House of Saud and Middle East myths

In their book ‘Myths, Illusions, & Peace’, National Security Advisor Dennis Ross and David Makovsky of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy lay out a framework of evaluating and designing US policy in the Middle East. Written a year before the advent of the Arab Spring it lays out the rationale behind the Obama Administration’s decision making.

They are of the realist school. [To be sure, they see themselves as new realists.] They specify what this means in bullet points (these guys are old school):

  • States are guided by [their] interests and by the desire for power;
  • values and ideology are more artificial than real, designed principally as devices to justify the pursuit of power;
  • balance of power principles shape how states interact – if a state confronts others with comparable or greater power, it will retreat.

That is, the world is a nasty neighbourhood where the rules of the jungle apply. Convenient doctrine for those who hold the clubs. I haven’t finished reading this book so the mandatory book review will have to wait for a few days. But I found a few gems that I couldn’t wait to share.

FDR met Saudi King Ibn Saud on February 14, 1945 and pledged that he would not support the Jews at the expense of the Arabs. In fact, up until 1948, the State Department specialists on the Near East were hostile to the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. Defence Secretary Marshall et al feared that US support for it would jeopardize access to the MidEast oil by endangering US relations with the Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf, especially the House of Saud. The diplomatic and security establishment believed that the nascent Jewish state would be overwhelmed militarily. The Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a memorandum arguing against support for Israel. Consistent with such fears the United States embargoed both sides in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948.

Fortunately for Israel, there was a pivotal dissenter in the Truman White House: Clark Clifford. Clifford argued that the Arab oil threats were empty. That the Arab monarchies needed oil revenues and would not jeopardize their own regimes by losing US support. In the end, Clifford was proven right. Not only did the US-Saudi relationship not get damaged, it greatly improved over time, even during Ibn Saud’s regime.

This bears remarkable similarity to recent events. Clifford’s arguments hold mutatis mutandis to the situation in the Persian Gulf today. Saudi belligerence against the Shi’ite is serving a similar role to their opposition to the creation of a Jewish state in the heart of the Islamic world; namely, to distract the population from the fact that they live in a completely unaccountable tyranny. Stability in Saudi Arabia is the pillar in the equation. Just look at the maps. There is a unique solution in the realist scheme.

The following is a real conversation I had with the CEO of a boutique financial firm who manages $5 billion in assets. Not kidding!

ME: So, this is one way the US dollar could lose its reserve currency status: Saudi Arabia starts trading in Euros.

CEO: Then who will protect them?

ME: From who?

CEO: From us.

ME: Of course.

Its well understood that this is indeed a Business consensus. Its embedded in the market prices. Observe them jump at news about instability in The Big One. In any case, no one wants a radical out of control Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia. That would be a tragedy. We should proceed with extreme caution. Some degree of movement towards constitutional changes that promote the rule of law and broader control over public spending would be a safe start. The King has already promised constitutional reforms and tens of billions for public welfare [actually $130 billion]. The House of Saud is not going anywhere out of the US orbit.

As I have argued before, US support for Saudi state terror against Shi’ite protestors may be consistent with the interests of the House of Saud but hurts US interests in the Middle East. It will strengthen the hand of the Shi’ite rebels in Yemen, the Mahdi Army in Iraq, Hezbollah in Beirut, and the Islamic regime in Iran. The Obama administration is certainly aware of the effects of its current policy in Iraq. They are already talking about keeping more troops longer than planned, despite an agreement with the Iraqi government that there will be only 50,000 American “advisors” after the summer. This is so obviously counter productive.

Clifford is still right.

[Update:Eugene Robinson over at the Washington Post understands realism, but seems to think that it just started. Eugene, the gap between our values and external reality is so wide that we have to borrow the framework of the policy makers if we hope to have any predictive ability.

The WSJ has an interesting piece about the growing tension in the Persian Gulf, which gets very pornographic towards the end: “Saudi officials say that despite the current friction in the US-Saudi relationship, they won’t break out of the traditional security arrangement with Washington, which is based on the understanding that the kingdom works to stabilize global oil prices while the White House protects the ruling family’s dynasty. Washington has pulled back from blanket support for democracy efforts in the region.” [Emphasis mine.]

Of course, we need to decode the euphemism “protection”. Its not very good code. Protection is what it always is in tough neighbourhoods. And who can provide better protection than the Godfather? It is, after all, Obama’s favourite movie.]


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