The little superpower that could

Regular readers may know that I’m somewhat bearish about the long-term prospects for America continuing to be the boss of everybody, or whatever it is we think we are. But I’m not nearly as pessimistic as the fine neo-conservative (they’d probably object to that characterization, but when your board includes Henry Kissinger, Marty Peretz, Richard Perle, and Mort Zuckerman, that shoe is fitting pretty well) folks at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy apparently are. To wit, WINEP published a piece a couple of days ago by Simon Henderson purporting to describe the seven ways that “the House of Saud could make things very unpleasant for Washington.”

Saudi Arabia has a litany of complaints about U.S. policy in the Middle East. It faults Washington for pursuing a rapprochement with Iran, for not pushing Israel harder in peace talks with the Palestinians, and for not more forcefully backing efforts to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Saudi royals are also angry that the United States did not stand behind Saudi support for Bahrain when it crushed an anti-government uprising in 2011, and that Washington has criticized the new Egyptian government, another Saudi ally, for its crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters.

Saudi royals have evidently decided that public comments and policy shifts are the only way to convince Washington to alter what they see as its errant path. Bandar’s declaration came a few days after the kingdom abruptly decided to reject its election to the UN Security Council, claiming it could not tolerate that body’s “double standards.” As Bandar helpfully pointed out, the incident was “a message for the U.S., not the UN.”

But despite the multitude of crises — from the 9/11 hijackers to Saudi pay-offs to Osama bin Laden — past difficulties have been quietly repaired. The operative word here is “quietly” — usually, the general public has not even known of the crisis. The difference now is that, through Saudi Arabia’s move at the United Nations and Bandar’s briefing, the kingdom is all but trumpeting its displeasure.

Assuming that the Saudi-U.S. relationship is really heading off course, what could go wrong this time? Here are seven nightmare scenarios that should keep officials in the State Department and Pentagon up at night.

Wow, “nightmare scenarios.” Sounds pretty bad. What are they?

1. Saudi Arabia uses the oil weapon. The kingdom could cut back its production, which has been boosted to over 10 million barrels/day at Washington’s request, to make up for the fall in Iranian exports caused by sanctions. Riyadh enjoys the revenues generated by higher production, but price hikes caused by tightening supply could more than compensate the kingdom. Meanwhile, a drop in supply will cause the price at the gas pump to spike in the United States — endangering the economic recovery and having an almost immediate impact on domestic public opinion.

Certainly the Saudis could monkey around with oil prices and make life harder for Americans and American politicians, but “nightmare scenario”? For one thing, there’s a lot of reason to think that the Saudis can’t manipulate the oil markets like they once could. For another, this little tantrum they’re throwing is in the context of a potential thaw in Iran’s relationship with the rest of the world, which could put a whole lot more Iranian oil on the market in a hurry if it continues (not for nothing, but the Saudi monarchy is now incontrovertibly pulling the anti-negotiations rope in the same direction as both Israel and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which maybe ought to give them pause but probably won’t). For yet another thing, if they really do cut supply and spike oil prices they’ll be taking money out of their own pockets just to spite America; the higher oil prices get, the more attractive the options, both good (renewables) and bad (other oil deposits like tar sands) start to look.

2. Saudi Arabia reaches out to Pakistan for nuclear-tipped missiles.

OK, I’m going to stop you right here. The upshot is that Riyadh, which most likely helped finance Pakistan’s nuclear program to begin with, may either pay Islamabad to station some of its nukes on Saudi soil or pursue its own nuclear weapons program, presumably with Pakistani assistance. Here’s the problem: the Saudis are supposedly reacting to American squishiness over an Iranian nuclear weapons program that may not even exist (they have a nuclear program for sure, but it’s not at all clear that they’re working on a weapon). They’ve promised in the past that if Iran develops a nuclear weapon, the Saudis will as well. If they go ahead and buy or build their own nukes as a slap at the West and/or preemptive action against Iran, they’ll lose any case they have to make to the international community about blocking Iran’s weapons development, and Iran will build its own nukes, there won’t be any more ambiguity about that. This would be incredibly dumb.

3. Riyadh helps kick the United States out of Bahrain. When Bahrain was rocked by protests in 2011, Saudi Arabia led an intervention by Gulf states to reinforce the royal family’s grip on the throne. The Saudis have the leverage, therefore, to encourage Bahrain to force the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet to leave its headquarters in Manama, from which the United States projects power across the Persian Gulf.

This would be a blow to the US military, but, again, a “nightmare scenario”? We’d likely approach the Qataris or the Emiratis about housing the Fifth Fleet in either of their nations, and I would bet that either or both would be happy to comply; it wouldn’t be quite as swanky a setup as we currently have in Bahrain, but it would likely be good enough. If neither country is interested, though, there’s always the option of telling all the Gulf kingdoms, the Saudis included, that, gosh, America just isn’t going to be able to be their de facto navy and air force anymore. That would be something approaching a nightmare scenario, but not really for America.

