America's Saudi Problem

Obama can't get it right on the Arab Spring unless he holds Saudi Arabia to account.

In Riyadh last week, where I was speaking to a small private workshop, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to the United States, introduced me by reading several excerpts from my recent FP column: "Bahrain crushed its opposition with impunity," he read. And then: "Obama chose to rely on the Gulf monarchies against Iran, which made it exceptionally difficult for him to meaningfully pressure them to reform or to block their counterrevolutionary intervention in Bahrain." His polite but pointed comment: "These words are not accepted in the Gulf."

That was putting it mildly. For much of the week, I heard sharp disagreements from Saudis on Bahrain, which they for the most part saw not as a peaceful uprising but as an Iranian-backed campaign of violent subversion that had to be put down to restore order. Perhaps a few agreed, at least privately, on the unjustifiable nature of the campaign of repression that followed -- even if the protesters had sympathies with Iran, could that justify their torture and indefinite detention? -- and the dim prospects for stability without a serious new political initiative. But that rarely extended to an acceptance of the authenticity or legitimacy of the Bahraini protest movement.

The yawning gap in our views of Bahrain reflected a more general disconnect between Washington and Riyadh on regional order. Saudi Arabia's hostility toward the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, and its coordinated efforts to block change in the Gulf and in allied monarchies across the region, works directly against the stated American goal of promoting reform. Its support for the crushing of the Bahraini protest movement and rehabilitation of an unrepentant regime left a gaping hole in American credibility. Saudi domestic policies, from women's rights to the treatment of its Shiite minority to the absence of democracy and repression of the public sphere, are manifestly incompatible with any liberal vision. And should the Obama administration attempt serious negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, it will find a skeptical partner indeed in Riyadh.

The tension cuts to the heart of my vision for U.S. Middle East strategy of a "right-sized" military and political presence combined with stronger commitment to political reform and public engagement. Indeed, America's alliance with Saudi Arabia remains the greatest contradiction inherent in its attempt to align itself with popular aspirations for change in the region. A Saudi exception certainly makes things such as coordinating the containment of Iran easier for diplomats on a daily basis. But it sustains and perpetuates a regional order which over the long term is costly to sustain and clearly at odds with American normative preferences.

Some American analysts, notably Toby Jones, have therefore called repeatedly for a wholesale rethinking of the U.S.-Saudi alliance. He argues persuasively that "Washington's clear preference for the status quo in the Gulf has come at considerable cost to activists in the region. The U.S. has enabled the Gulf regimes to behave badly; the regimes, for their part, have exploited geopolitical rivalries to consolidate power at home." What would such a rethinking actually look like, though? We should recognize and attempt to break that vicious cycle. I don't think that the United States can or should abandon its strategic posture in the Gulf -- certainly not overnight. But it should be much more forthright in pushing for reforms and supporting universal human rights in all of its allies. This is the time for Washington to be actively thinking about how to use its very real strategic imperative of reducing its military commitments to the region as leverage over those allies to reform. Putting those together, along with sustained dialogue with Saudis from the royal family down through all sectors of the public, could help to create a greater coherence in America's regional strategy.

I don't believe that Saudi Arabia is poised for a revolution (though a lot of people in Riyadh wanted to know whether Bruce Riedel's views were widely shared in Washington). Even the most determined reformers with whom I spoke told me that they expected meaningful change in a longer time frame (some said three to five years, others five to 10 --- an eternity in American strategic practice). But "revolution" sets the bar too high. The changes that have already taken place -- from the furious protests in the Eastern Province to the renewed push for women's rights to a legal campaign for human rights to the dramatic opening of online public debate -- strike me as profoundly important. It simply does not seem plausible that a country with such a young and intensely wired population can maintain indefinitely a system which denies transparency, accountability, or equal citizenship.

Saudi Arabia has clearly been deeply affected by the Arab Spring, even if demands for political change have thus far been blocked through a mix of repression and co-optation. Recurrent economic and institutional problems, along with widely perceived corruption, generate significant distress among Saudis. Almost everyone I met, from Shiite activists in the Eastern Province to youth activists, women's rights campaigners, and human rights lawyers in Riyadh, identified Tunisia, Egypt, and the Arab Spring as the spark for a new form of domestic mobilization. The connection between Saudi Arabia's domestic crackdown and its regional policy seems clear. Riyadh's crackdown on its own reformists and massive domestic spending boom mirrored the support it offered for beleaguered monarchies in the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco.

Saudi Arabia today actually reminds me vividly of Egypt circa 2004, with a rapidly transforming public sphere and rising citizen demands finding little opportunity for expression in the formal political realm. While such comparisons are fraught with problems, I could not avoid the echoes. Almost everyone I met pointed to Twitter as a dramatic new Saudi public sphere in a country that never used to have a meaningful public sphere at all. I'm primed to be skeptical about such claims, but they ring true in a country with exceptionally tight control over all other media and exceptionally high levels of social media use (among the highest per capita in the world for YouTube and by far the most Twitter users in the Middle East). The willingness to openly discuss the most sensitive and contentious issues and the role of social media in widening the zone of open debate was there, as was deep frustration with formal politics and the inability to sketch out a clear path to political change. It isn't just the famous @mujtahhid spilling royal family secrets. It is the ferocious, no-holds-barred online discussion of virtually everything -- and the open mocking of those royals brave enough to join the discussion. One prominent journalist told me that officials had recently allowed a slightly more independent political talk show onto the airwaves primarily because they were all too aware of the far more critical discourse routinely circulating on Twitter.

