President Obama leaves Washington today for his third and final presidential "hajj" to Saudi Arabia for tense meetings with newly installed Saudi King Salman. By any measure, the once "enduring" U.S. - Saudi alliance is on a collision course, triggered by a fateful election year reckoning long overdue of the costs and benefits to a "friendship" that strains the credibility of that word. No amount of diplomatic doublespeak from Mr. Obama or his press secretary can camouflage the President's ire at the Saudis, who were shocked at Mr. Obama's unprecedented public rebuke last month of their unhelpful conduct in the Middle East.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Obama told The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that the Saudis are not only among "free rider" allies that ask the United States to fight their battles for them and "exploit" American muscle for their own narrow, sectarian end, but are also responsible for encouraging anti-American militancy (his sanitized expression of spreading radical Islamic jihadi ideology).
This is a first: a U.S. President on the record flying off the handle against the Saudis. If there ever was an undiplomatic hanging out of dirty Saudi laundry this was it - a double presidential whammy. It represented a fascinating insight into Obama's pent up anger against the Kingdom that with all of the military assistance this White House has showered on the Saudis as payback for Mr. Obama's Iran deal, the Saudis are not to be trusted. Mr. Obama approved over $60 billion in new military sales to Saudi Arabia. By doing so, he accelerated an already runaway arms race in the region. This has been Mr. Obama's solution to his Saudi contradiction. That's just what a turbulent Middle East needs now: billions of dollars of new U.S. military equipment to a Saudi Arabia under a presidential cloud of suspicion, ladled out as a substitute for a coherent U.S. strategy in the region.
A good share of the fault for this crisis of confidence lies on the President's own doorstep. Mr. Obama failed to incubate his Iran nuclear agreement with a requisite regional security strategy to protect our Israeli and Sunni Arab allies against a newly unshackled Iranian military -- the White House has been playing catch up ever since as Iran ratchets up its interference in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and with Hamas in Gaza. Mr. Obama has talked the talk of pivoting to Asia away from the Middle East (that rhetoric has only added to the angst among our regional allies), but he keeps having to do a back-step shuffle as events outstrip his rhetoric. Chalk another foreign policy failure up for the President's national security team.
Mind you, the Saudis have also greatly contributed to this crisis of confidence by their own actions -- particularly at a time when the American people have credible reason to hold the Kingdom responsible for actions inconsistent with fundamental U.S. objectives in the Middle East. How would the American people feel if they knew how much funding and support "private" Saudi citizens provide to Al Qaeda and radical Islamic groups on Syria? What would they demand if they knew the extent to which Mr. Obama has stumbled into a Saudi proxy war in Yemen that has backfired into a bigger safe haven for ISIS and Al Qaeda in Yemen? It is simply mindboggling that the Obama Administration would allow itself - given its aversion to Middle East wars - to become a willing enabler of the Saudi proxy contest with Iran in Yemen - especially given what the President said in his Atlantic interview
'The "28 Pages Crisis" All of this comes against growing public demand for the U.S. to lift the veil once and for all off of information which could link Saudi diplomats based in Los Angeles before 9/11 to two of the Saudi hijackers by declassifying 28 pages of the "9/11 Commission Report." According to a "60 Minutes" report two weeks ago those 28 pages are replete with damning evidence that could blow the U.S. ties to the Kingdom sky high.
The Saudis clearly are concerned about those 28 pages, and have threatened their own version of financial blackmail. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir warned the Obama administration and Congress last week that if Congress votes to lift Saudi Arabia's sovereign immunity as demanded by families of 9/11 victims, the Saudis would dump $750 billion in U.S. bonds it holds. Full-fledged, on display, brinkmanship is now the order of the day between the U.S. and the Kingdom. Each of these factors would be troublesome standing alone, but collectively they occur against a backdrop of vociferous Saudi displeasure with the Obama administration's dalliance with the Kingdom's dreaded adversary, Iran, and the Saudi's unwillingness to contribute tangible support to the U.S. in the struggle against ISIS.
So, find me a division...I would settle for a brigade (indeed, I would even settle for a platoon) of Saudis who are fighting alongside the American-led coalition in Syria or Iraq to vanquish ISIS. Find me a Saudi fighter pilot or two, I beg you, who are flying formation with Americans to bomb ISIS targets in Syria, Libya or Iraq.
