Much of the West is focused on the latest sectarian provocations by Saudi Arabia, such as the execution of Shiite leader Sheik Nimr Baqr al-Nimr followed by the formal breaking of diplomatic relations with Iran in uber-retaliation for the attack on the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran. U.S. neoconservatives, however, are standing in support of that wellspring of expansionist Wahhabism.
It’s remarkable that just 14 years ago, neocons like Richard Perle were calling for the Bush administration to include Riyadh among the capitals on Washington’s post-9/11 target list. Now the Saud family has again become their dearest friend. No less remarkable is how those fearless defenders of Western values and democratic governance are rallying in defense of an absolute monarchy and the undisputed and deep-pocketed leader of the counter-revolution against the reformist movements of the “Arab Spring.”
That great champion of human rights and democracy, Elliott Abrams, and the hard-line neocon’s most influential print medium, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, were quickest off the mark in attacking Iran and defending the poor, abandoned Saudis, respectively. Bill Kristol’s Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), meanwhile, made it clear which side should be favored in a release posted on its website early Tuesday afternoon. Its list of “resources” made clear that, no matter the provocation, Iran should always be considered “Public Enemy #1.” The administration’s attempt to appear more-or-less even-handed in the escalating crisis—or even a little critical of Riyadh—was yet another deplorable example of Obama’s weakness and appeasement. The clearest critique came from Abrams’s fellow senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Max Boot, in a Commentary Contentions post with the title “An American Ally of Necessity.”
In the lawless jungle that is the international system, nations seldom have the luxury of choosing good over evil. Usually, it is a matter of choosing a lesser evil over a greater evil. So it was in World War II, when we allied with Stalin to stop Hitler, and so it is today in the case of Saudi Arabia versus Iran. The two countries are in a contest for power and influence across the Middle East. Both are human-rights violators, but we should make no mistake that Iran is far worse from the American perspective: not only morally but also strategically.
The American policy should be clear: We should stand with the Saudis – and the Egyptians, and the Jordanians, and the Emiratis, and the Turks, and the Israels [sic], and all of our other allies – to stop the new Persian Empire. But the Obama administration, morally and strategically confused, is instead coddling Iran in the vain hope that it will somehow turn Tehran from enemy into friend.
At least, Boot doesn’t sugar-coat Riyadh. It’s merely Stalin to Iran’s Hitler.
Krauthammer to the Rescue
Just last week the U.S. responded to the firing of the missiles, illegal firing of the nuclear-capable missiles by Iran by threatening trivial sanctions and then actually canceling, or postponing the sanctions, when the Iran protested and said they would increase their production of missiles. In other words, the U.S. would not even respond to an open provocation on the missile issue, and what they read is complete abandonment. They are now on their own, and then they’re not going to have to face the Iranians and their allies on their own. And if that means they have to execute a Shiite who is an insurrectionist in their country, he’s got to be executed.
Krauthammer expresses deep sympathy for the Saudis, suggesting that their nearly 10-month-old U.S.-backed military intervention in Yemen, by far the Arab world’s poorest country, should be seen as a strictly defensive measure against Iranian aggression: “In Yemen, which is, remember, right on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia—it’s not removed the way Syria is—and they see serious encirclement.” (Krauthammer conveniently omits to mention either the notable gains made by both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) as a result of the highly destructive Saudi-led military campaign and naval blockade.)
Other neocon writers have argued that Nimr himself was essentially an Iranian agent and his execution justified. Here’s David Pryce-Jones on The National Review website:
A man seemingly in his late fifties, Sheikh al-Nimr was the unacknowledged leader of the Shiites in the country. This meant that he had the support of Iran, where Shiites are the majority. Since the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Shiites have been pursuing imperial ambitions against the United States and Israel, but above all against Sunnis. To the Saudi regime in contrast, Sheikh al-Nimr was nothing less than a heretic and a traitor.
…He uses his sermonizing for exclusive political purposes, raising his voice to rant about the Saudi king and the royal family, calling for their overthrow and delighting that the previous king is in the grave. This style is practized rather widely. …But what consequences could Sheikh al-Nimr have expected? He was inviting martyrdom quite as certainly as if he were a suicide bomber.
According to the inimitable Lee Smith, writing in Kristol’s Weekly Standard, the Obama administration, by expressing concern about Nimr’s execution, had effectively sided with Tehran. Worse, it had also legitimized Iran’s alleged pretensions to represent Shias around the world and thus delivered a serious blow to the entire nation-state system.