Thus far, the virtual protests have not been able to move into the streets in force, except in the east, which has experienced a sustained, serious challenge to the systematic discrimination against Shiite citizens. Activists from Qatif with whom I met while visiting the Eastern Province gave a consistent account of pervasive, systematic discrimination and a dangerous cycle of violence. They rejected the common claim that they had been inspired by Bahrain or by Iran -- they claimed inspiration from Tunisia and Egypt, and made constitutional and citizenship rather than sectarian demands. But while those protests have not spread to the Sunni majority areas of Saudi Arabia, in part due to the active promotion of sectarian discourse at home and abroad by the regime, the crackdown against reformers pushing for legal accountability, the release of political prisoners, and constitutional change strikes me as a sign of regime weakness, not strength. The imprisonment of the liberal writer Turki al-Hamed over his tweets, or the throwing of youth into prison without charges over their Facebook posts, suggests a regime uncertain about itself and over how to manage the sudden transformation of the public debate.

What should the United States do about this changing Saudi Arabia? Its real dependence on Saudi oil, Riyadh's key role in the current security architecture, and the transition costs of a new strategy can't be wished away. Allies should be engaged with a presumption of partnership, not one-sided lectures or sudden, erratic policy shifts. But America cannot continue to ignore the increasingly clear tension between its stated policy goals. It should at least avoid accepting or endorsing the status quo, and should do far more to nurture the emerging new Saudi public sphere. For instance, the symbolism of President Obama's unusual meeting with new Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, which looked to many Saudis like an endorsement of someone they identify with the most repressive and anti-democratic trends in the kingdom, was unfortunate.

Does Washington have any leverage? Maybe. The day after his lengthy interrogation over various ill-defined charges, the impressive human rights campaigner Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani told me that the United States urgently needed to do more to support these emerging voices. Qahtani, like others, thinks that Obama could significantly help this emerging new reformist discourse -- and that engaging with them would ultimately be decisively in the interests of both Washington and Saudi Arabia itself.  While many were dismissive of the 30 women appointed by King Abdullah to the Shura Council, for instance, one women's rights activist with whom I spoke argued strongly for its significance. Their presence, she insisted, was symbolically important and would make it far easier for them to get women's issues onto the Shura Council's (admittedly lean) agenda. If this were simply a public relations move to appease the United States ("the Hillary Clinton Council," as several Saudis called it), she argued, then it should be taken as a positive example of how American pressure could help. Change will not come quickly, but Obama should speak out against the prosecution of such liberal reformists and apply the same standards on the right to free expression in Saudi Arabia that he does elsewhere in the region.

In his inaugural address, Obama declared again, "We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom." If the president is serious about this, and genuinely hopes to shape a regional order based on more democratic and open allies, then he will not be able to avoid the Saudi exception indefinitely. It will not be welcome, but he should support the demands of all Arab citizens for transparency, accountability and pluralism -- even in hard cases like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Pete Souza/The White House

Marc Lynch

Should Obama Have Intervened in Syria?

Or would U.S. military involvement merely have made a disaster worse?

With an estimated 60,000 dead and no end in sight, Syria is not only a humanitarian tragedy of mind-boggling, heart-rending proportions -- it's also the most difficult analytical issue I've ever grappled with, and the one the Obama administration has most struggled to get right. But it's important to dig into where exactly it went wrong.

The real U.S. failure of leadership in Syria is not that it refused to intervene militarily.  Nor is it that it failed to arm the opposition. Its failure was that it could not find a political solution to prevent the descent into armed proxy war --- a descent we could all see coming. The spiraling catastrophe of the last six months confirms every warning about the dangers of an armed insurgency -- extending the conflict, making it bloodier and more extreme, and devolving power to the men with guns rather than the peaceful activists.

This catastrophe all too powerfully demonstrates why Kofi Annan's United Nations mission was worth supporting. His plan never had a great chance of success, but it was not hopeless. Annan and his supporters were right about a few big things: that the political process had to take precedence over the military track, that state institutions needed to be preserved in order to prevent a descent into anarchy, that Bashar al-Assad's backers abroad needed to support the process, and that the center of gravity had to be the undecided Syrian middle ground. There were moments when it seemed like it might work, as when Russia flirted with the Geneva agreement on a transitional government (it ultimately didn't go along), or when a meaningful Security Council seemed within grasp (it wasn't).

