King Salman, the aging monarch of Saudi Arabia, has been busy making appearances. Over three days last week in the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Salman organized and led three separate conferences with the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab League, and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
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The subtext of the communiques — Iran is a terrorist state that must be confronted at the earliest opportunity lest it become more aggressive — is not lost on anyone who monitors the Middle East. What the Saudis and many of their partners in the Persian Gulf want is not only unconditional U.S. support for their anti-Iran policy, but also for Washington to fight their battles for them.
Anti-Iran interventionists in the Trump administration, like national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will eagerly use the king’s message to more closely tie the United States closer to Saudi Arabia.
To offer Saudi Arabia even more unconditional American support would mean providing Riyadh with even more leverage in a bilateral U.S.-Saudi relationship that is overdue for a correction.
For decades, Washington has viewed the Middle East through an unsophisticated and downright elementary lens.
The formula goes something like this: Iran is a malign actor bent on expansionism (the fact that Iran has neither the economic influence or military power to accomplish this feat is lost in the conversation), so any country in the region on the opposite side must be an inherently good partner for the United States to coddle.
Tehran is the evil monster, whereas Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Baghdad are either noble players in an existential regional drama or victims of Iranian perfidy.
Needless to say, this is a grossly inaccurate picture of the Middle East security environment. More important, it leads U.S. foreign policy officials to make strategic mistakes that can thrust Washington in external conflicts in which it has no direct national security interest at stake.
While Iran is unquestionably a troublesome actor with a large and effective network of militant proxies from Baghdad to Beirut, it is not remotely unique — the Saudis and Emiratis are not angels. Riyadh under the management of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been a wrecking ball to whatever order the Arab world had prior to his ascension.
The young and brash king-in-waiting has ordered one blunder after another, from kidnapping Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and forcing him to resign (Hariri rescinded as soon as he flew out of Riyadh) to orchestrating a blockade against Qatar that has split the GCC and presented Tehran with a golden opportunity to poach a wealthy and industrious Arab country from Riyadh’s side.
The war in Yemen, Salman’s pet project, has been an unmitigated strategic disaster for the Saudi kingdom and has created the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis.
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