Ron Radosh

Obama at Riyadh: How the President Might have Avoided Embarassment

An important article by Laura Rozen on the website of Foreign Policy provides the background for what happened in Riyadh when President Barack Obama met Saudi King Abdullah last month.

Rozen’s sources tell her that President Obama thought he could convince Abdullah that if Israel made necessary concessions to the Palestinians, that the  Saudis would then “show reciprocal gestures to Israel.”  Obama believed that he would be successful, since he would be able to use his never failing “personal power of persuasion” to convince Abdullah to make such a move. Obama, evidently, was upset because as one official told Rozen,  “he got nothing out of it.” Moreover, evidently Abdullah gave Obama a lecture, “a tirade” about Israel, she was told. Apparently, the Obama team was not sufficiently prepared, something the Saudis saw immediately, and took advantage of.

Because of this experience, Obama shifted advisor Dennis Ross from the State Department to the White House. Ross, a diplomat with more experience than almost anyone else in recent Middle East negotiations, is co-author with David Makovsky of the new book, Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East. The kind of advice he could give, had he been on the White House team before the meeting, might well have prevented what Obama obviously saw as both a failure and an embarrassment. Had Obama known in advance that the Saudis would offer him nothing, Makovsky told Rozen, “the president would probably have not visited.”

All of this might have been avoided, however, had the Obama administration paused to consult  advisors from the outgoing Bush administration, who had experience in meeting with the Saudis and King Abdullah himself. The other day, I had a conversation with a high official in the Bush administration. “There was a standard joke that Bush and Cheney would ask anyone who came back from meeting with Abdullah,” he told me. “Which lecture did he give you, the one about the Shia or the one about the Israelis?”  It seems that whenever anyone met with the king, he would erupt in a tirade about his two favorite villains. The attempt to set up any meaningful terms always came to nothing.

“We were waiting for Obama’s people to ask us about our experience with Abdullah and the Saudi’s” he told me, “but the request never came.”  A combination of the Obama administration’s arrogance and their belief that nothing the Bush administration did about the Middle East was correct, resulted in an embarrassment for Obama that might well have been avoided.