Commentary Magazine


Topic: Saudi Arabia

Don’t Ignore Riyadh in Iran Talks

In the ongoing debate over whether the interim agreement now being discussed with Tehran will or won’t effectively slow Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. policymakers seem to have overlooked one major issue: Even if they’re convinced that Israeli and Saudi concerns about the deal are unfounded, America’s own interests would be undermined by a deal that leaves Jerusalem or Riyadh too unhappy–and especially the latter. Indeed, an agreement Saudi Arabia can’t live with ought to be every American’s worst nightmare. And nothing illustrates this better than last week’s BBC report that the Saudis have nukes “on order” from Pakistan, ready for delivery whenever they give the nod.

Even if this particular report is false, foreign-policy experts generally agree that if Iran does succeed in obtaining nukes, or even becoming an acknowledged threshold state, Saudi Arabia will swiftly follow suit. As long as the current regime retains power in Riyadh, this would merely be detrimental to American interests: More nuclear states in the Middle East would further destabilize an already unstable region. But as the Arab Spring showed, even in the Mideast, repressive regimes don’t last forever, and when they fall, the people most likely to initially take over are the Islamists, since they are the best organized. And Saudi Arabia’s Islamists happen to be the same people who provided 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.

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In the ongoing debate over whether the interim agreement now being discussed with Tehran will or won’t effectively slow Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. policymakers seem to have overlooked one major issue: Even if they’re convinced that Israeli and Saudi concerns about the deal are unfounded, America’s own interests would be undermined by a deal that leaves Jerusalem or Riyadh too unhappy–and especially the latter. Indeed, an agreement Saudi Arabia can’t live with ought to be every American’s worst nightmare. And nothing illustrates this better than last week’s BBC report that the Saudis have nukes “on order” from Pakistan, ready for delivery whenever they give the nod.

Even if this particular report is false, foreign-policy experts generally agree that if Iran does succeed in obtaining nukes, or even becoming an acknowledged threshold state, Saudi Arabia will swiftly follow suit. As long as the current regime retains power in Riyadh, this would merely be detrimental to American interests: More nuclear states in the Middle East would further destabilize an already unstable region. But as the Arab Spring showed, even in the Mideast, repressive regimes don’t last forever, and when they fall, the people most likely to initially take over are the Islamists, since they are the best organized. And Saudi Arabia’s Islamists happen to be the same people who provided 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.

Preventing al-Qaeda from taking over a government with nukes is clearly a supreme American interest. But revolutions tend to happen swiftly, and altering their course is difficult and messy. Thus once a Saudi revolution starts, the chances of America being able to prevent an al-Qaeda takeover drop to near zero.

The easiest way to prevent this nightmare scenario is thus to prevent Riyadh from acquiring nukes in the first place. In principle, that’s not hard; the Saudis have hitherto shown little interest in getting the bomb. But they’ve made it very clear that their calculations will change if Iran’s nuclear program isn’t effectively halted–and on this issue, they aren’t prepared to take Washington’s word for it. Hence a deal with Tehran that leaves the Saudis fuming is liable to have far worse consequences for America than no deal at all.

The ramifications of a deal that leaves Israel unhappy are less severe, but still non-negligible if the Obama administration is serious about wanting to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. As I’ve written before, Israel’s history proves that if it feels pushed to the wall in the face of an existential threat, it will launch a preemptive strike even in defiance of its major patron. Jerusalem obviously considers Iranian nukes an existential threat, and a deal that it interprets as leaving Iran with a clear path to the bomb could easily make it feel its back is to the wall.

An Israeli strike on Iran obviously isn’t in the same league as al-Qaeda getting the bomb. But since the Obama administration has repeatedly declared that such an attack would be “incredibly destabilizing” (to quote former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen), it presumably has an interest in forestalling such a situation.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who often channels the administration’s thinking, declared last week that “We, America, are not just hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs, which they alone get the final say on. We, America, have our own interests.” But one of those interests is making sure the deal leaves neither Jerusalem nor Riyadh so unhappy that they are driven to take steps America would rather avoid. And forgetting that could prove a serious blunder.

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A Saudi-Israel Alliance Against Iran?

The administration is again floating rumors of an impending nuclear agreement with Iran this weekend, leaving Israel and other nations worried about the prospect assessing their options. Given the proven lack of professionalism and incompetence of the Obama foreign-policy team and Iran’s predilection for stringing Western interlocutors along, any assumption that an accord is a certainty when the parties meet again in Geneva later this week is unjustified. But given Secretary of State John Kerry’s obvious zeal for a deal, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are looking to France for some assurances that it will continue to play the unlikely role of the diplomatic conscience of the West, as it did at the last meeting of the P5+1 talks. French President Francois Hollande reiterated his demands for a tougher deal that would make it harder for Iran to break any pact intended to spike their nuclear ambitions during a visit to Israel.

The French are still apparently holding out for conditions that Iran may never accept, such as putting all of their nuclear facilities under international control, ceasing construction of the plutonium plant at Arak and reduction of their existing uranium stockpiles. But France is still accepting the principle that Tehran can go on enriching uranium, albeit at low levels. Which means that Israel must still be pondering the very real possibility that it will be faced with a situation in which it will not be able to rely on the U.S. to act against Iran.

It is in that context that the story published today by Britain’s Sunday Times about Israel and Saudi Arabia preparing to cooperate on a strike against Iran must be understood. According to the paper, both countries rightly believe a Western deal with Iran would likely be a disaster that would expose them to a deadly threat. Accordingly, they are, if this report is to be believed, exploring the possibility of the Saudis offering the Israelis the use of their air space for strikes on Iran as well as providing rescue aircraft, tanker planes, and drones to facilitate a possible attack.

Let’s state upfront that these details should be viewed with some skepticism.

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The administration is again floating rumors of an impending nuclear agreement with Iran this weekend, leaving Israel and other nations worried about the prospect assessing their options. Given the proven lack of professionalism and incompetence of the Obama foreign-policy team and Iran’s predilection for stringing Western interlocutors along, any assumption that an accord is a certainty when the parties meet again in Geneva later this week is unjustified. But given Secretary of State John Kerry’s obvious zeal for a deal, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are looking to France for some assurances that it will continue to play the unlikely role of the diplomatic conscience of the West, as it did at the last meeting of the P5+1 talks. French President Francois Hollande reiterated his demands for a tougher deal that would make it harder for Iran to break any pact intended to spike their nuclear ambitions during a visit to Israel.

The French are still apparently holding out for conditions that Iran may never accept, such as putting all of their nuclear facilities under international control, ceasing construction of the plutonium plant at Arak and reduction of their existing uranium stockpiles. But France is still accepting the principle that Tehran can go on enriching uranium, albeit at low levels. Which means that Israel must still be pondering the very real possibility that it will be faced with a situation in which it will not be able to rely on the U.S. to act against Iran.

It is in that context that the story published today by Britain’s Sunday Times about Israel and Saudi Arabia preparing to cooperate on a strike against Iran must be understood. According to the paper, both countries rightly believe a Western deal with Iran would likely be a disaster that would expose them to a deadly threat. Accordingly, they are, if this report is to be believed, exploring the possibility of the Saudis offering the Israelis the use of their air space for strikes on Iran as well as providing rescue aircraft, tanker planes, and drones to facilitate a possible attack.

Let’s state upfront that these details should be viewed with some skepticism.

There will be those who will file this story along with last year’s much-publicized rumor about Azerbaijan preparing to help Israel hit Iran. When that story was first floated, it was leaked by Obama administration sources that probably hoped to reduce any cooperation between the Azeris and Israel by exposing it. But the fact that the Saudis are almost as panicked by Washington’s desire for détente with Iran as the Israelis is not exactly a secret. Whether they have gone so far as to do some planning about how to help the Israelis hit their hated Iranian enemy may be debated. Certainly doing so would expose Riyadh to considerable criticism in the Muslim and Arab worlds. But even if the story is exaggerated or inaccurate, it says something about the current situation that an alliance of this sort between Jerusalem and a sworn enemy of Zionism is even thinkable.

