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America’s Motley Middle Eastern Crew

The tragic end of Jamal Khashoggi should serve as a reminder that it’s time for the United States to move on and leave the motley crew of undesirable Middle Eastern partners, from Israel to Saudi Arabia, to their collective fate. They deserve each other.

(Lobelog) The media has provided a daily barrage of coverage of the ever-changing story of how Jamal Khashoggi met his tragic and barbaric demise, with accompanying tales of just how awful those bad old Saudis really are. Yet, other than the grisly details of Khashoggi’s alleged dismemberment in the Saudi consulate, should any of this really be a surprise?

The United States has been in bed with a series of undesirable states throughout the Middle East for many decades, all of whom engage in various nefarious behaviors that are certainly contrary to American values and, perhaps more importantly, to American interests. Today the United States counts Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States as regional partners. Since all these countries are guilty of various egregious and undesirable behaviors, why are they still U.S. allies?

These relationships date back to the Cold War. It’s high time for the United States to take stock, realize that the strategic context has changed, and move on to more fruitful relationships elsewhere. Yet, regrettably, the United States remains mired in the muck and mud with these states—seemingly unable to move forward or backward and desperately hoping that doing more of the same with this motley crew will somehow produce better results.

Back in the Day…

The four principal members of this motley crew—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey—were centerpieces of America’s Cold-War-era strategy to keep the Soviets out, maintain access to Gulf oil, and ensure U.S. primacy as the arbiter of the regional balance of power. The smaller sheikhdoms of Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, and Oman have been junior partners but still crucial ones from the 1990s onward.

During the Cold War, the United States built regional security sector partnerships using the tried-and-true formula of base access, arms sales, training and education, joint exercises, prepositioned military equipment, and, when necessary, using force to preserve partnerships and primacy. Jimmy Carter placed these relationships in a strategic framework when he drew his line in the proverbial sand back in 1980, warning off any would-be challengers to U.S. regional hegemony. All subsequent U.S. presidents have mysteriously regarded this commitment as sacrosanct.

To be sure, each of these relationships differed slightly in its character and circumstance. The Camp David accords placed both Egypt and Israel on the U.S. dole. Washington provided billions of dollars in economic and military assistance over the decades to pay them for what was otherwise in their best interests to do: lay down their arms and stop fighting each other. Today, a security-sector corporation bought and paid for by U.S. taxpayers runs Egypt. Like the Saudis, the Egyptian state coerces all potential opponents through the force of arms applied by its ever-efficient mukhabarat. Egypt’s brief experiment with democracy and freedom of speech was just that – brief. Egypt is no longer the most important regional Arab state. When was the last time an American president called up his Egyptian counterpart and asked for something really important?

Israel’s case is a bit more complicated. U.S. cash and unlimited political support over the decades created a dangerous moral hazard that provided Israel with the cover it needed to continue its ceaseless expansion to realize its vision of greater Israel, all the while professing its interest in peaceful co-existence with those whose property it was busy expropriating. That moral hazard continues to this day, to America’s detriment. As presciently noted by then French president Charles DeGaulle after the 1967 war, absent a return of the lands seized by force, the conflict would go on indefinitely in a call-and-response cycle of terrorism and reprisal.

In only the latest sordid chapter of this ongoing war, from March-May 2018, Israel turned its guns on protesters at the Gaza-Israel border crossing, killing 110 Palestinians and wounding as many as 1,400 with indiscriminate gunfire. Israel today stands as the unrivaled military regional military power. In 2016, America’s latest $38 billion check for 10 years ensures that the moral hazard will continue as Israel goes on blasting away at its real and imagined enemies with few consequences to achieve an Apartheid-like greater Israel that deprives thousands of political rights. It’s hard to see what U.S. interests are served in supporting this localized, endless war.

The case of Saudi Arabia dates back to the deal struck by President Roosevelt and the Saudi king in 1945 at Great Bitter Lake. Both sides have honored the terms of the deal ever since. The United States would protect the kingdom and its oil fields; in exchange, Riyadh would ensure Washington’s primacy in the oil infrastructure (until nationalization of ARAMCO in 1980) and help on oil pricing when necessary.

An unstated part of the bargain was that the House of Saud, freed from the need to protect the country from surrounding enemies, would focus on controlling internal threats to its rule within the kingdom. U.S. arms sales logically flowed from the arrangement, from the 1980s onward after the Islamic Revolution in Tehran in 1979. The U.S.-Saudi partnership reached its Cold-War-era nadir in the jihad in Afghanistan in which Saudi (and Pakistani) support helped turn that war into the Soviet Union’s own Vietnam-style unwinnable quagmire, which helped bleed Reagan’s “evil empire” into submission.

To be sure, the House of Saud moved with vigor and focus in ensuring that no political opposition to its rule emerged in the kingdom, particularly following the 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni Islamic militants. Opponents were systematically, incarcerated or worse. Or they were co-opted with money and/or jobs. In January 2016, for example, in one particularly prominent case, Saudi Arabia beheaded prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr for organizing demonstrations in the kingdom against the regime. Jamal Khashoggi is, unfortunately, not exceptional in this regard.

In the case of Turkey, the Cold-War-era partnership with the United States is now but a distant memory. Like other members of the club, Saudi Arabia excepted, Turkey also received millions of dollars in military assistance. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has incarcerated thousands of people, turning his country away a reasonably open secular democracy into an authoritarian Islamist state bent on perpetuating his rule to the exclusion of all others. Where once Turkey had been a critical front-line Cold-War partner, it is now difficult to see the benefits this relationship offers to the United States.

And Now?

America’s Cold-War-era motley crew have one common characteristic: they use coercive instruments to deprive people of their legitimate political rights. With the exception of Israel, these countries permit no freedom of expression or association, and the governments appear bent on preserving their rule at all costs for the indefinite future. Why does the United States need to be associated with them?

Perhaps most importantly, the strategic context for the United States in the region has shifted since the Cold War, even as its partners have remained mired in the same politics of the era. The Middle East has lost its strategic significance for the United States, and the landscape is littered with America’s many failed attempts to save the region from itself.

It’s time to consign Carter’s pledge to place the region at the center of America’s global strategy to the dustbin of history. The United States doesn’t need Gulf oil and doesn’t need to defend its Cold-War-era friends from hostile outside powers. The United States should push back from the table and allow the regional states to settle their own disputes and problems. It’s likely to be a long, violent, and awful specter to watch unfold until the political and religious arguments are settled.

The Obama Administration had it right when it suggested a pivot to Asia, a region full of more desirable partners that appear to genuinely want America’s friendship and have something to offer in return. The tragic end of Jamal Khashoggi should serve as a reminder that it’s time for the United States to move on and leave the motley crew to their collective fate. They deserve each other.


James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.

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