Argument

Outraged in Riyadh

Is the House of Saud dumping Obama?

U.S.-Saudi relations are in crisis. King Abdullah thinks the Obama administration's love of universal freedoms is naive and inappropriate for conservative Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, when the big threat is Iran. Washington is upset about the king's alleged offer to bail out Egypt if Hosni Mubarak had decided to cling to power. And there's also the oil factor: With U.S. gasoline prices climbing and despite Riyadh's promises to make up for lost Libyan hydrocarbon sales, the Saudis "throttled back production in mid-March," according to the International Energy Agency.

So when Tom Donilon, the U.S. national security advisor, sat down with the aging Saudi monarch on April 12, there were indeed "a number of issues of common interest" to be reviewed at the meeting, as the Saudi Press Agency dryly reported. Having initially warmed to the newly elected U.S. president, Barack Obama -- who in return offered apparently obsequious deference -- King Abdullah feels let down by the White House on pretty well everything from the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to Iran, and especially Iran.

The Donilon meeting was particularly interesting because of the reported presence of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the onetime Saudi ambassador to Washington and now the seldom-seen secretary-general of the Saudi National Security Council. For many years, especially when Prince Bandar was envoy to the United States, King Abdullah distrusted him: Too many of the snide stories that Prince Bandar told around town about the then crown prince got back to the kingdom. But Prince Bandar had, and perhaps still has, political and diplomatic talents that King Abdullah needs, especially now.

"Bandar Is Back" was the headline on an October 2010 piece I wrote for Foreign Policy about the prince's return home to Saudi Arabia; he had just resurfaced after mysteriously disappearing from the headlines for a couple of years. Although literally true, it was otherwise a little premature because the prodigal prince then disappeared from view again for several months. But in the last few weeks Prince Bandar indeed has been visibly back, on high-level missions to Pakistan, India, and China.

What it fully means is far from obvious, but there will be speculation about the future of Adel al-Jubeir, the current Saudi ambassador to Washington. Could there be a repeat of the first few weeks of Prince Turki al-Faisal's tenure as Saudi ambassador to the United States from 2005 to 2006, when King Abdullah let the White House know that his official envoy was no longer his chosen interlocutor with Washington?

Prince Turki's sin was not clear, but he had apparently written something to the king that incurred royal displeasure. Instead of dealing through Prince Turki, King Abdullah called back to the colors Prince Bandar, the previous ambassador, who went back and forth between Riyadh and Washington, repairing and nurturing the kingdom's most important foreign relationship, which was still troubled by suspicions of Saudi links to al Qaeda.

Prince Turki was left ambassador only in name. He sulked, not knowing whether Prince Bandar was even in town or not. To find out, he was often left to send an aide out to Dulles airport and Andrews Air Force Base to check to see whether Prince Bandar's aircraft was parked on the tarmac. Prince Turki eventually resigned and was replaced by Jubeir, a onetime aide to Prince Bandar whose English-language skills were much prized by King Abdullah. Since then Adel, as he is widely known, has schmoozed Washington but apparently ineffectively. "This White House just does not get it," one of his closest ambassadorial colleagues confided to me last month.

Adel was also at the Donilon meeting in Riyadh, performing his frequent task of acting as interpreter for the king, whether or not the meeting had anything to do with the United States. He had been also in the same chair the week before when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had passed through. There are smiles in the official photographs but no particular signs that the two sides are even on the same page.

King Abdullah cuts an increasingly pathetic figure. He underwent two operations on his back late last year in New York City and returned home from convalescence in Morocco earlier than his doctors recommended, I was told, because he was so worried by the revolutionary mood sweeping the Middle East. Although he can only manage two or three hours of official engagements each day, I am also told the burden of government is not easily shared. His notional successor, Crown Prince Sultan, is a vegetable, his appearance genial but his mind shot to shreds -- a WikiLeaked U.S. diplomatic cable said he was "for all intents and purposes incapacitated." The most likely next king is Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who runs the kingdom on a day-to-day basis but is currently vacationing abroad at an undisclosed destination, apparently sure of his power base within the House of Saud and the backing of the kingdom's religious conservatives.

Meanwhile, the king sees dangers all around him. He takes little pleasure in the demise of Egypt's Mubarak, a friend of Washington for 30 years who was cast aside in a mere 18 days. The man King Abdullah would like to see go to hell is Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, who once tried to assassinate him -- but Obama will not oblige. In neighboring Bahrain, King Abdullah views the majority Shiites as being untermenschen at best, Iranian agents at worst. Now, the king sees Syrian President Bashar al-Assad under increasing threat. The Saudi leader has a soft spot for Syria: One of his previous wives (too many to count but never more than the Islamic four-at-a-time) was from Syria, and her sister married Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar's uncle. One of the offspring of this marriage, Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, now his father's point man on Syria, was also at the Donilon meeting.

As Donilon left Riyadh for the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi and then home, King Abdullah went off to the camel races with Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa at the annual Janadriyah festival. It would have offered some relaxation to the turmoil and frustrations of current Middle East politics.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Argument

Twisting Assad's Arm

U.S. diplomats are always complaining they have no leverage over Syria. They're wrong.

