is coming for both. The U.S. should work with both, not one.