The point here is that when Kerry assured the world that he was neither blind nor stupid, it’s obvious that the Israelis and Saudis are prepared to answer in the affirmative with respect to both adjectives. By rushing to a deal that would, even in its most stringent form, effectively guarantee Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium, the West is setting in motion a train of events that could very well lead to the Islamist regime eventually achieving its nuclear ambition. The Israelis and the Saudis both know Iran is, like North Korea, perfectly capable of cheating and evading international observers in such a manner as to use its considerable existing uranium stockpile to create a bomb. Moreover, they have also, like Iran, probably already come to the conclusion that the Obama administration has no intention of ever making good on any threat to use force against Iran.

Iran is probably still more interested in employing its traditional delaying tactics that give them more time to work on their nuclear project than in signing a deal, no matter how favorable it might be to their cause. But they’d be smart to snatch the kind of lopsided nuclear deal Kerry is trying to sell them. The Israelis and Saudis know this and have to consider the possibility that President Obama is about to leave them both on their own and that France won’t hold out indefinitely for better terms. So even if you don’t believe that the Mossad has already begun talks with Saudi officials, there’s no doubt both countries are clearly thinking about how they will survive a Western betrayal on Iran. 

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The Bizarro Doctrine

American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

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American foreign policy in the Middle East has now entered Bizarro World–a place made humorously famous by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, describing a parallel universe where “up is down, down is up,” and where the opposite of what one expects occurs. Seinfeld was riffing off the comic book character Bizarro, the parallel character to Superman, who lived on a strange planet called Htrae (Earth spelled backwards).

Well, welcome to the Elddim Tsae. It’s a place where long-standing state sponsors of terrorism Iran, Syria, and Sudan are basking in the warmth of America’s evolving Middle East policies, while long-standing American allies Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and others are increasingly sidelined.

Iran, a country that has sponsored nearly every terrorist group on the planet and is now hurtling toward a nuclear weapon, is the biggest winner in the Elddim Tsae. Newly elected President Hassan Rouhani has Washington eating out of his hands after a charm offensive consisting of 140-character vows promising moderation, even as his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, keeps the centrifuges spinning. The Obama administration is now mulling a grand nuclear bargain, which will provide Iran sanctions relief in exchange for vague promises of change.

Syria is also benefiting from America’s Bizarro Doctrine. In the span of days, America went from threatening punitive strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime for launching a chemical-weapons attack on his own people to enlisting Assad as a partner in his own disarmament, and then praising him for compliance he has yet to deliver on. Even if Assad does fully disarm, he will effectively have a green light to get back to the business of mowing down the Syrian opposition, which fights to end his family’s decades-long dictatorship.

Then there is Sudan, where the leadership has been indicted for genocide and which provided a headquarters to al-Qaeda in the 1990s. Khartoum is now indicating that ties with Washington are warming. This comes after two cordial meetings between Sudan’s foreign minister and Secretary of State John Kerry, first in New York and then Washington.

On the flip side of our parallel universe is Saudi Arabia. Admittedly, Riyadh is more of a frenemy. But America’s Saudi policy, designed to maintain good ties to the ruling family and access to an affordable and steady supply of their oil, has never wavered–until now. Riyadh is outwardly displeased with America’s warming ties to its arch-foe Iran, with fears that an ascendant Iran could pose a direct threat to the Kingdom’s stability. Washington’s recent lifeline to Syria, after months of calling for Assad’s removal, also has the Saudis seething.

Turkey and Qatar, it should be noted, are equally vexed by Washington’s Syria policy, prompting both countries to consider charting their own courses, which may involve the co-opting of jihadi groups to fight the Assad regime.

Egypt, another ally of the United States, has also recently fallen victim to the Bizarro Doctrine. To be sure, Egypt has brought many of its problems upon itself. The military’s toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was not its finest moment. But Washington has now taken it upon itself to cut aid to Egypt, dismantling an alliance that could require years to properly rebuild.

Then there is Israel, which is reeling from America’s decision to cut aid to Egypt. That aid was a cornerstone of the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement that has kept Israel’s southern flank quiet since the Accords were inked. It now is entirely unclear whether Cairo will want to uphold that agreement. The Israelis are further unnerved by America’s backtracking on Syria, particularly after Washington enlisted its help in calling for military intervention. And finally, the rapprochement with Iran has the Israelis wondering whether America will have its back when Tehran invariably makes that final dash for the bomb.

Fittingly, Bizarro World was first depicted by DC Comics in 1960. Today, Washington D.C. has become a parallel universe of a superpower’s foreign policies of the past.

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Saudis, Turks Send Obama a Message

President Obama has been trying to reorient American policy in the Middle East. He is pulling back and either striking or looking to strike deals with longstanding American enemies such as Syria and Iran. He is also looking ever more hesitant and uncertain, a problem exemplified by his indecision over whether or not to bomb Syria. Such actions may not have much impact on domestic public opinion, which is focused on the economy and the budget crisis, but it has a large impact on our allies, who are increasingly concerned about the drift of American policy.

Saudi Arabia is making its concerns manifest. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief [Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud] told European diplomats this weekend that he plans to scale back cooperating with the U.S. to arm and train Syrian rebels in protest of Washington’s policy in the region.” This comes only days after the Saudis decided not to accept a coveted seat on the UN Security Council, which the U.S. had lobbied for.

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President Obama has been trying to reorient American policy in the Middle East. He is pulling back and either striking or looking to strike deals with longstanding American enemies such as Syria and Iran. He is also looking ever more hesitant and uncertain, a problem exemplified by his indecision over whether or not to bomb Syria. Such actions may not have much impact on domestic public opinion, which is focused on the economy and the budget crisis, but it has a large impact on our allies, who are increasingly concerned about the drift of American policy.

Saudi Arabia is making its concerns manifest. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief [Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al-Saud] told European diplomats this weekend that he plans to scale back cooperating with the U.S. to arm and train Syrian rebels in protest of Washington’s policy in the region.” This comes only days after the Saudis decided not to accept a coveted seat on the UN Security Council, which the U.S. had lobbied for.

What explains the Saudi actions? According to the Journal, the issue is “Riyadh’s frustration with the Obama administration and its regional policies, including the decision not to bomb Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons in August.” The newspaper quotes Bandar telling diplomats: “This was a message for the U.S., not the U.N.”

This comes not long after the news that Turkey’s intelligence service, long a partner for the CIA, had burned a network of Iranians spying for Israel on Iran’s nuclear program. That action would not have been taken if the Turks seriously feared American retribution from President Erdogan’s friend, President Obama.

The fact that the Turks and Saudis are acting as they are suggests that they hold U.S. foreign policy in growing contempt and have less regard than in the past for America’s influence in the region. That is part of the damage that the Obama administration has wrought–damage that will take years to undo, assuming a more tough-minded leader is elected in 2016.

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What the Saudis Really Care About

As I noted yesterday, the idea that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help stabilize the Middle East is fatuous. Yet many world leaders continue to espouse it. In his UN address last month, for instance, President Barack Obama proclaimed that while this conflict is “not the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has been “a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it would help lay “a foundation for a broader peace.” In August, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius termed the conflict “one of the issues, perhaps the central one, for the region.”

Given that the events of the past few years would seem to have decisively disproved this theory–nobody would seriously argue, for instance, that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ease the sectarian bloodletting in Syria or Iraq or the feud between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Syrian conflict alone has been far more destabilizing to the region than the Israeli-Palestinian one has–the question is why so many world leaders still cling to it. A good place to look for answers is Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision not to address the UN General Assembly last week.

Riyadh billed this decision as a protest against the UN’s position “on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the UN has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis.” If you took that at face value, you’d naturally assume that what upsets Riyadh most is the Israeli-Palestinian issue: The bulk of its statement was devoted to this issue, with Syria seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. The problem is that objectively, this makes no sense: After all, by Riyadh’s own admission, the conflict has gone on for 60 years now, yet it never boycotted the UN before. So why now of all times–precisely when Washington has finally succeeded in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks after a five-year freeze?

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As I noted yesterday, the idea that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help stabilize the Middle East is fatuous. Yet many world leaders continue to espouse it. In his UN address last month, for instance, President Barack Obama proclaimed that while this conflict is “not the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has been “a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it would help lay “a foundation for a broader peace.” In August, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius termed the conflict “one of the issues, perhaps the central one, for the region.”

