Belmont Club

The Fool On The Hill

America, the country Madeleine Albright once called the “indispensable nation”,  is suddenly nakedly and humiliatingly dispensable.  Two of the most important Gulf rulers have decided not to attend the summit on Iran president Obama scheduled in Washington.  It’s a vital meeting on which the president has staked the future of his so-called historic initiatives.  But “the only two monarchs from the six countries confirmed to attend the summit at the White House and the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., were the emirs of Qatar and Kuwait.”

Saudi Arabia’s monarch pulled out of a summit to be hosted by President Barack Obama on Thursday, in a blow to the White House’s efforts to build Arab support for a nuclear accord with Iran.

King Salman’s decision appeared to ripple across the Persian Gulf. Bahrain said on Sunday that its ruler, King Hamad bin Isaa Al Khalifa, had opted not to travel to Washington….

At stake for the White House is Mr. Obama’s key foreign-policy initiative, an Iran pact that is proceeding toward a June 30 deadline without support from regional powers. King Salman’s decision signals that the Arab states aren’t on board and could continue to act on their own to thwart Tehran, as Saudi Arabia has done in leading a military coalition against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen.

It’s diplomatic cream pie in the face. The signals being sent from the region are scathing and dismissive. The New York Times quotes Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as saying “for the White House though, it sends an unmistakable signal when a close partner essentially says he has better things to do than go to Camp David with the president, just a few days after the White House announced he’d have a private meeting before everything got underway.”

The king is the latest top Arab official who will not be attending the summit meeting for delegations from members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The United Arab Emirates is also sending its crown prince to the meetings, the officials said. The Emirati president, Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, was never expected to attend because of health reasons, American and Arab officials said. Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman also will not be attending because of health reasons, officials said.

In case the president didn’t get the message the Wall Street Journal quotes a “senior Arab official” who says “there isn’t substance for the summit”, a diplomatic way of saying that Obama’s historic pow-wow is Mickey al-Mouse. Obama had planned to offer the Arabs a package of assurances, but evidently they do not even think it worth their while to listen.

The New York Times argues that what has changed isn’t Obama’s standing in the world but the nature of Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom, argues Ben Hubbard, can’t come because it is in the midst of “change”.  And change is good right?  Except in this case what’s changed is Saudi Arabia fighting for its life, a condition in which one is apt to do dangerous and foolish things.

in the few months since the death of King Abdullah in January, the new king, Salman, has moved fast to reshape foreign and domestic policies. He has rattled alliances with the United States and regional powers that for decades have been the bedrock of stability for his kingdom, and he has also shaken up the Saudi royal family.

King Salman, 79, has shifted toward an activist foreign policy, going to war in Yemen and increasing support for rebels in Syria as he positions his country as the defender of the region’s Sunnis. In some cases, he has sanctioned allying with Islamists to serve the kingdom’s agenda.

Domestically, he has made sweeping changes, promoting younger officials, firing those deemed unfit and giving enormous authority to his untested son Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 29. He has shown close ties to religious conservatives, raising questions about the fate of his predecessor’s limited reforms.

The problem with ascribing the Saudi absence to “change” is that it makes a virtue out of a necessity. Saudi Arabia’s increasingly independent course is the result of the Obama administration leaving everyone in the region confused as to its intentions. Helene Cooper of the NYT quoted Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace as saying, “there’s a growing perception at the White House that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are friends but not allies, while the U.S. and Iran are allies but not friends.”

In other words, nobody trusts Obama. Perhaps not even the Iranians, certainly not the Saudis, possibly not even the Israelis. The man who came to office promising that his life history would build bridges to Muslim world is now openly despised. Now some would argue that since Obama is despised by people who merit despicion themselves his unpopularity in Riyadh or Tehran is a badge of honor.

But that would be to misunderstand the problem. Trust is a quantity distinct from affection. Trust is a measure of credibility. And Obama it would seem, has no more credibility. The problem isn’t that nobody likes Obama any more.  It’s that nobody believes him or trusts him.  Like the man with with a reputation for writing bouncing checks; or the guy where everybody leaves the room when he starts speaking, he’s not taken seriously.

And that’s dangerous.

In late April, Graham Allison, perhaps the premier scholar of the Cuban Missile Crisis, argued that the US and Russia could stumble into war over the Ukraine if both sides were not extraordinarily careful about signalling. It is possible, he says, to set off “triggers” without being aware of it, or even meaning to. Speaking in the context of Russia, Allison wrote:

Once the U.S.-Russian relationship enters the zone of heated confrontation, senior military officers on both sides will inevitably play a greater role.  … This pushes them toward steps that are tactically prudent but that invite strategic misinterpretation.

In a climate of mutual suspicion further fueled by domestic politics on both sides, assurances of benign intentions rarely suffice. Christopher Clark’s 2013 book, The Sleepwalkers, provides a persuasive account of how, in the days preceding World War I, both alliances contemptuously dismissed the explanations and assurances they heard from the other side. …

When employed without a sound strategic vision and artful diplomacy, however, instruments of coercion can develop their own momentum and become ends in themselves. Having managed a confrontation over the Soviet Union’s attempt to install nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba that he believed had a one-in-three chance of ending in nuclear war, President John F. Kennedy spent many hours reflecting on the lessons from that experience. The most important of these he offered to his successors in these words: “Above all, while defending our vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating retreat or a nuclear war.” It is a lesson statesmen should apply to meet the challenge Russia poses in Ukraine today.

The principle also applies in MENA. Graham Allison’s point is that many conflicts arise from misadventure, a condition which becomes highly probable when the actors are discounted or misunderstood.  The reason why Obama’s clown status is so perilous is that a prince need not be loved for as long as he is credible.  And Obama is no longer credible.

Although some individuals may feel schadenfreude at watching Barack Obama reduced to a cipher, Allison’s article is a reminder of how extraordinarily dangerous it  is when nobody trusts the President of the United States and either discount or  parse his words.  Of course the president’s brought it on himself by uttering all kinds of  words  bereft of “strategic vision”.

Obama, by reducing himself to “sound and fury signifying nothing” has become like an electrical detonator throwing out sparks.  In a world full of triggers -Russia, the Middle East, Asia — that’s a terrible thing to be.

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