Whoever goes to the White House in November will have one foreign policy challenge above all others: How to navigate transitions between two of America’s Middle East alliances that daily events are rendering inevitable.
On one side of this question is Iran, on the other, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. In both cases, a shift in relations set in motion during the Obama years will prove impossible to reverse.
Even though China and Russia will present challenges to the next administration, the task in the Middle East is more complex than either is. And maybe more consequential.
Just how the next president manages a diplomatic and political evolution the Obama administration began but couldn’t have handled more clumsily will determine how much we pay for gasoline and how much of our taxes go to the Pentagon (which is too much already).
After years of sanctions brought Iran very near to an economic crisis, it has cooperated fully in eliminating its nuclear capabilities according to the agreement reached last July. American opinion is divided as to the wisdom of this deal, but it serves American interests even more than it serves Iran’s and reflects a recognition that we’ve entered a transformative moment in the region.
Since signing the accord, Iran has emerged as a decisive force against the Islamic State on the Iraqi side of the Syria–Iraq border. It is now leading a force poised to retake Fallujah, the city that cost many American lives a decade ago only to fall into the Islamic State’s hands.
The Iranians have divided motivations, it’s important to note. They want to stabilize the region, but as Shiites, they’re also engaged in a sectarian war against Sunni nationalism.
The next administration will have to balance these dual interests with the reality that the Iranians stand with Americans in their commitment to defeating ISIS. That won’t be easy, but it won’t be avoidable, either.
As to the Saudis and the Emiratis, Washington’s longstanding allies in the region aren’t looking so loyal anymore. What once was no longer is.
Through a dense, unofficial network that funds radical imams, Islamic charities, mosques, and various opaque associations, the region’s Sunni states have been advancing their Wahhabist interpretation of Islam —severely fundamentalist, radical in its manifestations—for years. The Islamic State is the ideological heir of this tradition, though ISIS is now turning on Saudi Arabia for corrupting the original teachings.
We’ve known this, especially since the Islamic State’s rise in Syria two years ago. Now we have a concrete case of the consequences in Carlotta Gall’s report from Kosovo carried last week in the International New York Times.
More than 300 Kosovars have joined the Islamic State over the past four years, Gall found—more per capita than any other nation. “The issue is they [the Saudis and the Emiratis] supported thinkers who promote violence and jihad in the name of protecting Islam,” the head of Kosovo’s counterterrorism police, Fatos Makolli, explained to Gall, who previously reported from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Chechnya.
Riyadh has also proven an obstruction to progress in talks dedicated to a political solution in Syria via the group it sponsors to negotiate in Geneva. And while Washington wants “regional allies” to field forces against the Islamic State, it’s hard to see how the Saudis can be trusted to do so with other than devious motives.
King Salman and his deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, have launched the nation on notably assertive foreign and regional policies since Salman assumed the throne last year. In a remarkable piece in the Financial Times last month, columnist David Gardner outlined the “functional and substantive” relations Riyadh is forging with Russia.
“Saudi Arabia’s warming ties with Russia surely speak of the waning regional influence of the U.S.,” Gardner asserted. It’s common to suggest, as Gardner does, that declining clout in the Middle East is Obama’s principal legacy. But it’s also simplistic.
Obama was right to pursue the Iran accord, to see that Saudi Arabia was taking a direction of its own, and to sense that relations throughout the region were newly fluid. America’s influence amid all this remains second to nobody’s.
The Obama administration’s failure lies in how sloppily it has handled this admittedly difficult passage. In effect, it set a ball in motion with the Iran negotiations but has little capacity to control its course.
It is subtly scuttling its own deal with Tehran, as experts in the region allege. It acquiesced recently when the Supreme Court appropriated frozen Iranian assets without due process and now fights to block due process again in the case of alleged Saudi involvement in the September 11th events.
Obama leaves his successor with two key tasks he or she will have to address well within those magical “first 100 days.”
One, the next president must recognize that a thorough transition in our Middle East relations is no longer reversible. Anyone in Washington who advocates a return to the status quo in the region must explain: Return to what? There’s no retrieving decades-old ties now thoroughly overtaken by events.
Two, he or she will then have to sort out just who America’s allies and adversaries are in the Middle East. It won’t be any clearer on November 8 than it is now.
Looking forward, not back, will make an excellent start. The task for the four or eight years to follow will be to make coherent sense of alliances in a region that doesn’t look like it once did—and never again will.