Helene Cooper and Robert Worth describe the tension in Obama administration’s Middle East policy:
“We realized that the possibility of anything happening in Saudi Arabia was one that couldn’t become a reality,” said William M. Daley, President Obama’s chief of staff at the time. “For the global economy, this couldn’t happen. Yes, it was treated differently from Egypt. It was a different situation.”
Some analysts credit Mr. Obama for recognizing early on that strategic priorities trumped whatever sympathy he had for the protesters. Others say the administration could have more effectively mediated between the Bahraini government and the largely Shiite protesters, and thereby avoided what has become a sectarian standoff in one of the world’s most volatile places.
If Mr. Obama had cultivated closer ties to the Saudis, he might have bought time for negotiations between the Bahraini authorities and the chief Shiite opposition party, Al Wefaq, according to one American diplomat who was there at the time. Instead, the Saudis gave virtually no warning when their forces rolled across the causeway linking Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the ensuing crackdown destroyed all hopes for a peaceful resolution.
On the one hand, President Obama said that Egypt’s Mubarak must step down and respect the will of the people, but said nothing about Shiite protestors in Bahrain who were put down by the Saudis and the Bahrain government. Support for protestors in Egypt and public indifference toward protestors in Bahrain is, based on principles, wholly hypocritical.
It, of course, reflects a geopolitical difficulty for the U.S.: a Sunni, friendly to the U.S. Saudi Arabia ensures that oil shipments will continue to flow through the Persian Gulf, and therefore the world economy stability. But if the Saudis are overthrown by Shiites, or there is instability caused by a conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis, Iran would receive the strategic upper hand, threatening oil shipments. That isn’t a particularly pretty scenario for the U.S. or, indeed, the world. It’s easy to understand the U.S.’s incoherent and hypocritical Middle East policy, as distasteful as it is.
But that also doesn’t mean the protests had to end with tanks, tear gas and bullets. The Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, know that the president’s rhetorical support for protestors in Egypt’s Tahrir Square could just as quickly turn against them, too; after all, Mubarak enjoyed three decades of staunch U.S. support before it dissolved in a matter of days. Cooper and Worth’s reporting inveighs that Obama has, perplexingly, refused to build relationships with allies across the region. Not only did the Gulf states feel threatened by protests in their nations, and by the equally-applicable nature of U.S. support for Egyptian and Tunisian protests, but also because they had no basis to trust Obama. How could they trust him when he’s made very little effort to form trust between them?
There’s no way of knowing if it would have been different otherwise, but from that perspective, the Saudi’s move to crush the protest before it spiraled out of control makes sense. If it did, like it did in Egypt, it seemed likely that the U.S. would snap their support away, and the regimes would crumble. Crushing the protests became an inevitability. That may, of course, still have been the result in the counter-factual, but if they had formed a relationship of trust, it is also possible that Obama could have called them early on to reiterate the U.S.’s firm support for Saudi Arabia, and to try to create grounds for dialogue between protestors and the Bahrain government and Saudis. That dialogue almost assuredly would do little to address Shiite grievances, but at least it could have avoided a violent end to the protest.
His refusal to build relationships with Middle East nations also undermines the U.S.’s ability to push them toward democratic reforms. While we may not be able to ditch the Saudis, that doesn’t mean we can’t use our relationship to push them. When there isn’t a strong relationship, that simply isn’t possible. In this way, Obama’s Middle East policy creates the conditions for further instability while reducing our ability to push authoritarian regimes toward better outcomes.