Given that the events of the past few years would seem to have decisively disproved this theory–nobody would seriously argue, for instance, that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ease the sectarian bloodletting in Syria or Iraq or the feud between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Syrian conflict alone has been far more destabilizing to the region than the Israeli-Palestinian one has–the question is why so many world leaders still cling to it. A good place to look for answers is Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision not to address the UN General Assembly last week.

Riyadh billed this decision as a protest against the UN’s position “on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the UN has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis.” If you took that at face value, you’d naturally assume that what upsets Riyadh most is the Israeli-Palestinian issue: The bulk of its statement was devoted to this issue, with Syria seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. The problem is that objectively, this makes no sense: After all, by Riyadh’s own admission, the conflict has gone on for 60 years now, yet it never boycotted the UN before. So why now of all times–precisely when Washington has finally succeeded in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks after a five-year freeze?

Regarding Syria, however, the UN did just do something that upset Riyadh greatly: At Russia’s initiative, it passed a resolution on disarming the Assad regime of its chemical weapons that not only killed American plans for imminent airstrikes, but essentially guaranteed Assad immunity from Western intervention for the foreseeable future and legitimized him as a partner, thereby effectively reversing two years of Western demands that he step down. For Saudi Arabia, which has backed Syria’s rebels heavily with both money and arms, this was a major blow.

Indeed, anyone tracking Riyadh’s actions rather than its words can easily see which issues it cares about and which it doesn’t: In contrast to its massive support for the Syrian rebels, or the $5 billion it pledged to Egypt’s military government after July’s coup, its financial support for the Palestinians is meager. UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, gets almost all its funding from the West; Saudi Arabia gave it a mere $12 million last year–less than half the sum provided by Holland alone. Western states are also the Palestinian Authority’s main financial backers; Arab countries not only pledge less to begin with, but serially default on their pledges.

There are various reasons why Arabs feel the need to cloak their real concerns behind a façade of verbiage about the Palestinians. The truly puzzling question is why the West hasn’t yet learned to look behind this verbiage to the telltale actions–what Arabs care enough to spend money on, or, as I’ve written before, to put their lives on the line for. But until it does, it will keep right on believing that fatuous claim of Israeli-Palestinian centrality. 

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U.S. Romance with Iran Terrifies Arab Allies

Israel is being widely portrayed as the lone holdout against the global love affair with Iran’s new president. Certainly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most outspoken critic. But several other countries are arguably even more worried by the American-Iranian rapprochement than Israel is–namely, America’s Arab allies.

Last month, a senior United Arab Emirates official said in a media interview that “If Israel were to strike Iran to stop it from getting a nuclear bomb, we wouldn’t object at all.” For a senior Arab official to publicly invite the hated Zionist enemy to launch a military strike on fellow Muslims is unprecedented. While Arab states have been urging America to attack Iran for years, they have hitherto opposed an Israeli strike. Moreover, even their pleas to America were strictly behind the scenes; they became public knowledge only due to WikiLeaks. Thus for Arab officials to be willing to publicly support an Israeli strike attests to a desperate fear that the American defense umbrella they have relied on for decades may no longer exist.

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Israel is being widely portrayed as the lone holdout against the global love affair with Iran’s new president. Certainly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been the most outspoken critic. But several other countries are arguably even more worried by the American-Iranian rapprochement than Israel is–namely, America’s Arab allies.

Last month, a senior United Arab Emirates official said in a media interview that “If Israel were to strike Iran to stop it from getting a nuclear bomb, we wouldn’t object at all.” For a senior Arab official to publicly invite the hated Zionist enemy to launch a military strike on fellow Muslims is unprecedented. While Arab states have been urging America to attack Iran for years, they have hitherto opposed an Israeli strike. Moreover, even their pleas to America were strictly behind the scenes; they became public knowledge only due to WikiLeaks. Thus for Arab officials to be willing to publicly support an Israeli strike attests to a desperate fear that the American defense umbrella they have relied on for decades may no longer exist.

Nor is this the only indication. At the UN General Assembly last week, a Saudi diplomat consulted with his counterpart from Israel–a country Riyadh doesn’t officially recognize–over the Iranian charm offensive. A few days earlier, at an International Peace Institute dinner whose guests included officials from both Israel and several Arab states that don’t recognize its existence, “No Arab minister attacked Israel, and not one stood up and left the room when he found out that a high-ranking representative of the Israeli government was sitting beside him,” Haaretz reported: They were too busy discussing their main mutual concern, Iran.

This isn’t the start of an Arab-Israeli romance; most of these countries still hate Israel, and many are deeply anti-Semitic. Rather, it reflects the fear engendered by America’s gradual withdrawal from the Middle East. Despite years of purchasing top-quality American arms, many Arab states have no real military capabilities, especially against a much larger, more technologically sophisticated country that happens to be located right next door, in easy invasion distance (in contrast, several Arab countries lie between Iran and Israel). Thus they have always counted on America being there to defend them–and now, suddenly, they’re no longer sure they can. In that situation, even Israel is better than nobody.

The problem, of course, is that Israel can’t and won’t supply the same defense umbrella America has. Arabs states can plausibly hope Israel will deal with Iran’s nuclear program, because it views Iranian nukes as a direct threat to itself. But Israel would never intervene to, for instance, rescue Kuwait from Iraqi invasion, as America did in 1991. Hence America is currently indispensable. As one UAE academic put it, “We don’t have any other insurance company, and we live in a dangerous area.”

But if America decides to close up shop, the Arabs will perforce find another insurance company, just like anyone else whose insurer goes out of business. Who it will be remains to be seen: Russia is one obvious possibility; they could even decide they have no choice but to join Iran’s orbit. But either way, the result be the same: For the first time in decades, America will be left with no allies whatsoever in a region that remains crucial to the global oil supply, and hence to America’s own economic well-being.

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Setting America’s Position in the Mideast Back 40 Years

I sympathize with the frazzled Israeli diplomats who argue that halting U.S. aid to Egypt could endanger Israeli-Palestinian talks. Those talks are the only Mideast issue the Obama administration has shown any real interest in, and good salesmen always try to frame their pitch to appeal to their listeners’ interests. The argument is even correct, as far as it goes: The ousted Muslim Brotherhood government did back Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, while the current military government backs the PA against Hamas; that’s why the PA lauded the coup while Hamas denounced it.

Nevertheless, given that the talks haven’t a prayer of succeeding, backing Egypt’s military coup for their sake would be ridiculous. A much better argument, if anyone in Washington is still capable of hearing it, is the one Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev makes today: Not backing the coup could reverse one of America’s biggest foreign policy achievements of the 1970s–flipping Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states from the Soviet to the American camp. Today, Shalev warns, Saudi Arabia is begging Washington to support the coup, and refusing might send it and America’s other Arab clients straight back into Russia’s orbit:

To help make their point, the Saudis might attach the once-unthinkable photo of the meeting held earlier this month between their own Prince Bandar and a smiling Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, after all, has a proven track record in Syria of standing by an ally, even one who massacres his opponents by the tens of thousands. If Cairo turns to Moscow, Washington would be hard put to recover from the political black eye and the regional loss of face.

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I sympathize with the frazzled Israeli diplomats who argue that halting U.S. aid to Egypt could endanger Israeli-Palestinian talks. Those talks are the only Mideast issue the Obama administration has shown any real interest in, and good salesmen always try to frame their pitch to appeal to their listeners’ interests. The argument is even correct, as far as it goes: The ousted Muslim Brotherhood government did back Hamas against the Palestinian Authority, while the current military government backs the PA against Hamas; that’s why the PA lauded the coup while Hamas denounced it.

Nevertheless, given that the talks haven’t a prayer of succeeding, backing Egypt’s military coup for their sake would be ridiculous. A much better argument, if anyone in Washington is still capable of hearing it, is the one Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev makes today: Not backing the coup could reverse one of America’s biggest foreign policy achievements of the 1970s–flipping Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states from the Soviet to the American camp. Today, Shalev warns, Saudi Arabia is begging Washington to support the coup, and refusing might send it and America’s other Arab clients straight back into Russia’s orbit:

To help make their point, the Saudis might attach the once-unthinkable photo of the meeting held earlier this month between their own Prince Bandar and a smiling Vladimir Putin. The Russian President, after all, has a proven track record in Syria of standing by an ally, even one who massacres his opponents by the tens of thousands. If Cairo turns to Moscow, Washington would be hard put to recover from the political black eye and the regional loss of face.