But for all that, nobody can deny that Annan failed. What is more, the conditions that made his initiative worth trying have disappeared. Syria's state institutions have largely collapsed, and the armed insurgency has largely overtaken the peaceful protest movement. Nobody dreams anymore about a unified Security Council. The middle ground has largely disappeared, as most Syrians who haven't already fled have either chosen their side or retreated into sullen, scared apathy. Pity Annan's successor Lakhdar Brahimi for continuing to play out this string.

The blame for this dire situation, to be clear, lies primarily with the Assad regime, which chose to kill its way through its crisis rather than seek a safe exit. Critics of the International Criminal Court have warned that the prospect of international justice makes leaders in Assad's position more likely to fight to the death. War crimes prosecutions were kept off the table largely in order to keep an exit option open for Assad (I thought an indictment should have been pursued last year). But he chose to fight nonetheless. I (like many others) underestimated the regime's ability and willingness to butcher its own people and hold onto power; I expected regime elements to dump Assad as a liability long ago, or the disgusted Syrian middle ground to defect en masse. I still think that he ultimately will lose, albeit at nigh unbelievable cost, but we all need to be honest about the poor track record of that prediction.

Were there missed opportunities to do better? Advocates of intervention frequently complain that the United States could have prevented this fiasco through earlier, more forceful action. This is easy to say, but almost certainly untrue. Last year, a wide range of serious analysts inside and outside the government, including me, looked carefully at a wide range of possible military steps: no-fly zones, safe areas, bombing campaigns, arming the opposition. None could in good faith conclude that these limited military measures would lead to a rapid end to the conflict. Far from avoiding today's tragedy, U.S. military intervention would very likely have made things in Syria worse.

Critics of the Obama administration's approach, such as Sen. John McCain, have taken to saying that all the things opponents of intervention warned of - militarization, tens of thousands of dead, inroads by al-Qaeda affiliates - have now come to pass. This is only partially true. The U.S. military is not bogged down in another Iraq-style quagmire, steadily slipping down the slope of intervention as each limited move fails to end the conflict. There is no Pottery Barn rule dictating that Americans must prepare for a thankless and violent occupation and reconstruction. It is of little comfort to Syrians, but for the American national interest this is not a small thing.

What about arming the opposition? There was a debate to be had there last year, but it's long since been overtaken by events. The United States wisely resisted sending arms into the fray based on concerns about cutting off its diplomatic options, empowering local warlords, and paving the path toward a longer and bloodier civil war. But others, particularly in the Gulf, were not so restrained, and persistent calls for more money and guns aside Syrian armed groups are now awash with weapons. The worst effects of arming the opposition have now already taken place, and the United States throwing more guns onto the fire would now have at best a marginal impact. Analysts often fret that the United States has lost its leverage over Syrian rebel groups by virtue of not offering up guns, and that Jubhat al-Nusra and other radical Islamists have risen in influence due to America's absence. I just don't buy it. Al Qaeda affiliates are not in the habit of deferring to American policies, and would not have abandoned as attractive a front of jihad as a Syria consumed by civil war just because some groups were carrying U.S. arms. The shift into armed insurgency and civil war is what brought al Qaeda into the mix, not America's failure to deliver guns.

Most of the old arguments about Syria policy are now of only academic interest. Diplomacy? That was a live option a year ago, but the circumstances which made it worth pursuing have passed and even I don't see much point to the current diplomatic efforts. Arming the opposition? The rebels are being armed and the arena has been thoroughly militarized, regardless of American choices. Military intervention? There's a reason it's rarely even brought up anymore.

What to do, then? The reality is that there simply is not all that much which the outside world can do at this point beyond trying to mitigate the worst effects of the war, help support the political organization of the opposition, and prepare for the post-Assad troubles to come. Much of that work has already begun. The new National Coalition represents the best American and international effort to date to pull together a representative and effective opposition umbrella. There have been important recent efforts to try to create at least the impression of its political control over the armed groups, to rationalize the flow of weapons. Much serious work is being done to prepare Syrian technocrats and opposition institutions for the day after Assad falls. These are worthy efforts that need to be undertaken, but even those involved probably recognize that they aren't likely to survive contact with reality. 

What could be added? Certainly not military intervention. There is a desperate need to help Syrian refugees, but that only treats the symptoms and not the disease. The currently hot idea of forming a transitional government to receive aid probably couldn't hurt at this point. Pushing for war crimes indictments against the Syrian regime leadership is long overdue. The United States should lean even harder on its Gulf allies to stop funneling weapons and cash to its local proxies for competitive advantage, and do more to coordinate regional and international action to keep the outside players from working at cross purposes. Above all, serious plans should be put into place for assisting Syria and establishing order when Assad does fall. Because when he does, I expect that it will be sudden, violent, and leave a massive political and security vacuum that all of these armed groups will struggle to fill.

I'm not optimistic that any of these efforts, however necessary, will be able to accelerate the end of the war. It's hard to see any soft landing anymore, and nothing can bring back the tens of thousands of lost lives, devastated families, and shattered communities. If it continues on the current path, Syria is likely to be consumed by fighting for years to come, regardless of when and how Assad falls. But hard, smart work by the international community can improve the odds that the outcome will be a transition to a genuinely better Syria.

Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images