WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama just concluded a closely watched visit to Saudi Arabia.
No major announcements or developments emerged from his meeting with the Kingdom's leaders, and some commentators suggested that the apparent coldness between Obama and the Saudi heads of state is a plus.
That means that when Obama returns to the U.S., he'll still be able to sell the idea that he's bringing reason and change to the decades-old, perennially troubled and increasingly unpopular American partnership with Saudi Arabia.
With the Kingdom attracting more bad press recently -- because of its disastrous actions in Yemen, and because of activism by the families of people killed on Sept. 11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi -- that's not a bad way for Obama to be viewed.
Don't believe the hype.
Obama's policies toward Saudi Arabia have a lot to do with the Kingdom's rash recent decisions -- particularly the massacre of Yemeni civilians, including children, in a yearlong, U.S.-backed war that has helped al Qaeda develop a mini-state making millions of dollars a day.
Understanding why means understanding a number: sixty billion. In dollars, that's the low valuation of how much U.S. weaponry the Obama administration has allowed to be sold to Saudi Arabia, according to Bruce Reidel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank who closely watches the Kingdom.
In fact, the figure could actually be as high as $90 billion, Reidel noted in an event at Brookings Thursday. In comparison, President George W. Bush approved $20 billion for the same purpose.
It's true that Obama has risked offending the Saudis in pursuing what he thinks is the right path for the U.S. -- by concluding an international agreement to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions, for instance, or by saying Arab allies of the U.S. should do more for their region's security, rather than being "free riders" of American support. He has also noted that the Kingdom and its fellow Sunni Arab-ruled states should recognize the risks of consistently crushing civil society and dissent, particularly among their massive populations of young people.
The trouble is that time and again, he's tried to make up for these apparent slights to Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations in the Persian Gulf by granting them access to the newest, shiniest killing machines.
That approach, one of the most consistent parts of the Obama presidency, has had two major effects.
The first is that it's enriched U.S. weapons manufacturers, which have made $33 billion from deals with the Gulf in just the past 11 months, according to the State Department. Companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing are thrilled -- and defense industry analysts suggest the good times are just beginning.
The second effect is that it's sent the Saudis a mixed message. By indicating that engaging in an arms race is a U.S.-approved response to the deal with Iran, and by saying he wants to see regional powers take matters into their own hands without suggesting any parameters for what they should do, Obama created a situation that made Saudi aggression almost inevitable.
The consequence of that belligerence -- international criticism -- has largely served to make Saudi Arabia even more defensive, and thus more likely to lash out. It's akin to "enabling" -- recognizing a problem, in this case Saudi fears, and then actively making it worse.
Green-lighting and supporting the Saudi campaign in Yemen, even though he had evidence that it would be relatively unimportant to the larger goal of pushing back against Iran, is perhaps the biggest way Obama has done this.
Writing this week on Obama's trip to Saudi Arabia, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof denounced the Kingdom's austere state-sponsored ideology and noted that the group Human Rights Watch believes Saudi actions in Yemen constitute war crimes. But he also mentioned an idea that Obama aides often cite to describe why the president became so committed to the Iran deal: "Engagement usually works better than isolation."
In the interview series with The Atlantic in which Obama called the Kingdom and other Sunni-run states "free riders," the president also suggested that he has little hope that engaging the Saudis will lead to results. On the contrary, he seemed fatalistic toward them and toward the region. From The Atlantic:
“Right now, I don’t think that anybody can be feeling good about the situation in the Middle East,” he said. “You have countries that are failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people. You’ve got a violent, extremist ideology, or ideologies, that are turbocharged through social media. You’ve got countries that have very few civic traditions, so that as autocratic regimes start fraying, the only organizing principles are sectarian.”
He went on, “Contrast that with Southeast Asia, which still has huge problems -- enormous poverty, corruption -- but is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure. The contrast is pretty stark.”
In Asia, as well as in Latin America and Africa, Obama says, he sees young people yearning for self-improvement, modernity, education, and material wealth.
“They are not thinking about how to kill Americans,” he says. “What they’re thinking about is How do I get a better education? How do I create something of value?”
This passage may offer some explanation for why Obama believes enabling the Saudis might be his only option. He doesn't seem to believe that, at present, they can be convinced to pursue what he sees as a more rational path.
It doesn't, however, suggest that he sees inherent value in partnering with them or others in the Middle East -- which is likely why, as Reidel colorfully argued, he has failed to "not let friends drive drunk."
None of this is to say the Kingdom shouldn't be held responsible for what it's chosen to do with the weapons Obama has passed along.
It's simply a reminder that diagnosing the situation is not as simple as criticizing the U.S. for blindly supporting its longtime partner. For once, there really is a method -- and plenty of deliberate policy choices -- behind the madness.