Actually, almost any rational Mideast player today (Israel excepted) would rather have Moscow and Tehran as backers than Washington. Between them, Russia and Iran have supported their Syrian client with arms, diplomatic cover, money, and troops, while America has given the Syrian rebels nothing but empty rhetorical support. America has also done virtually nothing to help NATO ally Turkey, which has suffered both cross-border violence and a massive influx of Syrian refugees, even though Turkey’s prime minister is one of Obama’s favorite world leaders. Nor has it done much to help longstanding ally Jordan cope with the influx of refugees that threatens to overwhelm it.

Granted, Riyadh and its allies would be reluctant to share Russia’s patronage with Iran, which they loathe; they also remember who sent troops to protect them when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990. But Washington’s current passivity is making Saudi Arabia fear that America has become a broken reed; hence its feelers to Russia, via the Bandar-Putin meeting. If Washington now abandons Egypt, that could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. And if Riyadh leaves the American camp, Egypt would swiftly follow suit.

Once, American politicians on both sides of the aisle understood that America has interests as well as values, and that sometimes, the only choices are between two evils. As an example, Shalev aptly cites America’s alliance with the Soviets during World War II. And currently, as Jonathan has argued repeatedly, Egypt’s army is the lesser evil compared to the radical Islamists of the Brotherhood.

But today, leading Republican foreign-policy voices like John McCain and Lindsey Graham are joining leading Democrats to demand that Obama jettison American interests in favor of a “clean hands” policy: We don’t care what becomes of the Middle East as long as we can dissociate ourselves from the violence.

If Obama succumbs to these demands, he will set America’s position in the Mideast back 40 years–to a time when it had no allies at all among countries that remain vital to global energy supplies.

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The Myth of Authoritarian Stability

For years American presidents gave a blank check to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The only attempt to pressure him into making any meaningful political reforms occurred during President George W. Bush’s first term in office and was abandoned in the second term when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reasserted a traditional stability-above-all foreign policy that was continued by President Obama during his first two years in office. We know where that got us: to a revolution in 2011 which overthrew Mubarak and led to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood regime bent on consolidating power at all costs, the Brotherhood being the best-organized opposition group in the entire country. Now that Brotherhood government, too, has been overthrown and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war.

There is a lesson here in our relations with other dictatorial Middle Eastern states: Washington needs to push them to provide an opening to the moderate opposition and gradually transform in a democratic direction as the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea did in the 1980s. Simply clamping down harder is only a recipe for creating a bigger explosion later.

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For years American presidents gave a blank check to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. The only attempt to pressure him into making any meaningful political reforms occurred during President George W. Bush’s first term in office and was abandoned in the second term when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reasserted a traditional stability-above-all foreign policy that was continued by President Obama during his first two years in office. We know where that got us: to a revolution in 2011 which overthrew Mubarak and led to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood regime bent on consolidating power at all costs, the Brotherhood being the best-organized opposition group in the entire country. Now that Brotherhood government, too, has been overthrown and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war.

There is a lesson here in our relations with other dictatorial Middle Eastern states: Washington needs to push them to provide an opening to the moderate opposition and gradually transform in a democratic direction as the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea did in the 1980s. Simply clamping down harder is only a recipe for creating a bigger explosion later.

Yet that is precisely what Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf states are doing, emboldened by the overthrow of the Brotherhood government in Egypt with what is seen, rightly or wrongly, as the connivance of the West. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Saudi crackdown extends not only to Muslim Brothers and other Sunni fundamentalists but also to Shiite protesters and, most worrisome of all, to more liberal demonstrators such as the women petitioning for the right to drive.

It is easy for Washington to ignore human rights in its dealings with these regimes, and hard, if it does bring up the human rights issue, to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, although the more so when the Obama administration does so little to help dissidents in Iran or to protest the ongoing crackdown in Egypt. Yet the U.S. will be making a historic mistake–the same mistake, in fact, that it made in Egypt–if it turns a blind eye to the abusive internal conduct of its Middle Eastern allies. Sooner or later there will be a reckoning for these authoritarian regimes and their backers in the West. The best way for the Gulf kingdoms to ensure their stability in the long run is not to crack heads now but to create an opening for constitutional monarchies to slowly develop.

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Is the Arab Peace Plan Really About Peace?

Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the idea of reviving the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative put forward yesterday in Washington by a delegation from the Arab League. Kerry, who reportedly is hoping to host a multi-party peace conference this spring, was pleased that Qatar’s foreign minister had suggested that the proposal might be modified from its original take-it-or-leave-it demand that Israel return to the 1967 lines to one that allowed for a mutually-agreed “minor swap of land” that would modify the border.

This is progress of a sort, and should not be entirely dismissed. But before those advocating for more Israeli concessions in response to the proposal get too excited, it’s important to remember why this initiative flopped the first time around: it’s not really a peace proposal.

While the Arab Peace Initiative continues to be cited by Israel’s critics as proof that the Jewish state really does have partners, this idea has always been more about polishing the image of the Arab world in the United States than anything else. Conceived in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when the Arab states, and in particular Saudi Arabia, were viewed with disgust by most Americans, the initiative was part of an effort to rehabilitate their image. But despite the fact that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (who claimed it stemmed from a conversation he had with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah) and others in the foreign policy community promoted the idea, it fizzled. Why? Because it was not an invitation to negotiate, but a diktat. Even worse, it contained a vital poison pill: the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel that would, in effect, mean the end of the Jewish state, not peace with it.

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Secretary of State John Kerry hailed the idea of reviving the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative put forward yesterday in Washington by a delegation from the Arab League. Kerry, who reportedly is hoping to host a multi-party peace conference this spring, was pleased that Qatar’s foreign minister had suggested that the proposal might be modified from its original take-it-or-leave-it demand that Israel return to the 1967 lines to one that allowed for a mutually-agreed “minor swap of land” that would modify the border.

This is progress of a sort, and should not be entirely dismissed. But before those advocating for more Israeli concessions in response to the proposal get too excited, it’s important to remember why this initiative flopped the first time around: it’s not really a peace proposal.

While the Arab Peace Initiative continues to be cited by Israel’s critics as proof that the Jewish state really does have partners, this idea has always been more about polishing the image of the Arab world in the United States than anything else. Conceived in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks when the Arab states, and in particular Saudi Arabia, were viewed with disgust by most Americans, the initiative was part of an effort to rehabilitate their image. But despite the fact that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (who claimed it stemmed from a conversation he had with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah) and others in the foreign policy community promoted the idea, it fizzled. Why? Because it was not an invitation to negotiate, but a diktat. Even worse, it contained a vital poison pill: the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel that would, in effect, mean the end of the Jewish state, not peace with it.

While the initiative does not specifically mention the so-called “right of return” by which the descendants of the Arab refugees of 1948 would be allowed to enter Israel, Prince Abdullah made this clear when he said this on the day the Arab League adopted the proposal:

I propose that the Arab summit put forward a clear and unanimous initiative addressed to the United Nations security council based on two basic issues: normal relations and security for Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from all occupied Arab territories, recognition of an independent Palestinian state with al-Quds al-Sharif as its capital, and the return of refugees.

It should be conceded that this is better than the famous “three no’s” enforced throughout the Arab world in the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when Muslim countries said they would not make peace, recognize or negotiate with Israel. But the effect is not all that different. The Arab League proposal envisions normal relations with an Israel that has been forced to retreat from all territories it won in a defensive war in 1967. But the Israel they want to make peace with is one that would be forced to accept millions of Arabs who would change it from a Jewish nation into yet another Arab one.

If Kerry really wants to promote the cause of peace, what he needs to do is tell the Arab League that while their support for recognition of Israel might be helpful, their proposal will not be allowed to be used as a distraction from the direct peace talks without preconditions that both President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have endorsed. The Palestinian Authority, which has neither the will nor the ability to end the conflict or recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn, has been trying to avoid such talks.

