The United States Needs to Rein in Its Regional Allies

Saudi Arabia

by Shireen T. Hunter

The interests of the great powers and their regional allies have seldom totally coincided, and often their interests have diverged in important ways. This was even true during the Cold War era, despite the fact that within each competing camp allies shared the same ideology.

This lack of coincidence of interest stems in major part from geographical differences and the fact that the interests of the great powers’ regional allies are bounded by their specific geography. Another main reason is the inevitable difference of historical experience, including the patterns of friendships and enmities of regional states with their great-power patrons. As a result, regional states’ perceptions of interests and threats often sharply differ from the priorities of their great power allies.

A further complicating factor is that, as a general rule, great powers seek the cooperation of regional states to help them achieve their global interests. By contrast, regional countries seek great-power alliances in order to strengthen their positions vis-à-vis regional rivals and prevail over them. Thus, Pakistan’s main motivation for aligning itself with the United States was to strengthen its position regarding India rather than to fight communism. Some Arab countries aligned themselves with the USSR more because of their dispute with Israel than any strong commitment to the Soviet ideology.

These inevitable asymmetries between the interests of regional states and their great-power allies have become more pronounced in the post-Cold War era as ideology as an element of unity disappeared and other factors, such geography and history, reasserted their role in determining states’ visions of their interests. Yet because of the persistence of many of the Cold War-era mindsets, major international actors, especially the United States, have not yet adjusted to the new realities of their relations with their so-called regional allies. Consequently, some regional allies of the United States have continued to use America to advance their own narrow goals rather than help the US to achieve its objectives, although the regional allies often portray their objectives as being congruent with American interests. More important, in many instances some of the obsessions and unreasonable fears of America’s regional allies have prevented the US from pursuing policies that are in its own best interests.

Take the case of US-Pakistani relations, especially as they relate to Afghanistan. Since the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan has pursued an unrelenting policy of putting in place in Kabul a government subservient to Islamabad or, failing that, preventing Afghanistan’s stabilization. Between 1993 and 1998, US- Pakistan interests seemed to coalesce: America wanted to counter Iran in Afghanistan and Central Asia and Pakistan wanted a subservient regime in Kabul, which meant that both sides agreed to use the Taliban as an instrument of their policies.

But Pakistan continued its policy after the US changed its mind about the Taliban in 1998 and even after the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. Unless one credits conspiracy theories current in the region that the US does not want Afghanistan to be stabilized, because that would mean the end of US military presence there, America’s tolerance of Pakistan’s double-dealing behavior and continuation of US military and other aid to that country becomes hard to explain.

Saudi Arabia and some other Persian Gulf Arab states also supported the Taliban. In fact, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were the only countries that recognized the Taliban-dominated government in Kabul that came to power in 1996. The only other “country” to do so was the Islamic Republic of Ichkeria (aka Chechnya). And they continued to support the Taliban after 2001. Otherwise, periodic rumors about Saudi mediation between the Taliban and the post-2001 Afghan government would not make sense, because Riyadh would have lacked influence over the Taliban.

Farther west in Iraq, America’s Arab allies did much to undermine its position there. Certainly, the excessive U.S. concern with Iran and its potential influence among Iraqi Shias also played important roles in Iraq’s evolution. However, the major responsibility for Iraq’s troubles lies with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Even Turkey, which until only a short while ago seemed to be a beacon of moderation and sanity in a deranged and tumultuous Middle East, succumbed to temptations provided by the collapse of the state structure in Iraq. Turkish policies have certainly not helped in Iraq’s stabilization. Ironically, Arab and Turkish policies have only helped to convince Iraqi Shias that Iran is their only potential ally.

Lastly, Syria’s popular uprising—which, despite Bashar al-Assad’s heavy-handedness, could have been managed more peacefully and might have even by now led to Assad’s removal through electoral means under international supervision—degenerated into a bloody civil war because of the excessive fears and ambitions of America’s regional allies. This is not to discount the contribution of Assad’s supporters to the current mess, but the real contributors to the radicalization of the Syrian opposition have been Sunni Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which helped create and funded groups such as Jabhat ul-Nusra.

Meanwhile, since 1988, when Iran signed the ceasefire agreement that ended the war with Iraq, America’s Arab allies, especially in the Persian Gulf, joined with Israel in opposing any US reconciliation with Iran. This has been a major reason for the continued estrangement between the two countries and the many missed opportunities for engagement. Opposition by the same American allies nearly scuttled the agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. Even now, these allies have not abandoned their efforts to keep the agreement from being implemented.

In short, the experience of the last nearly three decades should convince the United States that its own interests and those of its Middle East allies do not necessarily coincide and that it’s time for America to begin reassessing its regional connections and their value. At the very least, the US should not continue to indulge pseudo-allies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan when they exploit the United States for their own goals and to settle scores with their local rivals and enemies. Clearly, the United States needs to promote its core interests, such as Israel’s security and the free flow of hydrocarbons from the region. Nevertheless, the US should adopt a more realistic and flexible approach to working with regional countries. Above all, Washington must remember that its regional allies need it more that the US needs them.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. What the hell…? Not a word about reining in the illegal occupier and hegemonist-ambitioned Zionist entity Israel? I’d like to think Hunter might feel that the Zionist entity is not an “ally” (talk about “pseudo-allies”!!); but no…it can only be that she conveniently elides and thus provides succor and cover to the deranged 800-pound criminally psychotic gorilla in the Middle East’s midst. Pity the land and people of Palestine, at Ground Zero 24-7-365-decades, most of all.

  2. @ “Clearly, the United States needs to promote its core interests, such as Israel’s security and the free flow of hydrocarbons from the region.”

    Israel’s security as a core interest of the U.S. is an interest with an expiration date on it because of: [i] Israel’s steady drift to the right, ratcheting up Israel’s abuse of Palestinians; [ii] the Netanyahu government’s disavowal of the two-state solution and announcement of plans to annex the remainder of the Occupied Territories; and [iii] the growing effectiveness of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement.

    Because of those factors, high U.S. officials have been warning the Israelis for at least two years that they can no longer count on the unwavering protection of the U.S. at the U.N. Security Council and abroad. There is now widespread recognition that there are growing gaps between U.S. and Israeli interests.

    Given that we are ruled by political animals, the U.S. loyalty to Israel will evaporate the instant members of Congress find it politically advantageous to dissolve it, the Israel Lobby notwithstanding.

  3. We Americans need to reign in our 2 major political parties which have become, on state-wide and national levels, thoroughly corrupted by special interest money. Oil interest money, AIPAC money, Military Industrial complex money basically got what they wanted out of Bush’s decision to attack, occupy and destroy Iraq. If millions of Americans took the simple, safe step of officiously boycotting the two parties, de-registering from them, perhaps we could eventually return to a policy of disengagement, ceasing fire unless fired on, evacuating and re-settling threatened populations. Our “allies,” puppets(?) would get the clue. N.B. It’s possible to officiously boycott and at the last minute still vote for the Corruptocan or Corruptocrat candidate.

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