terça-feira, 19 de abril de 2016
Obama and the Saudis have nothing to talk about
Obama and the Saudis have nothing to talk about
Obama’s making a futile trip. The United States and Saudi Arabia no longer see anything the same way.
By RAY TAKEYH 4/20/16, 5:44 AM CET
Barack Obama traveled to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in what could be his last — and likely most futile — visit as president. It’s not just that there’s bad blood over Congress’ effort to make Riyadh liable for lawsuits from the families of 9/11 victims. These days, when the United States and Saudi Arabia look at the region, they see two completely different landscapes and conflicting sets of interests. Riyadh sees a series of conflicts that the United States must resolve and a series of failing states that it must rehabilitate. The Saudis would like a commitment from Obama to defang Iran, change the balance of power in the Syrian civil war to the detriment of Bashar Assad and resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Washington’s gaze is much more narrow and its ambitions more circumscribed. The United States remains committed to its war on terrorism in the region with its reliance on drones. It is seeking to degrade the Islamic State and prevent it from taking over strategic cities of Iraq. And it is hoping that somehow diplomatic meetings in Vienna can come to an agreement easing the Syrian civil war.
Beyond that, Obama comes armed with no real new U.S. Middle East policy, apart from the latest developments in the Iran nuclear deal — which is not anything the Tehran-phobic Saudis want to talk about. Obama, who recently expressed his pique over U.S. allies he called “free riders,” plainly is not eager to get any more embroiled in the region than he already is; he has expressed a vague desire that Iran and Saudi Arabia should “share the neighborhood” without saying how he hopes that will be accomplished. And after much investment, the administration seems disinclined to resume its peacemaking efforts between Israel and the Palestinian entity. America has no desire for nation-building even among nations it helped to destroy such as Iraq and Libya.
As far as containing Iran, while America may not go as far as resuming ties with Iran as the Gulf regimes fear, it is not beyond reaching tactical accommodations with Tehran in places such as Iraq and on issues such as dealing with the Islamic State. For the Obama administration, its nuclear agreement with Iran is truly a landmark achievement, testifying to benefits of reaching out to an ideologically implacable adversary. It is perhaps the first time that America does not seem to object to the Islamic Republic’s aggrandizement in the strategically vital Persian Gulf.
It is tempting to ascribe these impulses to President Obama and King Salman individually. Obama’s penchant toward diplomacy over force; his skepticism of traditional allies and desire to mend fences with historic adversaries and his disdain for the Middle East and dreams of pivoting to Asia have stoked fears in the Arab world. The Saudis see in the latest congressional effort to grant the families of 9/11 victims the opportunity to sue the kingdom as another indication that Washington no longer values the alliance (despite a veto threat from the White House). By threatening to withdraw their assets from the United States in retaliation they are sending their own message that they will be prone to act in a manner that shows as little disregard for the alliance as that they feel America is demonstrating.
How did the U.S.-Saudi relationship go so badly astray? It wasn’t that great to begin with. There has always been something incongruous about an alliance between a liberal democracy and a traditional monarchy relying on austere Islam and petrodollars to sustain itself. During the Cold War, the two sides’ antipathy toward the Soviet Union concealed all these differences. In the post-Cold War period, the Saudis’ massive oil reserves and the need to deal with Saddam Hussein deflected attention from the core contradictions that long bedeviled this relationship. The September 11th tragedy, and the revelation that 15 out of the 19 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, jolted the relationship once again, but that too was soon forgotten with America’s renewed focus on Iraq, as the long insurgency and reconstitution of post-Saddam Iraq drained the United States.
Today, the Obama administration does not see an adversary whose containment requires Saudi support. Iran once would have filled that role, but Washington is preoccupied with sustaining its arms control agreement with Tehran. The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once caused the United States to seek out Arab stakeholders, but such lofty ambitions no longer obsess Washington as they once did. And as the global energy markets change, the United States grows more energy independent, and Saudi oil becomes a less relevant staple crop, the lure of petroleum is increasingly not enough to sustain an alliance always built on a shaky foundation. Moreover, suspicions that the Saudis have been two-faced in the fight against terrorism — especially over the kingdom’s alleged support of Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist terrorists — are once again in the forefront.
Nor should the Saudis take any comfort from the idea that changing the occupant of the White House early next year will change this serious misalignment of interests, or substantially alter America’s policies. Obama is not a singular figure within the Democratic Party but reflects its mood of disenchantment with the Middle East. And even in such a turbulent year, the Republican Party electorate has demonstrated its own war weariness, compelling its front-runners to denounce expansive visions for transforming the political culture of the Middle East and implanting democratic regimes in the heart of the Arab world. The Republican Party today is a party of hawkish non-interventionists, as its candidates commit themselves to destroying the Islamic State without treating the underlying causes that nurture radical ideologies.
As the Middle East undergoes another vulnerable and violent transition, it will do so largely without America. It remains to be seen whether the 21st century will be an American century anywhere else in the world, but it’s not going to be one in the Middle East. U.S. politicians on both sides are tired of expending precious resources to stabilize a region coming undone.
On the surface, Obama’s summit with the Gulf rulers will generate its share of declarations of friendship. An arms sales package is likely to follow, as some of the most militarized and militarily incompetent states in the world will want to add to their arsenal. Yet no talk of historical alliances and arms sales can bridge the clash of perspectives between the two sides.
Ray Takeyh is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the co-author of The Pragmatic Superpower: Winning the Cold War in the Middle East.