Instead of providing a distraction from this crucial question, the Arab League needs to be prodding the PA to drop its excuses and return to the negotiating table. The PA walked away from direct talks more than four years ago in order to avoid having to respond to the last Israeli proposal that offered them an independent state. With Hamas stronger than ever and emboldened by its friendship with the Islamist governments of Egypt and Turkey, the odds of getting the PA back to the table, let alone agreeing to peace, are slim.

Negotiations, rather than fiats that dictate the results even before talks begin, are the only path to statehood for the Palestinians. Yesterday, Netanyahu repeated his support for the creation of a Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel. If the Palestinians can ever get past their ideologically-driven rejection of the Jewish state’s legitimacy, they will find there is a sturdy Israeli majority in favor of peace even along lines that many Israelis will find difficult to accept. But so long as the Arab world continues to attempt to divert the world with public-relations tricks, the Palestinians will continue to believe that if they wait long enough, the world will deliver Israel to them on a silver platter.

No peace proposal that has an attempt to sneak in the right of return at its core is really about peace. It’s time the U.S. told the Arab world to forget about this disingenuous idea and face reality. What the Middle East needs is not a John Kerry photo op in Washington but a sea change within the culture of the Palestinians that will enable their leaders to come to grips with the need to end the conflict and recognize the Jewish state. Until that happens, this latest version of Abdullah’s PR initiative will be as much of a dead end as the first time it was trotted out by Friedman.

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Twitter Crackdown Exposes Saudi Fear

Various news outlets are reporting that Saudi Arabia is seeking to end anonymity for twitter users. At first glance, the Saudi move appears to be just one more example of American information companies knuckling under to pressure from wealthy, autocratic countries. That Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal holds a substantial stake in Twitter underlines how taking Saudi money (as both companies and many universities such as Harvard and Georgetown do) always comes with strings attached.

The Saudi move against Twitter has deeper roots, however. While American and European human rights activists have for more than two years rallied for justice and reform in Bahrain—Bahraini flags flew over the Occupy DC camp—and Bahrain is certainly in need of reform, the situation not only for Shi’ites but also for Sunnis in Saudi Arabia is worse.

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Various news outlets are reporting that Saudi Arabia is seeking to end anonymity for twitter users. At first glance, the Saudi move appears to be just one more example of American information companies knuckling under to pressure from wealthy, autocratic countries. That Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal holds a substantial stake in Twitter underlines how taking Saudi money (as both companies and many universities such as Harvard and Georgetown do) always comes with strings attached.

The Saudi move against Twitter has deeper roots, however. While American and European human rights activists have for more than two years rallied for justice and reform in Bahrain—Bahraini flags flew over the Occupy DC camp—and Bahrain is certainly in need of reform, the situation not only for Shi’ites but also for Sunnis in Saudi Arabia is worse.

The Saudi move comes against the backdrop of debates about political reform and popular Saudi cleric Salman al-Awdah—who has more than 2.5 million followers on Twitter—mocking government attempts to crackdown on Twitter. Al-Awdah may have broken with Usama Bin Laden, but no longer being an al-Qaeda sympathizer is a pretty low bar by which to describe reformism. Al-Awdah may be a reformer in the Saudi context, but no one should conflate reform with liberalism.

Nevertheless, Al-Awdah has become increasingly strident in his calls for political change in Saudi Arabia. According to the Open Source Center, he warned on March 16 that the Saudi people “will not remain silent.” Ten days later, he followed up by suggesting that should the Saudi government ignore calls for reform, “the only solution would be to go out into the square and counter argument with argument.”

I speculated six months ago that Saudi Arabia could be next. The autocratic kingdom is strictly off-limits to most Western journalists. Those who get in seldom move outside Riyadh or Jeddah. But if a riot breaks out in the Saudi hinterland and no one is around to cover it, that does not mean that all is well. It will be interesting to see if Saudi Arabia manages to constrain Twitter. Cutting communications, however, is a poor substitute for true reform. And the royal family is kidding itself if it believes it can remain aloof from political modernity forever.

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Can the Saudis Be Trusted in Syria?

What to make of news that the Saudis are providing Croatian surplus arms to the Syrian rebels?

It sounds, at first blush, like a throwback to the 1980s, when the Saudis worked with the CIA to acquire surplus military hardware from all over the world–including in Warsaw Pact states such as Poland–and then deliver them, via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, to Afghan rebels fighting the Red Army. We know from that experience that, even with extensive CIA involvement, the Saudis and Pakistanis conspired to provide the bulk of their aid to hard-line Islamist commanders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalalludin Haqqani rather than to more moderate mujahideen commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud.

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What to make of news that the Saudis are providing Croatian surplus arms to the Syrian rebels?

It sounds, at first blush, like a throwback to the 1980s, when the Saudis worked with the CIA to acquire surplus military hardware from all over the world–including in Warsaw Pact states such as Poland–and then deliver them, via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, to Afghan rebels fighting the Red Army. We know from that experience that, even with extensive CIA involvement, the Saudis and Pakistanis conspired to provide the bulk of their aid to hard-line Islamist commanders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalalludin Haqqani rather than to more moderate mujahideen commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud.

And today? New York Times reporters C.J. Chivers and Eric Schmitt claim: “The [Saudi] weapons’ distribution has been principally to armed groups viewed as nationalist and secular, and appears to have been intended to bypass the jihadist groups whose roles in the war have alarmed Western and regional powers.”

Maybe so, but I’m skeptical. The Saudis, who are after all Wahhabis, have a natural ideological predisposition to favor other hard-line Islamic groups rather than democrats and secularists, in whom they have no interest in taking power in any country in the Middle East.

The only reliable method of helping truly moderate Syrian rebel factions would be if the U.S. were to get more directly involved. It is possible that there is some covert American military aid being provided. But if so, that would represent a significant turnaround from the hands-off policy that the Obama administration has self-destructively followed in Syria over the past two-plus years even as the death toll has climbed north of 70,000.

It is still not too late for the U.S. to get more actively involved in breaking this stalemate, pushing Bashar Assad out of power, and trying to buttress more moderate elements at the expense of al-Qaeda affiliates. But that will require a major rethink of the administration’s “lead from behind” policy, whose only effect–in the eyes of ordinary Syrians–has been to keep Assad in power.

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How to Rein in Bahrain?

In this New York Times op-ed, Bahraini human-rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja makes a powerful case that the US cannot simply overlook the repression taking place in this small Gulf state with which we are closely allied.  She has personal credibility because of what she and her family have been through. She writes:

My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented. He was then taken away with my husband and brother-in-law; they were all tortured.

My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)

She herself was arrested and jailed earlier this month, charged with the “crime” of inciting hatred against the government.

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In this New York Times op-ed, Bahraini human-rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja makes a powerful case that the US cannot simply overlook the repression taking place in this small Gulf state with which we are closely allied.  She has personal credibility because of what she and her family have been through. She writes:

My father, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, was beaten unconscious in my apartment in front of my family, as a report last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry documented. He was then taken away with my husband and brother-in-law; they were all tortured.

My husband was released in January, and my brother-in-law was released after a six-month sentence in late 2011; my father was sentenced to life in prison. He staged four hunger strikes; the longest lasted 110 days and almost cost him his life. (He was force-fed at a military hospital.)

She herself was arrested and jailed earlier this month, charged with the “crime” of inciting hatred against the government.

Yet, as she notes, U.S. protests over such clear violations of human rights have been negligible. This is understandable, because Bahrain is the home of the Fifth Fleet and a close military ally. There are also fears that the Bahraini opposition, mainly Shiite in a country ruled by a Sunni royal family, is a stalking horse for Iranian influence. That, at any rate, is what the Bahrain government would like us to believe; but from everything I saw during a brief visit to Bahrain earlier this year, most of the opposition, while undeniably Shiite, is fairly moderate and not interested in creating an Iranian-style theocracy. Ironically what is most likely to drive them into Iran’s arms is if the Bahrain government continues its policy of repression in cooperation with the Saudis.

