Obama's Saudi Problem Overshadows His Gulf Arab and Western European Summits (and the Next Administration)

President Barack Obama had some real problems last week in Riyadh during his visit with Saudi King Salman and summit with Gulf Arab leaders that overshadowed both his trip to the Gulf and his just held Western Europe summit in Hannover, Germany.

It's a far less soaring and arguably chastened Obama touring the world in his final year as president. And things may change notably next year. With Hillary Clinton performing her latest lockdown exercise on the Democratic nomination Tuesday night, and Donald Trump turning in a dominant performance on the Republican side, the US may be somewhat more interventionist than it was under Obama on the one hand, or more isolationist on the other. But that's the still uncertain future.

Obama has a better relationship with Germany now, overcoming very ill effects from Wikileaks and the Snowden revelations. He's worked hard to overcome barriers with Chancellor Angela Merkel, and my old colleague and best man, Ambassador John Emerson, has been his ever able self in facilitating relations. Germany may now be the key European ally for the US, a status long accorded to Britain.

But Obama's message to the leaders of Germany, France, Italy, and Britain was not so much one of transformation, as at the dawn of his presidency, but of perseverance, urging them to stay the course on European integration, expanding international trade, and fighting Isis. (Germany in particular has experienced a serious internal backlash both to Merkel's wonderfully humanitarian policy of accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees and to it and the European Union's subsequent stopgap deal with Turkey to stem the flow.) Obama urged America's longstanding allies to do more to contribute to their own defense through NATO, and to coordinate better in the fight against Isis, which has pulled off two stunning strikes on Paris and Brussels in recent months. But the only new American move he announced is the sending of 250 special ops troops to Syria to further the anti-Isis fight there.

President Barack Obama had some rocky going last week in Riyadh.

The chaos of the Middle East clearly wears heavy on Obama, as revealed in a long interview in The Atlantic.

At the core of this chaos lies America's longstanding relationship with Saudi Arabia, a relationship too fraught to be called an alliance yet alliance is what it has always been called by a foreign policy establishment which Obama clearly disdains. (That Middle Eastern money plays a big role in the Beltway think tank world has nothing to do with Obama's disdain, of course.)

Once, when the Age of Oil was still quite young, alliance seemed a brilliant move. During the midst of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt dispatched eminent oil geologist Everett de Golyer on a mission to the Middle East to gauge the region's potential. De Golyer reported back to FDR and his advisors that the Persian Gulf would inevitably become the pivot point of world energy, and that Saudi Arabia was its El Dorado.

Saudi Arabia was to be the coming superpower of oil, even if its leaders didn't quite know it yet. In fact, so much the better. FDR moved quickly to develop an alliance with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the dimensions of which were not yet in place when FDR's death shocked the world. The alliance continued, but there was no master politician to mind it. Soon enough, it was left to American oilmen to run US diplomacy with the Saudis, while the State Department focused on the Israelis and Cold War dynamics in the region. (FDR had promised to consult with Ibn Saud on the particulars of any creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, an agreement that Harry Truman fatefully reneged on.)

With the complexities of the political and sociological dimensions lost as US-Saudi relations swiftly devolved into sheer materialist preoccupations, a critical problem that would not have eluded the Rooseveltian mindset was allowed to fester and grow without much notice in Washington.

Saudi Arabia was not simply a Kingdom founded on oil. It was also a Kingdom founded on faith. Fatefully so, for the faith on which it was founded was one of the most extreme variants of Islam. The House of Saud owed its politico-religious legitimacy to its 18th century alliance with the desert preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab.

Wahhabism turns out to be an extremist variant of Islam which is, not at all coincidentally, very much in tune with the jihadist perspectives of Al Qaeda and Isis. That it is at odds with the rampant materialism of the Kingdom's oil riches only makes the situation more volatile, as the Saudis' chief American counsel, former Pat Brown chief of staff/Bobby Kennedy campaign manager Fred Dutton, told me decades ago.

The contradictions, as Dutton, whom I came to know when he was a University of California regent and I was a Berkeley undergrad protesting UC investment in apartheid South Africa, realized all too well were always significant. And they became more significant as the Saudi royal family became wealthy beyond most dreams of avarice.

To maintain their street cred, the Saudi royals, who routinely partied in California and Europe, affected their devoutness both at home and across the Middle East and Central Asia, funding extreme fundamentalist religious schools that educated generations in the religionist ideologies underlying jihad. Saudi troublemakers, like Osama bin Laden, a scion of the Kingdom's leading construction dynasty, were encouraged to go elsewhere and in some cases given funding to carry on whatever activities they chose to. Though Saudis didn't have much to do with the actual fighting that defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, many felt they had played a role and wanted to strike out at other symptoms of an oppressive modernity.