[W]hy does [the administration] perceive the action of a sovereign state regarding one of its own citizens to be so “provocative” that it was likely to compel another sovereign state to take violent action? It is because the White House understands that Tehran regarded and still regards Nimr as an Iranian asset. With Nimr alive and free, the Iranians saw him as a potential agent of Saudi destabilization. With Nimr imprisoned and now dead, Iran gets to claim him as one of its own and wave the Shiite banner. In acknowledging Nimr as an Iranian protégé, the White House is backing Tehran’s campaign as final interlocutor on all matters Shiite, regardless of state sovereignty.
Smith also notes that Riyadh may be a problematic ally at times, but nonetheless insists that an attack on Saudi’s diplomatic offices should be seen as an attack on “us.”
There is no doubt that Riyadh is, to say the least, a very difficult ally in many ways. However, it is part of the American order of the Middle East and has been so for 70 years. Iran sees it this way as well. Therefore, an attack on Saudi diplomatic facilities is an attack on our side, our order, us. They see other traditional U.S. regional partners—like Jordan, Turkey, and Israel—in the same way.
The sacking of Riyadh’s embassy in Tehran, rather than Nimr’s execution, was of great concern for Abrams, who served as assistant secretary of state for human rights in the Reagan administration and as deputy national security advisor for global democracy strategy (among other posts) under George W. Bush. He cited it as
another piece of evidence that Iran refuses to live by the rules of civilized diplomatic practice, and that its behavior has gotten worse not better since the signing of the nuclear deal–whose “outreach” was supposed to change Iran’s conduct. Next time someone suggests opening a U.S. embassy in Tehran as part of the improvement in our relations, remember today’s incident. The Islamic Republic still sees the invasion of embassies as an acceptable political tool.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board has gone on a veritable jihad against Iran and Obama’s policy and in defense of the Saudi kingdom. Its lead editorial Monday “Who Lost the Saudis?” suggested that both Iran and Russia may be trying to overthrow the House of Saud during the final year of Obama’s presidency. Among other assertions, the column noted that Nimr “led a Shiite uprising in 2011”—a rather tendentious word to apply to overwhelmingly peaceful street protests that took place in the country’s Eastern Province during the Arab Spring. The column continues:
Iran already has ample reason to want to topple the Saudis, who are its main antagonist in the Shiite vs. Sunni conflict that has swept the region amid America’s retreat. The two are fighting a proxy war in Yemen, after a Saudi-led coalition intervened to stop a takeover by Iran’s Houthi allies. The Saudis are also the leading supporter of the non-Islamic State Sunnis who are fighting Syria’s ally Bashar Assad. [Emphasis added to suggest that perhaps the non-Islamic State Sunnis may include Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.]
The Saudis are often difficult allies, especially the support by rich Wahhabi sheikhs for radical Islamist mosques and schools around the world. But in a Middle East wracked by civil wars, political upheaval and Iranian imperialism, the Saudis are the best friend we have in the Arabian peninsula. The U.S. should make clear to Iran and Russia that it will defend the Kingdom from Iranian attempts to destabilize or invade.
But the Journal was hardly finished. On Tuesday, it celebrated what it called “Sunni Arab solidarity”—a reference to what it initially called the decision by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to follow Saudi Arabia “in severing ties with Iran.” It later corrected that version, noting that UAE did not break diplomatic relations with Tehran. The editorial writers also apparently decided against mentioning Sudan among those who bravely cut ties to Tehran. After all the Bush administration—and Abrams—had called Sudan genocidal and Riyadh had coaxed the country into participating in its Yemen campaign.
The Journal then picked up the refrain that Obama’s “retreat” from the region has resulted not only in a loss in U.S. influence there, but also in the larger Sunni-Shia conflict:
The U.S. didn’t listen to Saudi Arabia about the Iran nuclear deal, which it believes signals a U.S. strategic tilt toward Iran and its Shiite allies in the Middle East. They see the Administration backing down on sanctions against Iran for testing ballistic missiles that can reach Riyadh long before they get to New York. They feel under threat from an Iran liberated from sanctions, and they don’t believe President Obama will defend them in a conflict. Why should they heed the U.S. now?
A Middle East dividing into Sunni and Shiite blocs is the predictable consequence of Mr. Obama’s strategy of retreat from the region. As elsewhere, U.S. allies in the Middle East will do what they feel they must to survive, never mind American disapproval.
Of course, what the editorial failed to note was the fact that the creation of so-called Sunni and Shiite blocs in the region preceded Obama’s alleged “strategy of retreat” and actually began (in its most recent incarnation) with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the empowerment of the Shia majority there, and the subsequent “de-Baathification” of the country. The neocons (including the Journal’s editorial board) not only supported this strategy but also conceived and actively promoted it (alongside their favorite Iraqi exile, the late Ahmad Chalabi). At the highest level, our Saudi friends (as well as the U.S. intelligence community) back then publicly warned the Bush administration about the possible regional consequences of an invasion. But Bush and the neocons, including the Journal’s editorial board, didn’t listen. How things have changed.