It is hard for the U.S. to apply pressure to Bahrain by cutting off arms sales (as Zainab Al-Khawaja suggests) or at least making them conditional on human-rights improvements. But it is also a step we need to seriously consider, lest we repeat the mistake we made with Egypt where we gave unconditional backing to another pro-American dictator, acting under the illusion that he could stave off the people’s demands indefinitely. He couldn’t, and, because we didn’t press Mubarak for reform, instead we got a revolution.

That would be the worst possible outcome in Bahrain. Instead, we need to push for the royal family to turn their country into a constitutional monarchy, reserving some power over the armed forces while ceding most authority to the people’s elected representatives. That is the only long-term formula for stability in Bahrain and indeed throughout the Gulf.

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Outsourcing Syrian Rebel Support to Gulf States Has Consequences

On one level, the news from Syria is encouraging–Bashar Assad’s regime is losing ground. The rebel forces are fighting on the outskirts of the capital and have managed to capture several military bases, at least temporarily. Many analysts think that the Syrian army is cracking–a plausible if perhaps premature conclusion at this point.

But there is still cause for alarm, not only in the fact that the killing continues, but also in the fact that it is hard-line Salafists who appear to be making the biggest military gains on the ground, to the consternation of more secular rebels, thus raising the specter of Syria becoming a Taliban-like state after Assad’s downfall–or, at the very least, the specter of Taliban-like extremists gaining control of substantial territorial enclaves. If that were to occur, the U.S. would have no to blame but itself because the Obama administration’s current policy of not arming the rebels is providing Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar with an opening to shape the uprising in their own twisted image.

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On one level, the news from Syria is encouraging–Bashar Assad’s regime is losing ground. The rebel forces are fighting on the outskirts of the capital and have managed to capture several military bases, at least temporarily. Many analysts think that the Syrian army is cracking–a plausible if perhaps premature conclusion at this point.

But there is still cause for alarm, not only in the fact that the killing continues, but also in the fact that it is hard-line Salafists who appear to be making the biggest military gains on the ground, to the consternation of more secular rebels, thus raising the specter of Syria becoming a Taliban-like state after Assad’s downfall–or, at the very least, the specter of Taliban-like extremists gaining control of substantial territorial enclaves. If that were to occur, the U.S. would have no to blame but itself because the Obama administration’s current policy of not arming the rebels is providing Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar with an opening to shape the uprising in their own twisted image.

The Washington Post has a telling quote from a rebel leader:

“The lack of support by the international community has led to a situation where support is coming from the gulf states and from Syrian businessmen in those states,” Col. Malik Kurdi, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said in an interview. “These are people who have the ideology of Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood. They started supporting groups who have the same ideology in Syria, and some adopted this ideology to get financial support.”

The newspaper goes on to note that while many jihadist groups have emerged in Syria, the most successful one is “Jabhat al-Nusra, which is thought to have links to al-Qaeda.” It has “asserted responsibility for a series of suicide attacks against military and security targets,” and it has “overrun at least two government military bases in the past two weeks, collecting weapons left behind by Syrian troops.”

Even if Assad appears to be in danger of falling (and such impressions can be deceiving–he has been frustrating predictions of his demise for almost two years now), it is imperative that the U.S. do more to help the opposition so as to shape the nature of the post-Assad regime.

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Is the Saudi King Dying?

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia took the throne on August 1, 2005 upon the death of his older brother and predecessor, King Fahd. Abdullah was a sprightly 81 when he took the throne, or so it must seem in hindsight. Now 88 years old, King Abdullah just had “successful” back surgery, or so the strictly controlled Saudi press is reporting.

Twitter, however, is abuzz with reports that the King has Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. The reports, as the Open Source Center points out, are coming from @mujtahidd, who has more than 750,000 followers and whose previous tweets suggest close and informed access to the royal family. As in any autocratic, opaque society, rumors often substitute for news, though this one seems more solid than most.

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King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia took the throne on August 1, 2005 upon the death of his older brother and predecessor, King Fahd. Abdullah was a sprightly 81 when he took the throne, or so it must seem in hindsight. Now 88 years old, King Abdullah just had “successful” back surgery, or so the strictly controlled Saudi press is reporting.

Twitter, however, is abuzz with reports that the King has Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome. The reports, as the Open Source Center points out, are coming from @mujtahidd, who has more than 750,000 followers and whose previous tweets suggest close and informed access to the royal family. As in any autocratic, opaque society, rumors often substitute for news, though this one seems more solid than most.

Crown Prince Salman is in charge meanwhile back home, but at 76 years old he’s not a beacon of stability. When it comes to Middle Eastern stability, when it rains, it pours.

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Arab World Chooses Hamas over Fatah in Palestinian Rivalry

It’s fair to say that an underappreciated obstacle to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is Hamas’s rule of Gaza. For such an agreement to take shape, Hamas would have to either consent or not be in charge of the strip. Though a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is unlikely, even if it were to happen, it might only bring about Hamas’s conquest of the West Bank, thereby doubling, rather than solving, the problem posed by Hamas. And since Hamas won’t abide a true peace with Israel, it’s difficult to solve the conflict under current conditions.

With that in mind, those who seek to end the isolation of Hamas are strengthening the terrorist group’s hand against Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and the Palestinian Authority’s main governing structure. In this scenario, it isn’t Israel that loses nearly as much as Abbas and Salam Fayyad, in whose corner the West claims to be. So while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleads with the international community to help strengthen the PA’s balance sheet, the opponents of Palestinian reconciliation are helping Hamas, at Fatah’s expense. The latest such actor is the government of Qatar.

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It’s fair to say that an underappreciated obstacle to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is Hamas’s rule of Gaza. For such an agreement to take shape, Hamas would have to either consent or not be in charge of the strip. Though a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation is unlikely, even if it were to happen, it might only bring about Hamas’s conquest of the West Bank, thereby doubling, rather than solving, the problem posed by Hamas. And since Hamas won’t abide a true peace with Israel, it’s difficult to solve the conflict under current conditions.

With that in mind, those who seek to end the isolation of Hamas are strengthening the terrorist group’s hand against Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah and the Palestinian Authority’s main governing structure. In this scenario, it isn’t Israel that loses nearly as much as Abbas and Salam Fayyad, in whose corner the West claims to be. So while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pleads with the international community to help strengthen the PA’s balance sheet, the opponents of Palestinian reconciliation are helping Hamas, at Fatah’s expense. The latest such actor is the government of Qatar.

In August, I wrote about Saudi Arabia’s $500 million investment in Gaza. Today, the New York Times reports on the emir of Qatar’s visit to Gaza and the announcement of his country’s $400 million pledged investment there:

“Today you are a big guest, great guest, declaring officially the breaking of the political and economic siege that was imposed on Gaza,” Ismail Haniya, the Hamas prime minister, told the emir and his cohort as they sat on sofas in a white shed in the southern town of Khan Yunis, where they plan to erect 1,000 apartments. “Today, we declare the victory on this siege through this blessed, historic visit.”

In the West Bank, allies of Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, who has struggled to preserve his own legitimacy, warned that the visit set a dangerous precedent of Arab leaders’ embracing Mr. Haniya as a head of state and thus cleaving the Palestinian people and territory in two. “We call on the Qatari prince or his representative to visit the West Bank too!” blared a headline on an editorial in the leading newspaper Al Quds.

That last part is actually quite embarrassing for Abbas. Begging for a visit from the Qatari emir is really begging for a visit from the Qatari emir’s checkbook, irrespective of whether the emir himself accompanies it on the trip. If the Hamas-Fatah rivalry is a zero-sum game–and it doesn’t always have to be, but usually is–then what we are witnessing in Gaza, thanks to the supposed friends of the Palestinians, is the construction of an entity that is arguably more of a state than what currently exists in the West Bank.

I mentioned yesterday that Jimmy Carter is making no secret of his attempts to impede the establishment of a Palestinian state by sabotaging negotiations and encouraging Abbas to declare statehood at the UN. In addition to all the obvious problems with this, what would stop it from setting a precedent that Hamas could follow in Gaza? Sure, the PA would ostensibly declare their state to include Gaza, but couldn’t Hamas then secede if it wanted to?

