Saudi Arabia faults President Barack Obama for demonstrating a lack of leadership in confronting Middle East crises, by which the kingdom means he should have intervened militarily in the Syrian civil war and fully backed the Egyptian coup d’etat. But Obama’s real lack of spine was on display when he sent Secretary of State John Kerry on a groveling tour seeking to placate Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Kerry seemingly must have worn out his knee pads in one “allied” capital after another, offering reassurances that the Obama administration won’t go too easy on the Iranians in nuclear talks, won’t cede much ground to Syria in peace negotiations, won’t be too tough on Egypt’s military dictators, and won’t protest Israel’s latest land grab.
However, perhaps most humiliating was Kerry’s flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he reassured King Abdullah that the United States shared the Saudi goals on Syria, Iran and Egypt and that the only disagreements were on tactics.
The oh-so-polite Kerry even avoiding confronting the Saudi royals over their abominable treatment of women. He laughed off a question about whether Saudi women should be allowed to drive, saying that the debate over women’s rights was “best left to Saudi Arabia.”
The Saudis took Kerry’s measure and soon were briefing American reporters on Obama’s weak-kneed foreign policy.
According to a New York Times article, “At the root of much of the Saudis’ criticism was the perception that President Obama was uncomfortable with exercising power on the world stage, a gnawing worry for Saudi officials who have become increasingly concerned about the role of their nemesis Iran in Syria and elsewhere in the region.”
Yet, if President Obama wished to show off some real muscle, he might have had Secretary Kerry scold the Saudis about their abuse of women and confront the Saudis about their bloody support of radical jihadists who have been deployed across the region wreaking havoc and engaging in terrorism.
Not only did Saudi nationals make up most of the roster of the 9/11 hijackers, inspired by another Saudi, Osama bin Laden, but al-Qaeda and Islamic extremists have long enjoyed the largesse of elements of the Saudi royal family and served essentially as the kingdom’s global paramilitary force, whether fighting Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s or destabilizing the Syrian government today.
Deniability on Terror
Though the Saudi government practices deniability in its relationship with these violent extremists, Saudi leaders sense that their immense clout over oil and financial markets – and thus their ability to disrupt Western economies – makes them essentially untouchable.
So, they often demonstrate highhandedness even when dealing with U.S. presidents, such as when Prince Bandar bin Sultan – as Saudi ambassador to the United States during the 9/11 attacks – got President George W. Bush to let members of the bin Laden family leave U.S. cities on the first flights allowed back into the air, post-9/11, and after only cursory interviews with the FBI.
Now as head of Saudi intelligence, Bandar has been throwing his weight around by expressing his displeasure with Russia and the United States for not joining Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Bandar’s arrogance included what sounded like thinly veiled threats about possible terrorism against the Winter Olympics in Russia if President Vladimir Putin didn’t bend to Saudi desires on Syria.
According to a diplomatic account of a Bandar-Putin meeting on July 31 in Moscow, Bandar made clear that Saudi Arabia has been pulling the strings on the Chechen militants who have carried out numerous terrorist attacks inside Russia and who could be reined in during the Olympics in Sochi next year if there was a Saudi-Russian agreement on Syria.
A source familiar with the meeting told me that Putin viewed the reference to Sochi as something akin to a Mafia don shaking down a shopkeeper for protection money by saying, “nice little business you got here, I’d hate to see anything happen to it.” I’m also told that Putin responded with his own blunt warning to Bandar about holding Saudi Arabia accountable if any Islamic terrorist group does attack the Olympics.
The Obama administration could have shown similar toughness in spurning Saudi Arabia’s demands that the United States essentially intervene on its side in the Sunni-Shiite sectarian strife that is playing out across the region. The Saudis are leading the Sunni contingent of Middle East nations, with Iran anchoring the so-called Shiite crescent which extends through Iraq and Syria to the Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon.
President Obama could have bluntly explained that the United States won’t take sides in a sectarian conflict that dates back nearly 1,500 years to the succession struggle after the Prophet Mohammad died in 632. At the Battle of Karbala, the slaughter of Hussein ibn Ali and his household divided the Islamic community into Shiite and Sunni sects.
Those ancient hostilities continue to divide the Islamic world in modern times, flaring up after the Iranian revolution in 1979 – when a revolutionary Shiite regime took power and unnerved the more conservative Sunni power structure based in Saudi Arabia. Saudi fears about possible Iranian encroachment in the Persian Gulf drove the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq War in which Iraq’s Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein served as the bulwark against Shiite influence from Tehran.
A Misguided War
The delicate sectarian balance was disrupted again in 2003 when President George W. Bush invaded Iraq to overthrow Hussein, a victory that gave Iraq’s Shiite majority the opportunity to seize control and build a working relationship with Shiite-ruled Iran. With Syria controlled by the Assad dynasty, based in the Alawite sect which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, a Shiite crescent suddenly extended from Tehran to Beirut.
