To Help Thwart ISIS, Let's Take Baby Steps Away From Saudi Arabia and Turkey

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the White House Brady Press Briefing Room, in Washington, Friday, D
President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the White House Brady Press Briefing Room, in Washington, Friday, Dec. 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Here's two things we know for sure from key advances of the Obama Administration's foreign policy: our relationships with other countries aren't set in stone, and the choices aren't merely "friend" and "foe." We can shake hands without getting married, and we can pivot away without getting divorced. We can change our relationship with a country from "enemy with unremittingly hostile relations" to "adversary with a cordial relationship and modest cooperation" (Cuba, Iran.) We can change our relationship with a country from "joined at the hip" to "pretty good friends" (Israel.)

In order to help us thwart ISIS, let's move Saudi Arabia and Turkey into the Israel category. Let's downgrade them from "joined at the hip" to "pretty good friends." This will enable us to pursue a more aggressive policy against ISIS, because the main constraint against doing so in the past has been our closeness to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have opposed an aggressive policy against ISIS.

It is, of course, a crude oversimplification to say that Saudi Arabia and Turkey have supported ISIS, just as it is a crude oversimplification to say that our Earth is a sphere. As every schoolgirl knows, our Earth is not a sphere; it's an "oblate spheroid." Tie a string around the Equator, tie a string around the poles, the strings won't be the same length. Therefore, the Earth is not a sphere. QED.

However, as every schoolgirl also knows, the Earth is basically a sphere. It's a ball. It's more like a cantaloupe or an orange than it is like a watermelon or a cucumber. And just as our Earth is basically a sphere, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have, until recently, basically supported ISIS; they certainly haven't done things they could have done to help the world thwart ISIS, because they were more into the project of trying to overthrow the Syrian government than they were into the project of confronting ISIS.

And why wouldn't Saudi Arabia and Turkey have basically supported ISIS, if they thought it served their "national interests" to do so? Let's not pretend to be shocked, shocked that people have been supporting armed jihadists in this establishment, as if the CIA hasn't supported armed jihadists whenever it suited a President's purposes to do so. The CIA has armed groups in Syria that the President could bomb under the 2001 AUMF as "associated forces to Al Qaeda" if he chose to do so. If Joe and Mary Citizen in Peoria so much as sent these groups a get well card, they could be prosecuted for "material aid to terrorists." But according to Washington rules, if the CIA does it, it's not illegal. What's new and interesting today is not that there is suddenly some prospect of getting Saudi Arabia and Turkey to act differently from other governments who pursue their own interests as they perceive them; what's new and interesting is that there's a diplomatic process underway that could usefully change their calculations of their perceived interests. Under the November 14 Vienna agreement, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have basically pledged to stop supporting armed jihadism in Syria in exchange for an end to Syrian government attacks on groups in Syria aligned with Saudi Arabia and Turkey and a political process in Syria to broaden the Syrian government to accommodate the political aspirations of these groups.

And now the countries are meeting in New York to try to continue the implementation of this agreement. And while nobody can say right now how exactly it is going to all work out -- as nobody could say exactly how it would all work out at a similar stage when world powers and Iran were negotiating the nuclear agreement - the fact that the countries have come as far as they have suggests that they can go further.

And what this means for the future, if this process is successful, is not only that the Syrian civil war will end, and that people who have been fighting against each other can cooperate against ISIS; it will mean that Secretary of State Kerry will have successfully used an international diplomatic process to pivot just a bit away from countries with which the U.S. was joined at the hip -- just as he did with the Iran nuclear agreement. Until recently, there wasn't much daylight between the U.S. policy in Syria and the Saudi-Turkish policy in Syria. Now there is a bit of daylight. This diplomacy-with-adversaries thing allows for pivots. You can say, "Well, I had to concede X to get an agreement," but maybe you kind of wanted to do X anyway, and this gave you an excuse.

The goal here isn't to completely reinvent our relationship with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. That is almost surely not feasible and probably not desirable in any future we can see; just as completely re-inventing our relationship with Israel is almost surely not feasible and probably not desirable in any future we can see. Just as Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are not totally wonderful, so they are not totally evil; just as Russia and Iran are not totally evil, so they are not totally wonderful. We all know this, right? This is Life on Earth 101. Just about everybody with any pull in the region is good on some things and bad on other things. The Saudis, for example, are very reasonable on Israel-Palestine; indeed, the world's hopes for a reasonable resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict pretty much rest on the reasonableness of Saudi Arabia. Getting divorced from Saudi Arabia and Turkey isn't on the menu in the restaurant. We have to think about the best interests of the children.

What is on the menu is a recalibration, in which the countries are more independent of each other, and their relationships more transparent and accountable. The Iran deal was step one, and the Syria accord is step two. And just as recalibrating the U.S. relationship with Israel is likely to benefit Israelis who want their government to pursue more reasonable policies, so recalibrating the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and Turkey will benefit Saudis and Turks who want their governments to pursue more reasonable policies. It's hard to criticize your best friend. Criticizing your pretty good friend is easier.

How can Joe and Mary Citizen in Peoria help advance this process? I propose the following as a New Year's Resolution for "taking space" from Saudi Arabia and Turkey in 2016:

1. Whenever the Obama Administration, or a significant group of Members of Congress, takes a useful step away from Saudi Arabia or Turkey, or if there is a useful split in the Administration, let's echo and amplify.

2. Whenever a bigfoot human rights NGO calls out Saudi Arabia or Turkey, let's echo and amplify. That Saudi human rights lawyer who was sentenced to 15 years in prison? Let's complain about that. Those Turkish journalists prosecuted for reporting on Turkey's arms smuggling to Syria? Let's complain about that. Oh, and did Turkey and Saudi Arabia try to exclude U.S.-allied Syrian Kurds from the talks? Let's complain about that.

3. Whenever a bigfoot establishment NGO like the International Crisis Group calls out Turkey or Saudi Arabia, let's echo and amplify.

4. When presidential candidates call out Saudi Arabia and Turkey in a useful way, let's echo and amplify.

Let's make 2016 the year that the U.S. separated just a bit from Saudi Arabia and Turkey. A slightly more transparent and accountable world is possible.