Of course that’s unlikely to happen, in part because the PA’s bid for statehood continues to be opposed by the West. But it’s long past time for Mideast watchers to at least acknowledge that the Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt, are, like Carter, actively working to incentivize Palestinian radicalization rather than moderation.

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Saudi Columnist: Is Israel Really the Enemy?

The indefatigable Tom Gross flagged my attention to this column in Saudi Arabia’s English-language newspaper, the Arab News:

On the anniversary of the 1973 War between the Arab and the Israelis, many people in the Arab world are beginning to ask many questions about the past, present and the future with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The questions now are: What was the real cost of these wars to the Arab world and its people. And the harder question that no Arab national wants to ask is: What was the real cost for not recognizing Israel in 1948 and why didn’t the Arab states spend their assets on education, health care and the infrastructures instead of wars? But, the hardest question that no Arab national wants to hear is whether Israel is the real enemy of the Arab world and the Arab people…

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The indefatigable Tom Gross flagged my attention to this column in Saudi Arabia’s English-language newspaper, the Arab News:

On the anniversary of the 1973 War between the Arab and the Israelis, many people in the Arab world are beginning to ask many questions about the past, present and the future with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The questions now are: What was the real cost of these wars to the Arab world and its people. And the harder question that no Arab national wants to ask is: What was the real cost for not recognizing Israel in 1948 and why didn’t the Arab states spend their assets on education, health care and the infrastructures instead of wars? But, the hardest question that no Arab national wants to hear is whether Israel is the real enemy of the Arab world and the Arab people…

The piece continues:

I decided to write this article after I saw photos and reports about a starving child in Yemen, a burned ancient Aleppo souk in Syria, the under developed Sinai in Egypt, car bombs in Iraq and the destroyed buildings in Libya.

The column provides a much-needed reality check, and a glimmer of hope that decades of incitement and eradicationist rhetoric might eventually wear thin. It reminded me of Salemeh Nematt’s November 25, 2004 column in the pan-Arabic daily Al-Hayat when he observed with considerable boldness: “It is outrageous and amazing that the first free and general elections in the history of the Arab nation are to take place in January: in Iraq, under the auspices of American occupation, and in Palestine, under the auspices of the Israeli occupation,” before asking what that said about U.S. and Israeli intentions, and what it revealed about Arab political culture.

Perhaps it would behoove some in the political class in Washington to recognize what those in the Middle East are beginning to see: The fault is not always Israel’s.

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When Israel and the Arab States Agree

The New York Times’s regular feature “Room for Debate” often brings together a fairly diverse and interesting group of commenters on the chosen topic, and today’s is no different. The topic this time is about American support for Israel, and whether that hampers American influence in the Middle East. The debate group features Aaron David Miller, Rashid Khalidi, Daniel Gordis, Daoud Kuttab, and others.

But the strangest part of the debate is not what any of the contributors said, but how the topic is introduced. Here’s the Times’s opening explanation for the debate:

The president of Israel is resisting calls for a unilateral strike against Iran, but it’s just the “unilateral” part that he finds troubling: “It is clear to us that we have to proceed together with America.” Even if this is just posturing, the statement shows one reason the U.S. struggles to make allies in the Arab world: Israelis and Arabs alike assume that the U.S. will take a side in Mideast conflicts, and that the U.S. will side with Israel. Are they right?

In light of the long history of lobbying (and junkets for members of Congress), is support for Israel so entrenched in American politics that the U.S. can no longer exert influence and broker peace?

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The New York Times’s regular feature “Room for Debate” often brings together a fairly diverse and interesting group of commenters on the chosen topic, and today’s is no different. The topic this time is about American support for Israel, and whether that hampers American influence in the Middle East. The debate group features Aaron David Miller, Rashid Khalidi, Daniel Gordis, Daoud Kuttab, and others.

But the strangest part of the debate is not what any of the contributors said, but how the topic is introduced. Here’s the Times’s opening explanation for the debate:

The president of Israel is resisting calls for a unilateral strike against Iran, but it’s just the “unilateral” part that he finds troubling: “It is clear to us that we have to proceed together with America.” Even if this is just posturing, the statement shows one reason the U.S. struggles to make allies in the Arab world: Israelis and Arabs alike assume that the U.S. will take a side in Mideast conflicts, and that the U.S. will side with Israel. Are they right?

In light of the long history of lobbying (and junkets for members of Congress), is support for Israel so entrenched in American politics that the U.S. can no longer exert influence and broker peace?

Using the Iran example to touch off this debate is nonsensical. First of all, including Iran in the “Arab world” usually leads to a misunderstanding of the Islamic Republic, since it is not an Arab state (though that doesn’t mean it has nothing in common with its Arab neighbors). But even more bizarre is the fact that the Times thinks Israel and the Arab states are on opposing sides on the issue. They are not. Last year, as Oren Kessler reported, the WikiLeaks cables proved what anyone with any experience with the region’s politics and history already expected: there was “unanimous” support for taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities. Kessler wrote:

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah urged Washington to “cut off the head of the snake,” and both he and then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak described the Islamic Republic as “evil” and untrustworthy.

An Iranian nuclear weapon, Mubarak warned, was liable to set off a region-wide arms race.

“Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb,” added Zeid Rifai, then president of the Jordanian senate. “Sanctions, carrots, incentives won’t matter.”

In the Persian Gulf, the rulers of Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were all reportedly in favor of a strike.

So too was the king of Bahrain, where a Sunni elite rules over a large Shi’ite majority and which officials in Iran have described as the country’s “fifteenth province.”

Mubarak may be gone, but there seems to be no other outdated exception to the story. This wasn’t the only such report, however. Saudi Arabia appears to be making preparations for any oil disruption caused by an attack on Iran. That is in their interest whether they support an attack or not, since they would still need to get their product to market safely, but it would also keep the price of their oil from skyrocketing, which dramatically reduces the harm to the West in the event of an attack or disruption.

And as Shai Feldman wrote with regard to the region’s Sunni Arab states, “None of these countries uttered a word when in 2007 Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor of Sunni-Arab Syria.”

So contra the New York Times, the Arab states are not only assuming the U.S. would support Israel on the Iran issue, but hoping and lobbying for such support.

As for the Times’s discredited and debunked suggestion that strong support for Israel works against American diplomacy, I suppose it’s worth repeating that Israel has proven time and again to be far more willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the peace process when U.S. support is strong and “daylight” between the two is minimized. But that’s the obvious part of this that everyone knows. The Iran aspect of the debate introduction, however, shows the Times to be strikingly unaware of what the Arab states actually want from the United States.

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Will Saudi Arabia be Next to Fall?

After the Tunisian protesters sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for almost a quarter century, packing, the Central Intelligence Agency famously predicted the Arab revolt would not spread. Almost two years later, dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and a fifth appears on the ropes in Syria. Despite what regional experts and Arab autocrats hoped, the desire for freedom and liberty is contagious. So when Bashar al-Assad’s tenure ends with a bullet in his head or a broomstick in his bottom, what will be the next domino to fall?

There is no shortage of dissatisfaction across the Arab world. Just ask the Bahrainis. Tension is also high in Kuwait. Most Jordanians are seething at King Abdullah II and especially at the high-spending Queen Rania. But the next dynasty to fall may very well be the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia is an artificial state, cobbled together in the 1920s and 1930s by military force. Oil wealth has both helped paper over differences and promote a radical and intolerant reinterpretation of Islam. Still, regional identities remain, sectarianism is increasing, and the gap between rich and poor has bred resentment toward the ruling family whose grip on power will slip as octogenarians succeed octogenarians and factional rivalries percolate.

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After the Tunisian protesters sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, dictator for almost a quarter century, packing, the Central Intelligence Agency famously predicted the Arab revolt would not spread. Almost two years later, dictators have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and a fifth appears on the ropes in Syria. Despite what regional experts and Arab autocrats hoped, the desire for freedom and liberty is contagious. So when Bashar al-Assad’s tenure ends with a bullet in his head or a broomstick in his bottom, what will be the next domino to fall?

There is no shortage of dissatisfaction across the Arab world. Just ask the Bahrainis. Tension is also high in Kuwait. Most Jordanians are seething at King Abdullah II and especially at the high-spending Queen Rania. But the next dynasty to fall may very well be the Saudi monarchy.