Want another argument that suggests losing Bahrain wouldn’t be a disaster for American interests? Henderson helpfully provides one:

And it’s not without some precedent. Riyadh forced the United States out of its own Prince Sultan air base 10 years ago.

Goodness knows that act crippled our ability to project military power into the Middle East.

4. The kingdom supplies new and dangerous weaponry to the Syrian rebels. The Saudis are already expanding their intervention against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, funneling money and arms to hardline Salafist groups across Syria. But they have so far heeded U.S. warnings not to supply the rebels with certain weapons — most notably portable surface-to-air missile systems, which could not only bring down Assad’s warplanes but also civilian airliners.

Saudi Arabia could potentially end its ban on sending rebel groups these weapons systems — and obscure the origins of the missiles, to avoid direct blame for any of the havoc they cause.

Yeah, sure they could. The Saudis could drop loads of surface-to-air missiles, and worse, on a chaotic and constantly shifting rebel coalition and, I guess, hope to hell that they don’t fall into the hands of, say, Jabhat al-Nusrah or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, both of whom call themselves Al-Qaeda affiliates, Al-Qaeda being a terrorist network that has in the past explicitly targeted the Saudi royal family. This sounds like a brilliant plan and one the Saudis are sure to undertake because they’re real mad at America.

5. The Saudis support a new intifada in the Palestinian territories. Riyadh has long been vocal about its frustrations with the lack of progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal…If Saudi Arabia truly feels that the prospect for a negotiated settlement is irreparably stalled, it could quietly empower violent forces in the West Bank that could launch attacks against Israeli forces and settlers — fatally wounding the current mediation efforts led by Secretary of State John Kerry.

While scuttling the forever-elusive Israel-Palestine peace deal would certainly do…something to American interests, I’m sorry to say that the Israeli government already beat them to this one.

6. Riyadh boosts the military-led regime in Egypt. The House of Saud has already turned into one of Egypt’s primary patrons, pledging $5 billion in assistance immediately after the military toppled former President Mohamed Morsy. Such support has allowed Egypt’s new rulers to ignore Washington’s threats that it would cut off aid due to the government’s violent crackdown on protesters.

By deepening its support, Saudi Arabia could further undermine Washington’s attempt to steer Cairo back toward democratic rule. As Cairo moves toward a referendum over a new constitution, as well as parliamentary and presidential elections, Gulf support could convince the generals to rig the votes against the Muslim Brotherhood, and violently crush any opposition to their rule.

Sooooo…the Saudis, mad at us and letting us know it, might fund the Egyptian coup government, which…they’re already doing. Worse, they might encourage Egypt’s military rulers to resist a return to democracy, which would be a real shame because Egypt’s military leadership is very naturally inclined toward democracy on their own and there’s no chance they’d undermine that process themselves. And even if Egypt does return to democracy, the Saudis could convince the military government to rig the vote against the Muslim Brotherhood…an organization that they’ve already banned from all public activities including politics. Henderson doesn’t even bring up the one thing the Saudis could do to hurt America with respect to Egypt, which is to encourage the government there to stop giving US traffic priority access to the Suez Canal, so I’ll mention it here for him.

7. Saudi Arabia presses for an “Islamic seat” on the UN Security Council. The kingdom has long voiced its discontent for the way power is doled out in the world’s most important security body. The leaders of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a bloc of 57 member states designed to represent Muslim issues in global affairs, has called for such an “Islamic seat.”

I really don’t get this one. Does Henderson mean “an ‘Islamic seat’ with a veto on the UN Security Council”? Because that won’t ever happen and it won’t just be the US blocking it; the idea of a non-permanent seat being given a veto is a non-starter no matter what group of countries would be occupying it. Does he just mean a permanent “Islamic” seat without a veto? There’s already an unofficial “Arab” seat on the council; that’s the one to which the Saudis were just elected. Would they push to make this seat “Islamic” rather than “Arab,” and thereby actually dilute the seat’s leverage by opening it up to non-Arab countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, and so on? Or would this seat be in addition to that one? Is that really a “nightmare scenario”?

The United States and other veto-wielding countries, of course, can be counted on to oppose any effort that would diminish their power in the Security Council. But even if the Saudi plan fails, the kingdom could depict U.S. opposition as anti-Islamic. Such an effort would wreck America’s image in the Middle East, and provide dangerous fodder for Sunni extremists already hostile to the United States.

Right, because America’s image in the Middle East is so pristine right now that there’s absolutely nothing that Sunni extremists can use against us.

There are two things that strike me about writing like this. The first is the degree to which it treats the Saudis as some kind of Orientialist stereotype, as though they’re some uncontrollably emotional entity so blinded by anger at America that they’ll do things to hurt us that are entirely counterproductive to their own interests, assuming “they” are even savvy enough to know what their own interests actually are. The second is the essential helplessness it ascribes to what I would imagine most folks at WINEP consider to be the most powerful nation on Earth. If America can’t even sustain a minor break with a country like Saudi Arabia, then who’s really the superpower here?


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