by Emile Nakhleh
Mohammad bin Salman’s (MbS) recent purge of his opponents in Saudi Arabia and his bellicose rhetoric toward Iran and Hezbollah threaten to plunge the region into more destructive military clashes. MbS’s bellicosity toward Iran and other state and non-state regional actors is being pursued against the backdrop of the Saudi disastrous war in Yemen, a bloody conflict in Syria, and the unraveling of Iraq. Although MbS seems to be operating with President Donald Trump’s blessing, the Saudi rhetorical belligerence poses a serious threat to the region’s stability and to American interests and personnel in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Immediately following the palace purge, President Trump tweeted his support for the action and expressed “great confidence” in the Saudi leaders. MbS’s close relations with Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner will likely backfire. Trump’s knee-jerk support for MbS’s autocratic crackdown doesn’t reflect deep knowledge of the region or strategic considerations of its future. Nor does it signal an expert understanding of unintended consequences.
Even more troubling is that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, unlike his predecessors, is totally disengaged from these momentous developments. His vanishing act shows a dangerous disregard of what’s happening in the region and signals to the peoples and leaders of the Middle East that Washington is no longer concerned about that part of the world.
Arab autocrats and budding dictators, like MbS and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, feel empowered to pursue their deadly power grab games, domestically and regionally, with apparent disregard for the United States or the Trump administration’s possible reaction to these actions. Thanks to Tillerson and Trump, the marginalization of American diplomacy in Middle Eastern affairs has become an established fact.
Although the Saudi purge has captured the headlines, the danger of a regional war, domestic upheavals, and regime change is more likely than at any time in recent memory. As MbS consolidates his power domestically against influential members of the Al Saud ruling family, he is using anti-Shia sectarianism to whip up war hysteria against Iran and the Iran nuclear deal.
By forcing pro-Saudi Sunni Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign, ostensibly because of perceived Hezbollah political machinations, MbS seems to be widening the road toward a military confrontation with Iran. His claim that tiny Lebanon is declaring war on Saudi Arabia is patently absurd. He seems to believe that regionalizing the conflict might enhance the veracity of his claims. Washington, Tel Aviv, and Abu Dhabi might be happy with the Saudi anti-Iran hysteria in the short term, but a Saudi-Iranian war and the possible scuttling of the Iran nuclear deal would be disastrous for the region, for Saudi Arabia, and for the United States.
Hariri claimed, without convincing evidence, that the actions of Iran and Hezbollah prompted his resignation, which he announced from a hideout in Riyadh. Yet, some of his staunch Sunni supporters in Lebanon didn’t believe his trumped-up charges against the two Shia actors. Many in the region believe that MbS is using Lebanon as a pawn in a deadly chess game against Iran, which he will likely lose.
Instead of cheering on the young Saudi crown prince, the Trump administration should curtail his unbridled ambitions and prevent him from plunging the region in yet another deadly military confrontation. By siding with MbS, the Trump administration shows that it has not learned any useful lessons from the Iraq war and the terrible instability and human tragedy that followed the demise of the Saddam regime in 2003. Nor has the Trump administration understood the impact of hundreds of thousands of war refugees on Europe and elsewhere.
Failing American Diplomacy in the Trump Era
American secretaries of state over more than half a century have articulated and guided American foreign policy in the Middle East. They crisscrossed the region through war and peace to validate critical policy decisions and sell them to regional leaders. They helped form alliances and coalitions to serve American national interests, protect the strategic waterways, defend the region against foreign intruders—states and non-state actors alike—preserve regional stability, and resolve regional conflicts. Regional leaders accepted the secretaries of state as credible interlocutors and a reassuring face of the United States.
American diplomacy in the Middle East in the pre-Trump era has been characterized by constancy, predictability, flexibility, coalition-building, engagement, and a continuous balancing of values and interests. Secretaries of state from John Foster Dulles during the 1956 Suez War and Henry Kissinger in the aftermath of the 1973 War to James Baker following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and John Kerry’s signing of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 have always played a pivotal role in resolving conflicts and maintaining regional stability.
By abandoning this central role, current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has dealt a serious blow to American prestige in the region and left Arab and non-Arab leaders pondering the future dependability of the United States. Under Trump and Tillerson, the traditional principles of American diplomacy have been replaced by improvisation and vacillation, a lack of a comprehensive strategy, impetuous remarks and tweets, contradictory statements, and a loss of credibility and leadership. The president has undercut the Department of State and made a concerted effort to eviscerate the Iran deal. Regional leaders and opinion makers believe that Washington has replaced strategic policy formulation with a series of ad hoc decisions that are puzzling, indefensible, and devoid of empathy for the peoples of the region.
The American presidency and diplomacy have diminished under Trump and Tillerson. Arab autocrats have come to view Washington as a source of cash and sophisticated weapons but lacking in the core principles that have defined the greatness of America over the decades. It’s a telling commentary on the demise of the “American century” in a region that has known nothing but turmoil and war. As long as regional conflicts continue—from the wars in Yemen and Syria to the Saudi tribal feud with Qatar—American arms manufacturers and the “military industrial complex” will continue to reap untold profits, and the peoples of the region will continue to suffer. Strong-arm leaders will find in Trump a kindred spirit, and Tillerson will remain on the sidelines.
A Path Forward?
It’s not rocket science to suggest that Washington needs to devise a clear and well-articulated strategy for the Middle East. The United States is present in almost every country in the region—militarily, diplomatically, economically, and culturally. If Tillerson is uninterested in studying how his predecessors in the past half-century conducted a high-level, engaging, and successful foreign policy toward the region, he should resign the office and go back to his old company. He has unfortunately discovered that running Exxon-Mobil did not prepare him to manage the foreign policy of the world’s sole superpower.
The new secretary of state must reassert American values of good governance and human rights and speak out against repression. Although Washington is disinclined to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, it should not stand idly by while entrenched and aspiring dictators trample over the most basic rights of dignity and decency.
If the Trump administration is interested in regaining a semblance of respectability and credibility in the region, it must engage with law-abiding governments and communities. Early-morning tweets and rumored clandestine deals between Kushner and MbS are no substitute for deliberate, thoughtful diplomacy. On the contrary, these deals should sound an alarm before the Trump White House finds itself in more turmoil. Recent history teaches us that continued regional domestic power struggle, tribal feuds, regime change, and abject misery do not serve the long-term interests of the United States and its allies.
As a former senior CIA analyst, I wonder what drives this unusual Kushner-MbS arrangement. Is the MbS power grab and the anti-Iran campaign a pre-cooked political, military, financial deal with the Trump White House through Kushner? What benefits will Trump and his family reap from the royal crackdown in Riyadh and the stoking of war with Iran? What did MbS offer the Trump organization in return for the unqualified support he has received from Trump and his son-in-law?
Photo: Rex Tillerson leaving Kuwait City in July 2017 (State Department via Flickr).