Saudi Arabia is an artificial state, cobbled together in the 1920s and 1930s by military force. Oil wealth has both helped paper over differences and promote a radical and intolerant reinterpretation of Islam. Still, regional identities remain, sectarianism is increasing, and the gap between rich and poor has bred resentment toward the ruling family whose grip on power will slip as octogenarians succeed octogenarians and factional rivalries percolate.

Human rights groups and journalists tend to focus on Bahrain. There certainly are myriad problems in that Arab island nation, but the focus is disproportionate, determined more by access than by degree of repression. While the Bahraini government uses rubber bullets, the Saudis prefer live ammunition, especially when the protesters are Shi’ites in the oil-rich Eastern Province.

If unrest strikes Saudi Arabia and if the monarchy falls, the results could reverberate further than former Egyptian President Mubarak’s fall:

  • It’s one thing for Libyan oil to temporarily go offline, and quite another for Saudi oil to do so. Then again, if the White House encouraged greater shale exploitation, new pipelines, and new drilling offshore, then it could blunt any future Saudi oil shock. Even at the best of times, that’s a good idea.
  • Saudi Arabia, like it or not, has been a key U.S. ally. Despite the conspiracy-ridden and often anti-Semitic blogosphere, America has never gone to war for Israel. It has, however, gone to war for Saudi Arabia. Kuwait’s 1991 liberation was as much about protecting Saudi Arabia from Iraqi aggression as it was about freeing the tiny emirate. If the Kingdom fell, upon whom in the Arab Middle East could the United States really count?
  • On the other hand, when President Obama leads from behind, the country from behind which he leads is, more often than not, Saudi Arabia. Republicans are in no position to castigate the president for deference to Riyadh, however, because so many Republican presidents and secretaries have also sucked at the Saudi teat. Freed from the Saudi constraint, how might U.S. policy be different?
  • There is a reason why Saudi Arabia has been an ally. Saudi Arabia may have incubated al-Qaeda and extremism, but they have also cooperated greatly on counter-terrorism. If the Saudi regime falls, would a new government be so forthcoming with counter terror aid and assistance?
  • Next to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is most likely to fracture into its constituent parts if it ever faces state failure. The Hejaz might be more cosmopolitan and moderate, but Iran would make a full-court press to become the predominant influence in the Eastern Province. That could be the death knell for a more moderate regime in Bahrain. The question is what extremists in the Nejd would do, and whether they could be contained. What might happen if more extreme elements consolidate control across the country?
  • Whether or not Saudi Arabia has been an American ally, its influence across the Islamic world has certainly been as malignant as Iran’s. If the Kingdom collapsed, would such subsidies continue? As some of my AEI colleagues have pointed out, for all the billions of dollars they have expended, the Saudis have failed to win hearts and minds across the broader region. Simply put, no one likes the Saudis. If the Western economy was shielded from a Saudi descent into chaos, would anyone really care?
  • The end of the Saudi gravy train would reverberate not only across countries, but also among institutions in the United States. The Saudis have generously funded universities, think tanks, public relations firms, lobbyists, advocacy groups like CAIR, and writers. The Mujahedin al-Khalq in recent years may have exposed how so many American figures follow the dollar sign rather than principle, but that’s nothing compared to what the Saudis have managed. Who would fill that void, if anyone?  Perhaps the world would be a better place if the advice put forward on the back of Saudi petrodollars no longer received such a favorable hearing in Washington, and if students were no longer indoctrinated by the curriculum Saudi oil money bought.

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Who Should Fund U.S. Muslim Groups?

Last week, the Washington Post profiled Zainab al-Suwaij, the founder and director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC). Because she grew up under dictatorship and repression in Iraq and so understands the values which make America great, Zainab has always been outspoken in favor of moderation, individual liberty, women’s empowerment, and against the extremism preached so often by Saudi Arabia and Iran. While almost anyone who meets Zainab, be they in Iraq, Egypt, and the United States, becomes an admirer, the Post found one naysayer. “If AIC is surviving on U.S. money, then they have no legitimacy, especially if they came to the fore in the [George W.] Bush era,” Muqtedar Khan, a professor at the University of Delaware, said.

Khan’s statement is curious: Why should it be wrong for the AIC to compete for and, on occasion, to win U.S. grants? It’s not like an organization called the American Islamic Congress hides the American component. Nor does Khan indicate why Muslim groups should shy away from accepting American money but have no hesitation accepting Saudi cash, like the more radical Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society for North America (ISNA) do.

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Last week, the Washington Post profiled Zainab al-Suwaij, the founder and director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC). Because she grew up under dictatorship and repression in Iraq and so understands the values which make America great, Zainab has always been outspoken in favor of moderation, individual liberty, women’s empowerment, and against the extremism preached so often by Saudi Arabia and Iran. While almost anyone who meets Zainab, be they in Iraq, Egypt, and the United States, becomes an admirer, the Post found one naysayer. “If AIC is surviving on U.S. money, then they have no legitimacy, especially if they came to the fore in the [George W.] Bush era,” Muqtedar Khan, a professor at the University of Delaware, said.

Khan’s statement is curious: Why should it be wrong for the AIC to compete for and, on occasion, to win U.S. grants? It’s not like an organization called the American Islamic Congress hides the American component. Nor does Khan indicate why Muslim groups should shy away from accepting American money but have no hesitation accepting Saudi cash, like the more radical Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society for North America (ISNA) do.

The ultimate irony is that Khan’s home institution, University of Delaware, has also accepted State Department money to run Middle East programs. If Saudi Arabia is a cash cow for organizations like CAIR and ISNA that often apologize for terrorism, shouldn’t organizations that take a more moderate tack and seek to promote both empowerment and respect for American values also have access to resources?

Perhaps it is time for Islamic advocacy organizations and universities to first and foremost foreswear foreign money. It does say a great deal about Suwaij that she’d rather compete for American grant money and also a great deal about her critics that they see Saudi money as less tainted.

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New Pipelines Will Reduce Tehran’s Power

Every time Iran faces increased pressure from the West to terminate its nuclear program it responds with blood-curdling threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. As I have previously argued, while Iran’s threats need to be taken seriously, they should not stop us from effective action: While Iran could disrupt traffic in the strait primarily with mines and speedboats, it could not close this important waterway, and even its disruptions would be effectively ended by the U.S. Navy within a relatively short period of time.

The Financial Times notes this morning that there is further cause not to be overly afraid of Iranian retaliation against the world’s oil supply: “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have opened new pipelines bypassing the Strait of Hormuz, the shipping lane that Iran has repeatedly threatened to close, in a move that will reduce Tehran’s power over oil markets.” The Saudi pipeline goes to the Red Sea, the UAE pipeline to the Indian Ocean. Together, the FT notes, “The new links will more than double the total pipeline capacity bypassing the strait to 6.5m barrels a day, or about 40 percent of the 17m b/d that transits Hormuz.”

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Every time Iran faces increased pressure from the West to terminate its nuclear program it responds with blood-curdling threats to close the Strait of Hormuz. As I have previously argued, while Iran’s threats need to be taken seriously, they should not stop us from effective action: While Iran could disrupt traffic in the strait primarily with mines and speedboats, it could not close this important waterway, and even its disruptions would be effectively ended by the U.S. Navy within a relatively short period of time.

The Financial Times notes this morning that there is further cause not to be overly afraid of Iranian retaliation against the world’s oil supply: “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have opened new pipelines bypassing the Strait of Hormuz, the shipping lane that Iran has repeatedly threatened to close, in a move that will reduce Tehran’s power over oil markets.” The Saudi pipeline goes to the Red Sea, the UAE pipeline to the Indian Ocean. Together, the FT notes, “The new links will more than double the total pipeline capacity bypassing the strait to 6.5m barrels a day, or about 40 percent of the 17m b/d that transits Hormuz.”

This is yet another reason why the West should not be intimidated by Tehran’s bluster, and why we should proceed with even more punishing sanctions in a last-ditch chance to bring a peaceful halt to the Iranian nuclear program, which, as the chief of Britain’s MI6 warned recently, could result in the production of actual nuclear weapons by 2014.

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