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The U.S. decision to provide “non-lethal” aid to rebels in Syria is by most accounts a faint gesture, an offer coming—two years into Syria’s raging civil war—too little, too late. After U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry promised food, medical supplies, and about $60 million for “security” and “education” last month, Syrian rebel commander Abdul Jabbar Akaidi was blunt: “We have no need for medical supplies or for food stuffs,” he told NPR from his base camp. “We need more than this.”
It would be foolhardy, though, to miss the underlying importance of Washington openly and actively siding with Syria’s rebel factions. Beneath what appeared a kind of footnote decision is tacit linkage with Saudi Arabia—the lead supplier of lethal aid to the rebels—in its bid to oust President Bashar al-Assad from Syria.
In the aftermath of the Iraq War and the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has resuscitated ties to Saudi Arabia, returning to the pragmatic “oil diplomacy” of the 1970s rather than adapting to the realities of a post-9/11, post-Saddam, post-Mubarak Middle East. That’s ironic, given Obama’s pledge in his 2009 Cairo speech “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”
Obama, like his predecessors, has overlooked decades of autocratic rule and export of state-sanctioned Islamic extremism to stand by the Sauds, even as U.S. dependence on Saudi oil is in decline. The news earlier this year of a secret U.S. drone base in the Saudi desert is the latest and most dramatic evidence of a tightening bond. According to news accounts the U.S. military built the base two years ago, just as it was abandoning billions of dollars worth of built-up U.S. military bases in Iraq, easily capable of launching drone attacks.
The pact to expand U.S. drone warfare from the Saudi desert also got its launch in the midst of “Arab Spring” revolutions moving rapidly across the region. The Saudi regime prominently has supported revolutions and power takedowns where they benefit the spread of Sunni and Wahhabi influence—most notably in Syria. But it actively intervened to protect the Gulf emirs facing street protesters, as in Bahrain. U.S. policy has followed a similar course, ignoring the protest movements in Gulf States and Saudi allies like Yemen, while siding with revolutionaries in Egypt, Libya, and now Syria.
Saudi support for the Syrian opposition is an obvious effort to drive a wedge in the longstanding alliance between Syria and Saudi Arabia’s lead rival, Iran. Be certain of this: The Saudis will not care when fighting in Syria spills over into Iraq, because there too they would like to halt the march of Iraq’s Shiite majority government with its ties to Iran.
In the United States, where Iran has become the bogeyman for everything that’s wrong in the Middle East, it’s a common but sloppy read of history to say if it’s bad for Iran it must be good for the United States. Before the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iran was arguably among our best allies in the Muslim world, with a Persian culture more inclined to Western ways. Should a “Persian Spring” ever happen, it’s more likely to end favorably to Western interests than any Arab Springs have so far.
The Sauds’ long-ruling monarchy is autocratic and absolute. The government bans all forms of public religious expression besides Wahhabi Islam and outlaws all non-Muslim places of worship. It distributes in schools—and exports to its Saudi-supported schools in America—textbooks that teach intolerance of other religions and incite violence. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has since 2000 named Saudi Arabia a “country of particular concern,” which should make it open to economic sanctions and other U.S. punishment, except for an indefinite waiver in place since 2006.
Siding so closely with the Saudis plays into the hands of those who say the U.S. view of the Middle East is myopic. It also makes the United States complicit in the way Saudi Arabia deals with Christians, other minorities, and non-Wahhabi Muslims. In other words, it’s undemocratic.