The Light at the End of the Tunnel

An administration which based its foreign policy strategy on simultaneouly befriending rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran finds that instead of dampening the competition the effect has been to heighten their conflict to a critical point. The Kingdom has severed diplomatic relations with Tehran. "Iranian diplomats in Saudi Arabia have 48 hours to leave the country, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters."  The Islamic civil war which the administration has been at pains to prevent may have received its final push off the cliff.

Saudi Arabia's execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who had a large following in the Kingdom's oil rich Eastern provinces, was answered by the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, an action almost certainly abetted by the Iranian authorities. Sheikh Nimr "was known for making anti-government speeches and had called for two governorates in Eastern Province, Qatif and Al-Ihsaa, to be separated from the kingdom and united with Bahrain". It was program the Saudis found too dangerous to ignore in the current international context. As David Goldman (AKA Spengler) put it Saudi Arabia believes it is fighting for its life:

the broader context for its concern is clear: Saudi Arabia finds itself isolated, abandoned by its longstanding American ally, at odds with China, and pressured by Russia’s sudden preeminence in the region. The Saudi-backed Army of Conquest in Syria seems to be crumbling under Russian attack. The Saudi intervention in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels has gone poorly. And its Turkish ally-of-convenience is consumed by a low-level civil war. Nothing has gone right for Riyadh.

"Nothing has gone right for Riyadh."  To be fair, nothing has gone right for anybody at all -- except ISIS -- ever since the power vacuum created by Obama's "leadership from behind" imploded Syria and Iraq. The president's even failed to stop the American fracking revolution which threatens to bankrupt a region dependent on petroleum revenues. From that vantage, the Saudi execution of Nimr was an act of paranoid desperation at a time when there was a lot to be desperate about.  Goldman continues:

Worst of all, the collapse of Saudi oil revenues threatens to exhaust the kingdom’s $700 billion in financial reserves within five years, according to an October estimate by the International Monetary Fund (as I discussed here). The House of Saud relies on subsidies to buy the loyalty of the vast majority of its subjects, and its reduced spending power is the biggest threat to its rule. Last week Riyadh cut subsidies for water, electricity and gasoline. The timing of the executions may be more than coincidence: the royal family’s capacity to buy popular support is eroding just as its regional security policy has fallen apart.

Washington's strategic vagueness increased tensions rather reassured the regional allies. Saudi Arabia doubted whose side Obama was on. Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post reported that "Saudi Arabia made clear that its concerns about U.S. dismay over the weekend’s events were minor compared to their belief that the West was kowtowing to Shiite Iran on a range of issues."

“Enough is enough,” said a person authorized to convey Saudi thinking on the condition of anonymity. “Tehran has thumbed its nose at the West again and again, continuing to sponsor terrorism and launch ballistic missiles and no one is doing anything about it.”

“Every time the Iranians do something, the United States backs off. The Saudis are actually doing something,” the person said.

“We are determined not to allow Iran to undermine our security,” Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said at a news conference in Riyadh on Sunday. “We are determined not to let Iran mobilize or create or establish terrorist cells in our country or in the countries of our allies. We will push back against Iran’s attempts to do so. ”

Max Boot writing in Commentary, notes that officially at least, the Saudis were America's allies. The formal obligations were obvious. "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 Israelis, 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."

One could argue however, that America has for a long time had the wrong set of allies which Washington never bothered to change leading to the same itches, suspicious growths and discomfort which attends a failure to renew one's underwear.  The result were "friendships" in name rather than in fact.  It was this haphazard caravan of ill-assorted allies which ground to a halt just short of the Geneva II Conference on Syria  with its sponsors, America, Russia, Turkey, the Saudis and the Iranians are at daggers drawn and brawling round the campfire, all thoughts of further progress temporarily abandoned.

“At some point, the U.S. may be forced to take sides,” said a person close to the Saudi government, according to Jay Solomon of the Wall Street Journal. "This could potentially threaten the nuclear deal.” This states the obvious and precisely captures the dilemma which Barack Obama has trapped himself inside.  Without his "nuclear deal" the administration's legacy will be nothing but dust ashes.  Now with his nuclear deal it will be exactly the same.

The Saudi-Iranian blowup  has thrown the president's Syria/Iraq strategy, already in disarray, into an absolute shambles.  There is nothing left of it. Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post writes that "Obama administration officials expressed deep concern Sunday that the abrupt escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran could have repercussions extending to the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s civil war, and wider efforts to bring stability to the Middle East."

The demolition has been so through it is worth reading Liz Sly who, writing in the Washington Post shortly before the New Year wondered aloud whether Western foreign policy had not accidentally liquidated the boundaries of the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement which defined the 20th century Middle East.

Less than a century after they were drawn, the durability of those borders — and the nations they formed — is being tested as never before. The war in Syria is spilling into Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Israel, sucking in places that for centuries belonged to a single entity and people whose history, faith and livelihoods transcend the nations in which they were born. ...

“From Iran to Lebanon, there are no borders anymore,” said Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s minority Druze community. “Officially, they are still there, but will they be a few years from now? If there is more dislocation, the whole of the Middle East will crumble.”

"There are no borders anymore." It would be the ultimate historical irony if the president who vowed to uphold "a rules-based international order" should accidentally preside over the liquidation of that very same order. But people have shot themselves in the foot before.  It is not the first, nor will it be the last time that the law of unintended consequences has triumphed over the "smart foreign policy" of bureaucrats. So far the year 2016 has started out like Gangbusters -- though not in a good way -- and the president has one solid year to go.

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