The photo is an iconic one: The president of the United States and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia holding hands as they stroll together at the president’s ranch in Texas. Conveying an impression of warmth and affection, the image affirms the intimate nature of the bonds between two countries. So, at least, it was intended to do.
Yet today the moment has arrived for Washington to reassess those bonds, which have long since ceased to serve US interests. Rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran provide an opportunity, and indeed further incentive, to do just that.
From its very inception during World War II, the US-Saudi relationship has been a Faustian bargain. In return for preferred access to Saudi oil, Washington promised to guarantee the security of the royal family. Let’s not kid ourselves: Reciprocity, not friendship, formed the basis of the agreement.
Implementing the arrangement required Washington to turn a blind eye toward Saudi practices radically at odds with professed American values. The United States purports to stand for democracy, freedom, and equality before the law. To put it mildly, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands for none of these things. Indeed, in matters related to religion, far from promoting freedom, Saudi authorities have pursued the opposite course. By exporting its brand of intolerant Islam throughout much of the Greater Middle East, Saudi Arabia has contributed mightily to the spread of violent anti-Western jihadism.
In statecraft, what enables diplomats to lie with a straight face is the conviction that dissimulation serves larger substantive purposes. Pragmatic imperatives require the subordination of moral ones. With regard to Saudi Arabia, ensuring that Americans would not want for the oil deemed essential to their way of life seemingly mandated a posture of hypocrisy.
Now, however, pragmatic considerations are pointing in a different direction. The American way of life no longer depends on being able to tap into the great Saudi gas station in the desert. Energy reserves here in the Western Hemisphere have turned out to be far more bountiful than expected. New technologies point to a future in which reliance on carbon-based fuels will almost surely diminish. The transition to a post-carbon economy is gaining momentum. So although the Persian Gulf might once have qualified as vital to US national security, today that is no longer the case.
Meanwhile, distortions in US military policy, induced by the belief that foreign oil is worth fighting for, have cost the United States plenty while producing little of value. Successive administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, have dispatched US troops to invade, occupy, bomb, and raid any number of countries in the Islamic world. The sad fact is that such exertions have mostly served to sow disorder while exacerbating anti-Americanism.
Today, the primary US interest in the Middle East is to restore some semblance of stability, thereby repairing the damage caused in considerable part by our own ill-advised military actions of the last several decades. Washington can no longer afford to indulge in fantasies of imposing its will on the region. Instead, it should devote itself to facilitating the emergence of a new equilibrium of power. That means helping the region’s major players see that despite the sectarian, cultural, and historical cleavages dividing them, all share a transcendent interest in stemming the rising tide of anarchy that poses an immediate threat.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union found sufficient common ground to avert nuclear Armageddon. So too today preventing the Middle East from imploding will require limited collaboration, or at least forbearance, on the part of antagonists like Saudi Arabia and Iran. If Washington has a role to play, it’s to facilitate that process.
As a first step toward playing that role, the United States should assume a posture equidistant from all the parties involved. That means recalibrating US relations with Saudi Arabia, much as the Obama administration has already initiated the process of recalibrating US relations with Iran. Indeed, the prospect of successfully completing the latter depends in part on also undertaking the former.
The intensifying Saudi-Iranian dispute is not our fight. As such, it provides an occasion for revoking expectations that defending Saudi Arabia is somehow an American responsibility. This by no means implies that Washington should tilt in Iran’s favor. Instead, it should pursue correct relations with all while offering special preferences to none.
The United States has no “friends” in the Middle East and need not have enemies. It merely has interests. Satisfying those interests requires nudging local powers to manage their own affairs in a responsible manner. As for hypocrisy, it has ceased to serve any purpose.
Andrew Bacevich’s new book “America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History’’ will be published in April.