A little over two years ago, I had to leave my eight-year career as a journalist in Damascus because of a report I had written on the Syrian opposition that the regime didn't like. Since arriving in Washington, I've had the pleasure to share views on the Syrian regime with well-meaning U.S. officials charged with engaging my former home base. But it's become something of a mantra in Washington -- as the regime has perpetrated a brutal crackdown on opposition activists -- that the United States simply has no leverage in Syria.

But after sitting through countless discussions about President Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite-dominated government -- especially since the protests erupted in recent weeks -- it is now clear to me that the problem isn't a lack of leverage, but the strategy being used.

Assad rules through ambiguity and duplicity, and his speech on March 30, in which he blamed unrest sweeping his country on foreign "conspiracies" and refused to announce any specific reforms, indicates that he is not about to change his ways -- at least not without a push from the outside. Assad has spent the last 11 years promising political "reform," but has never got around to delivering it. This is a well-established pattern. He talks about peace with Israel while at the same time delivering Scud missiles to Hezbollah. He promises to keep his hands off Lebanon, but recently worked with Hezbollah to bring down the government in Beirut. He says, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, that he wants a nuclear-free Middle East, but stonewalls International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors investigating the rubble of his North Korean-designed nuclear program.

Applying pressure on Assad has worked in the past. U.S.-led multilateral pressure -- in the face of mass protests similar to those now sweeping Syria -- proved decisive in forcing him in April 2005 to end Syria's 29-year occupation of Lebanon. And U.S. sanctions on the Assad regime have also had an unexpected impact on its worsening finances and the ability of its members to invest internationally. While the Assad regime may have few or no investments in the United States, the "knock-on" effect of U.S. sanctions has deterred most foreign banks and companies from doing business with Damascus -- making lifting sanctions a key Syrian demand in talks with the United States. After all, what major international company would risk its U.S. business to make deals with an economy roughly the size of Pittsburgh? Why couldn't similar efforts work in the current crisis?

Up until now, Barack Obama's administration has engaged Assad with the primary goal of restarting peace talks between Syria and Israel while trying to mitigate the regional damage from Syria's worsening policies. Washington has attempted to test Assad's intention and ability to reorient his country away from Iran and toward the West in Syria-Israel peace talks by putting him on the horns of a dilemma: Either you get back the Golan Heights, or you keep supporting Hezbollah -- but not both. So far those well-intentioned efforts have not broken the gridlock: Israel watches Assad's transfer of weapons to Hezbollah, doubts his peaceful intentions, and refuses to make the risky political decision to rejoin talks. With Washington unable to deliver Israel to the negotiating table, Assad has not yet been compelled to show his hand.

The Obama administration is right to use dilemmas as a negotiating strategy -- it causes people to make clear choices. They are also key instruments to revealing a person's character and intentions, as their choices speak for themselves. But the dilemma has to fit the context. Assad, who in his recent speech repeatedly attributed the unrest in his country to Israeli and American meddling -- and has already lost significant public support by using live fire on protesters -- is not likely to risk further alienating his supporters by signing on the dotted line with Israel anytime soon.

Dilemmas also only work if they are set up properly. So far, the Obama administration has tried to administer its test by talking behind closed doors with Assad about peace with Israel and his destructive policies -- while keeping U.S. sanctions in place. But it has not introduced new negative incentives in response to Assad's regional meddling and hardhanded tactics that diametrically oppose U.S. interests or values. And thus Assad has little fear that Washington will, especially when U.S. officials make his case for him by repeatedly emphasizing their lack of leverage in Damascus. Pressure alone, much like engagement alone, will not be enough to change Assad's policies. Both stand a far better chance of being effective if used in concert. That requires focus and creativity: two things Washington's Syria policy has historically lacked.

The current unrest sweeping Syria and the rest of the Middle East provides Washington with an opportunity to launch a hybrid Syria policy that would allow the administering of more tests in better ways. This will involve expanding the focus of U.S.-Syria policy beyond the Israel question.

First, Washington should shine a light on the Assad regime's human rights violations by bringing it before the U.N. Human Rights Council. On the multilateral front, the administration should be working closely with France and other allies to establish an effective sanctions regime -- including diplomatic isolation -- against Assad to push him to stop his bloody crackdown on protesters and follow through on his reform promises. Second, the Obama administration, in the spirit of its declarations in Libya, should issue a new executive order on human rights abuses in Syria, allowing the Treasury Department to freeze accounts of individuals responsible for the crackdown. Third, it should use this remit to designate more Syrian officials and figures under Executive Order 13460, which targets rampant regime corruption -- the mortar that holds Assad's regime together and a key issue that has brought protesters out into the streets.

With these additional measures in place, Washington could rally allies around a common cause, send a strong message to Assad that his crackdown will cost him, and establish clear boundaries in terms of the scope of U.S. engagement with Syria. Washington can also use these instruments on Assad's worsening domestic position to extract concessions on his relationship with Iran, be it his relationship with Hezbollah or -- eventually, when the time is right -- peace talks with Israel. It will also teach Assad that Washington will judge him on his actions, not just his words to U.S. officials behind closed doors.

High-level U.S. officials or senior senators talking with Assad and wagging their fingers at him when he's bad will not change his ways. A good Syrian friend once told me that the key to dealing with the Assad regime is to always keep your options open and be prepared to walk away with no obligations. Only by making clear when it will do so, and what will be the consequences, will Washington ever have a hope of getting a straight answer out of Bashar al-Assad.

JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images