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This expanding Shiite influence upset the Saudis who began supporting the Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and thus shatter the Shiite crescent. Though the Saudis claim they are backing the moderate Syrian opposition, their support also has been crucial in drawing jihadists from around the Muslim world into Syria.
Many of those jihadists are flocking to Syria from Saudi Arabia, including some of the most extreme elements with ties to al-Qaeda. Not only have these foreign jihadists engaged in acts of terrorism in Syria, they have used staged photos of dead militants – posed with macabre smiles on their faces – to recruit other extremists.
An article in Tuesday’s Washington Post cited a Saudi fighter as the lead example: “In his death portrait, the young rebel’s bearded face is fixed with a broad, unearthly grin. The Saudi man had been killed in fighting, and his corpse, with its beatific smile, was photographed and displayed in a Twitter posting inviting others to celebrate his martyrdom….
“Since the arrival of the first foreign jihadists in Syria more than two years ago, rebel volunteers have used Facebook and Twitter accounts to keep their friends and relatives updated about their experiences… When fighters are killed, the same Web sites offer a way to spread the news to family and friends and pay tribute to the fallen, researchers say. …
“Many of the postings include images and allusions intended to resonate with the Muslim faithful. In some photos, bodies with grievous wounds are posed so that they appear to be smiling or, in some cases, pointing to heaven. …
“A common belief among jihadists is that martyrdom brings special rewards in paradise, including the affections of 72 ‘houris’ – black-eyed virgins promised to men in the afterlife – as well as an ability to win entry to heaven for the martyrs’ relatives.” [Washington Post, Nov. 5, 2013.]
If Kerry wanted to demonstrate the Obama administration’s real comfort in exercising power on the world stage, he might have bluntly told Saudi intelligence to stop funding, arming and deploying these fanatics in Syria or anywhere else. Instead, Kerry behaved as a supplicant arriving in the kingdom to appease the petulant king and his court.
Bending in Egypt and Israel
Kerry made similar on-bended-knee appearances in Cairo and Jerusalem. In Egypt, Kerry praised the military regime that overthrew the elected president in July and brutally suppressed his Muslim Brotherhood followers, killing more than a thousand. As the New York Times reported,
“In substance as well as tone, Mr. Kerry’s visit to Egypt reflected the Obama administration’s determination to work with a military leadership that ruthlessly put down protesters from the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that put forth the successful candidacy of President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted on July 3. A military government, now firmly entrenched here, has promised to establish a civilian-led government.”
Kerry hailed the military regime’s “road map” for moving toward the restoration of civilian rule, possibly with elections next spring. However, Kerry’s trip coincided with the regime’s decision to put Morsi and his political allies on trial for murder. The regime’s timing and Kerry’s praise represented another diplomatic embarrassment for the Obama administration.
In Israel, Kerry’s appeal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to press ahead with peace talks with the Palestinians on a two-state solution was met with the Israeli government’s approval of further expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Then, the Washington Post reported that key elements of Netanyahu’s coalition were effectively forsaking the idea of a Palestinian state altogether in favor of annexing East Jerusalem and the West Bank as part of a Greater Israel. The plan called for making it hard, if not next to impossible, for many Palestinians to become Israeli citizens, thus guaranteeing continued Jewish domination. The Gaza Strip and its 1.6 million inhabitants would be abandoned to their own desperate fate.
“As Secretary of State John F. Kerry resumes talks [in Jerusalem] Wednesday in the quest to create ‘two states for two people,’ a vocal faction in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is, more openly than ever, opposing the very idea of a Palestinian state — and putting forward its own plans to take, rather than give away, territory,” the Post wrote.
The Netanyahu government appears emboldened by its new behind-the-scenes alliance with Saudi Arabia, as the two countries combine their geopolitical assets to advance common interests, including supporting the Syrian rebels, challenging Iran over its nuclear program, and aiding the military regime in Egypt.
In these joint endeavors, Israel brings to bear its extraordinary talents at propaganda and lobbying, while Saudi Arabia supplies the money and exploits its influence over oil and financial markets. One source familiar with the Israeli-Saudi tandem said Israel is using this relationship to both advance its regional interests and receive desperately needed cash from the Saudis, who are obsessed with prevailing over their Shiite rivals in Iran.
In the past several months, President Obama has gone against Saudi-Israeli demands that he intervene militarily in Syria to degrade Assad’s military strength — and Obama has further alienated the two “allies” by showing a willingness to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program rather than join Israel in airstrikes against Iranian targets.
But Secretary Kerry’s visits from capital to capital on what has the look of an apology tour – desperate to soothe the hurt feelings of Israel and Saudi Arabia – may only encourage Saudi and Israeli leaders to keep the geopolitical pressure on President Obama.