When 9/11 occurred, it wasn't really a surprise that 15 of the 19 attacking hijackers were Saudi citizens. And the linkages went deeper. Though most of the Saudi-related aspects of the 9/11 investigation were promptly classified by the Saudi-aligned Bush/Cheney administration, some things slipped out, such as potentially alarming ties between some of the 9/11 attackers and elements within the Saudi consulate in Los Angeles and the Saudi embassy in Washington.

The Saudis say they want the classified chapter on them from the 9/11 report declassified. Not that there was any likelihood of that happening over the past decade-plus. Many references to the Saudis were also redacted in other parts of the report. Now the Obama administration is signaling that it may declassify at least some of that material.

But it opposes legislation by New York Senator Chuck Schemer to allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudis they believe to bear at least some responsibility for the attacks. The Saudis obviously oppose this, and have threatened to dump massive holdings in the US if the bill becomes law.

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump all support the bill.

Which means the incipient chaos around Saudi Arabia is only likely to grow in the next administration.

Indeed, the Saudis, long touted by some would-be realists as just the sort of implacable autocrats the Middle East needs for long-term stability, have themselves been furiously stirring the pot in recent months and years.

Having helped engineer the steep drop in oil prices since June 2014, the Saudis not too surprisingly blew up an effort to stabilize production at the OPEC meeting in Doha earlier this month. The sharp drop in oil prices has had a bad effect on Saudi oil producing rivals, such as Russia, Iran, and the US, all of whom have higher break-even prices. Thus the Saudis guarantee their market share, but wreck their public budget.

Meanwhile, the Saudis continue to pursue a shadow conflict across the Middle East with Iran, and conduct a troubling real war in Yemen, replete with heavy civilian casualties, against elements backed by Iran and others amidst what are actually much more complex tribal dynamics.

And they do so now, suddenly, as the third biggest military spender on the planet, trailing only the US and China. Even Russia spends less than Saudi Arabia on the military.

Saudi opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and anger over Obama's refusal to intervene directly in the Syrian civil war are part and parcel of a larger conflict across the Middle East between the Saudi concept of Sunni Islam and Iran's Shia strain.

It's ironic that the Saudis are so opposed to one dictator in Syria who opposed Arab Spring protesters while backing others, notably in Egypt, who did the same. The difference is one of religious bent and political affiliation.

The Saudis strongly opposed the popular overthrow of longtime Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, strangely blaming Obama for "allowing" it to happen. (Obama's support of his ouster was about three days ahead of the curve. What was he supposed to do, invade Egypt and massacre the protesters?) The Saudis then strongly opposed the election of Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt's first truly democratic elections, because they represented a different, much more democratic slant on Sunni Islam. Then they strongly backed the overthrow of University of Southern California-educated President Mohammed Morsi by the current military junta, which has unsurprisingly gone back to repressing would-be reformers.

Throughout all these things, the Saudis have resented Obama for not reflexively backing their very sectarian and self-involved approach.

How they fare post-Obama is very much an open question. Chances are, things only become more chaotic. Their strategy for the future of Saudi Arabia, at least as expressed by the 30-year old crown prince, is very speculative and risky. A continuation of the big military and internal security build-ups and the lower oil price schema, coupled with a move to end Saudi internal dependence on oil use and more cuts in the massive subsides by which the royals have bought the acquiescence of the people. In place of that, more enterprise-oriented jobs, in a society with little such experience.

What can possibly go wrong? I keep thinking about how prevalent US military equipment was in Tehran when I backpacked through there as a grad student a year or so before the Shah was overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini. No wonder the new theocratic regime was so readily able to stir up the people against "the Great Satan." We were clearly identified with every act of repression by the Shah's police state. (It was US policy under Nixon and Kissinger to have half of Pentagon arms sales go to the Shah's Iran, and US support for the Shah continued under Jimmy Carter.) I also keep thinking about how Riyadh, in the same time period, made Tehran under the Shah seem like Paris.

Going forward, the House of Saud may look back on the Obama era as the good old days. For despite the enmity, the Obama administration has obligingly engaged in major arms sales to the Saudis. And has helped in the problematic war in Yemen.

The future looks much more uncertain with either Clinton or Trump.

Trump, who just laid out a sort of child's paint-by-numbers scrambling of the dots on foreign policy -- America should be "unpredictable," he opined in his Washington address on Wednesday, which is the one thing a superpower should not be -- has favored Saudi acquisition of nuclear weapons. Which, given the current and likely levels of chaos surround Saudi Arabia, is frankly quite nuts. So maybe Trump might get talked out that. Maybe. As for the rest, who knows? Trump sure doesn't.

Hillary has favored placing the Saudis under the US nuclear umbrella. Not quite so nuts, but, er, decidedly not a good idea. And politically quite untenable, I suspect, given even the most benign interpretation of Saudi links to 9/11.

That issue in particular will be critical going forward.

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