Whether it be ISIS or Iran, the Saudis would prefer, to put it undiplomatically, that Americans die to the last Saudi. The Saudis need more skin in the anti-ISIS game to regain a modicum of trust in Washington. My critique of Saudi conduct must be measured, however, against the Kingdom's own travails. The Saudis find themselves cornered and at a crossroads with their hitherto great American protector. Given growing Iranian belligerence and a pervasive fear that the Obama administration is abandoning them in favor of an evolving Iranian relationship, the Saudis have reason to wonder what the hell is going on with this White House.
The U.S. - Saudi Relationship is Important to American Global Interests. A road map out of this conundrum is needed because the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important element in projecting vital American interests in the Middle East. On good days, the Saudis provide vital intelligence to the U.S. military and counter-terrorism officials against Al Qaeda. The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council provides an essential politico-military shield to our real allies in the Gulf; namely Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman. Without the Saudi-U.S. Strategic Partnership, Iran would enjoy open season against American interests in the Middle East. Yes, even if the Saudis and Iranians are fighting an Islamic-fueled duel to the death, the Saudis have a credible role in deterring Iran that serves America's parochial agenda.
If this relationship serves American interests then it must be salvaged. So what must the next president do given that Mr. Obama can do little at this point?
It's Not Washington, Stupid! The Saudis must do much better at public diplomacy. It isn't just Mr. Obama who has grown weary of Saudi duplicity in the Middle East - it is the American people. And the Saudis are about to confront the worst crisis in the 80 year old alliance in the weeks and months ahead. The days of being coddled by President Bush 43 are over. No presidential candidate on either side of the aisle is prepared to play the Saudi's preferred inside game in Washington. The U.S. is no longer dependent on Saudi oil. And the public wants to know whether the Saudis are with us or against us.
Saudi Boots Are Essential Against ISIS. The Saudis are going to have step up their game four square in the battle against Al Qaeda and against ISIS. Not, as they claim they are, in Yemen. Not just inside Saudi Arabia. But in Iraq, Syria, and in Libya. That requires Saudi boots on the ground and pilots in the air. It requires the Saudis to stop the printing presses that covertly support radical Islamic theology, and arrest any Saudi found to be financing Islamic radicalism abroad. It also requires the callow Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed to cease waging a losing war in Yemen.
A 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. If the Saudis step up to the plate and agree to a full accounting for any official Saudi culpability in the 9/11 attacks, the Saudis must establish a compensation fund for 9/11 victims governed by Americans - not Saudis. That will not erase the foul taste Americans will have for Saudi duplicity, but it will eventually drain the swamp. One way or another those 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission Report are going to see the light of day. The Saudis will not be able to stop it. But even if the emerging evidence is not a smoking gun, why shouldn't the Saudis do the right thing: pay the fine without admitting wrongdoing. The big banks do it...so can they!
A New U.S. Security Structure. If/if the Saudis agree to these two prior conditions, the U.S. should consider creating a new regional defense agreement umbrella (the U.S. led a similar effort in the 1950s by forging the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). This new 21st century version would focus on countering Islamic terror, containing Iran's ballistic missile, cyber, and wage a multi-pronged battle against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the incipient radical Islamic ideology that feeds them. For good measure, such a regional defense umbrella should work to eventually include Israel if it begins in earnest to work toward a two state solution. Such a regional security umbrella could also incubate a final peace settlement between Israel and Sunni Arab states if Israel, in turn, c0mmenced a two state solution enterprise in earnest.
Americans & Saudis Share The Goal of Holding Iran Accountable. Mr. Obama's often Pollyannaish attitude toward Iran must give way to a zero tolerance policy against any violation of the Iran nuclear agreement and, more urgently, Iran's ballistic missile testing. Once again, it took Congressional pressure against Mr. Obama to compel him to fess up against Iran's ballistic missile testing before the ink was dry on the nuclear accord. When Mr. Obama and his team finally vacate the White House all of the presidential candidates have committed to re-ratcheting sanctions on Iran if it continues to hide behind the nuclear agreement as a pretext to wreak havoc and terror in the Middle East. Congress and the next president will find common cause in a new sanctions regime and containment strategy to bring some much needed sobriety to our Iran policy. A new anti-Iran containment strategy is in order and overdue. The Saudis and the U.S. will have common cause in this endeavor.
Protocol will dictate President Obama sugar-coat his criticisms to his hosts in Riyadh, but harbor (and channel) what Americans truly feel about Saudi policies. Painful, but essential work at rebuilding trust and confidence will now fall to the next president. The Saudis have much to account for.