We are now 15 years into the wars in Afghanistan with no end in sight. We stiff-arm Iran in order to embrace Saudi Arabia, which is suddenly causing problems. Inconsistencies abound as situations continue to stagger and wobble from worse to worse, with no clear paths to follow, and no favorable solutions in sight. All this illustrates with unmistakable clarity that choosing up sides in the Middle East has become really, really tricky.
Some of this is inherited from Bush, some is the result of Obama’s decisions, much is just the consequence of unfolding events and choices that appeared to be right at the time but are turning out badly today.
The cacophony of bumper-sticker quality criticism from the Republican candidates, and the equally abbreviated responses from their Democratic opponents, are of no real help in understanding the depth and breadth of the problems we are about to face. It is disingenuous to think that the solutions to the Middle East quagmire is to be found in any of the sound-bite size proclamations coming from either end of the current political spectrum.
As an example of the complications that exist, let us examine one strong pull of a single tangled thread of diplomacy all the way to the end. The beginning of the thread is a bill that Congress is considering to allow individual victims terrorist attacks to bring lawsuits for damages in federal courts against the foreign countries responsible for the attacks. It might appear to be a simple little issue.
Several groups of victims of 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center are attempting to seek damages from the nation which is believed to have been responsible for financing al Qaeda operations. Their efforts have been stymied, at least in part, because of a 1976 law that recognizes judicial immunity of most foreign nations from suit for money damages brought by private citizens in U.S. courts. So, a bill has been drafted and is pending in Congress that will carve-out a narrow exception from the general policy of sovereign immunity, and allow suits for damages where the defendant nation is directly culpable for a terrorist attack that actually occurs on United States soil. The bill has some healthy support; it is jointly authored and supported by a prominent list of senators from both parties, and has already cleared the Judiciary committee on a unanimous “do pass” vote.
A laudable objective, one might think; who could be opposed to this? Well, as it turns out, plenty. Pull the thread some more, and the main foreign opponent of the bill appears. Saudi Arabia is probably the principle target for such litigation, and it is up in arms over the prospects of this bill. It has announced that it will dump over $750 billion in U.S. treasuries and related securities if the bill passes and is signed, rather than risk impoundment by an American court.
Pull some more thread out, and we see that most economists doubt that Saudi Arabia would carry out such a threat, as it would de-stabilize the economies of the entire region and do proportionately more harm to Saudi Arabia than to the United States. Nevertheless, there is now unrest in the economic markets throughout the world waiting to see what happens to this little bill in the Senate.
As a consequence, the White House is weighing in with pressure on Congress to accommodate the Saudi objection and sidetrack the bill. Aside from offending our supposed chief ally in the region, and potentially wreaking havoc on the financial markets of the world, the administration also argues here that weakening the reciprocal sovereign immunity provisions of our laws would put the government at legal risk generally abroad if other nations retaliated with their own legislation. To start monkeying around with the reciprocal provisions of sovereign immunity, the argument goes, is to play with fire. Secretary Kerry told a Senate panel in February that for this reason, the pending bill would create a terrible precedent.
Viewed from a few steps back, we see that the thread of difficulty with Saudi Arabia over this bill is but the most recent of a long line of disagreements with the Saudi royal family. Also involved are the Saudi’s interference with White House attempts to improve relations with Iran, the Saudi’s objection to our participation in the nuclear arms negotiations with Iran, the White House concerns and objections to the manner in which the Saudi military is conducting its part of the fighting in Yemen, ongoing disagreements between the Pentagon and the Saudi military over the accounting and use of military resources being provided by the United States, and, quite recently, our aghast reaction to the ISIS style beheading of 47 individuals in Saudi Arabia, including a Shiite cleric whose only crime was his vocal disagreement with the Saudi royal family.
What may be of more strategic concern, while we appear to be accommodating the Saudi requests on one hand, we also appear to be ignoring the ongoing support and financing by the Saudi regime, or at least individuals within the Saudi regime, to the more extreme of the Wahhabis and Salafist factions Islam, both in Saudi Arabia and out. These extreme factions of Sunni ideology fueled al Qaeda in the past and appear to be at the base of ISIS in the present.
In the past, our dependence upon Saudi Arabian oil forced us to turn a blind eye to such inconsistencies. Our present increased production of petroleum from the shale fields of North America have all but eliminated this economic dependence, and there is now no reason to ignore such practices by a supposed ally. Nevertheless we continue to not question the Saudi actions here.
The White House is cautiously beginning to make overtures towards Iran, but much of what will be needed to warm relations between the countries will require Congressional approval.
Further, a significant problem to improving relations with Iran is the perpetually sour relations between Iran and Israel, and the strong insistence, both by Israel and by her supporters within the United States, that the United States stand fast behind Israel no matter what. At the present time, Congress appears to favor continuing relations with Saudi Arabia at the expense, if necessary, of relations with Iran.
Western Europe, on the other hand, appears to be beginning to swing toward Iran. The apparent belief is that Iran, not Saudi Arabia, will inevitably emerge as the stabilizing force in the region. Iran is clearly seen as the key to peace in Syria and Iraq and to the containment of ISIS within the Middle East. The European community is appalled at the recent executions, and at the insouciant attitude of the Saudis towards any improvements in the area of human rights. Unless there is another change in direction, we may find ourselves backing the wrong team – or at least a different team from that of the rest of the Western World.
Swinging around to even another view, the general consensus is that the Saudis do not want any reconciliations with Iran. They would prefer that Iran be derailed from any engagement with the West, and this includes throwing monkey wrenches into any effort to bring Iran into the peace effort in Syria. It is difficult to imagine a peace accord for Syria, for example, that would not involve cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Without their joint involvement, peace in Syria may be unattainable unless refereed by either Russia or the United States.
If that day comes, whoever lands the job as POTUS will be wound into a political pretzel trying to determine whether to accept Russian participation in the region, with Russian troops occupying Syria and the contested regions, or to tolerate the commitment of necessary U.S. forces to occupy the territory, and to oversee the tasks ourselves. This probably means that countries with mixed Sunni and Shiite populations – Syria and Yemen, where civil war is presently raging, and perhaps Bahrain, where there is a potentially explosive division between the religious factions – will continue to fall even further into chaos.
After pulling this one little thread to the end, the take away that jumps out is that there are no right answers on the horizon. No matter what is done, no matter who does it, and no matter which way it goes, every action we take from this point on is going to be wrong. Period.
How could it possibly get worse?