Blood and iron (and oil)
A disturbing clue to why American policy in the Middle East is becoming unhinged is revealed in an article in the August 21, 2013, issue of As-Safir (an Arabic language Lebanese daily), which was recently translated by Al-Monitor. The article discloses what Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan told Vladimir Putin in their meeting in July. Bandar’s comments show that the Saud family has a dangerously activist agenda based on a delusional world view.
It has been obvious that since the Reagan Administration that the U.S. began seeing the Middle East from the Saudi viewpoint. (Two key members of that Administration, Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger were directors and senior officers of the Bechtel Group, an engineering firm with substantial projects in the Kingdom.) American military actions against Iraq, the distrust of the Muslim Brotherhood, the incessant sword-rattling with Iran and the newly minted antagonism to Syria’s dictatorship are all hallmarks of Saudi’s interests in the region. This is not to discount Israel’s substantial influence on our policy in the Middle East. In many important respects Israel and Saudi Arabia seek similar responses from the United States. The current obsession with Syria, however, seems the particular hobbyhorse of Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Arabia has come to terms with certain strains of Muslim extremism, some of which exist in the Syrian opposition; Israel has not.)
Whether the President now realizes that he has put himself out on a limb (both at home and abroad) with his militarism on Syria, it seems more than likely that he got there by gradually adopting the position of the Saudi-influenced parts of our own Deep Government, including the ill-conceived and now infamous “red line” remark. Saudi-thinking in this Administration was also evident by the Administration’s instinctive support of Mubarak during the revolution and its current blind-eye to the action of the military in Egypt.
Given this background, the Bandar-Putin meeting is an eye-opener.
The report says that the meeting, which took place in Moscow, was proposed by the United States and “some European partners.” Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz proposed the meeting to Putin on July 30 and the secret meeting was quickly arranged. After first meeting with his Russian counterpart, Bandar met in a close-door session with Putin in his country house for four hours. Bandar reportedly implied that he had plenipotentiary powers to negotiate, not only on behalf of the monarchy but on behalf of the United States as well:
“[A]ny understanding we reach in this meeting will not only be a Saudi-Russian understanding, but will also be an American-Russian understanding. I have spoken with the Americans before the visit, and they pledged to commit to any understandings that we may reach, especially if we agree on the approach to the Syrian issue.”
The Prince expressed the Kingdom’s distaste for the Arab Spring, and suggested that “terrorist experiences” took place when the regimes fell in Egypt and Libya. (The Saud family’s deathly fear of being toppled shows through even when it is arguing for the overthrow of another government.)
Bandar then made the extraordinary claim that Saudi Arabia “controlled” the Chechan rebels and that if Russia came to an agreement, he could guarantee the security of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Bandar then began strutting like a minor Bismarck, explaining how Saudi Arabia had warned Qatar and Turkey that they had overstepped their bounds by supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. He advised Putin:
“We do not favor extremist religious regimes, and we wish to establish moderate regimes in the region. It is worthwhile to pay attention to and to follow up on Egypt’s experience. We will continue to support the [Egyptian] army, and we will support Defense Minister Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi because he is keen on having good relations with us and with you. And we suggest to you to be in contact with him, to support him and to give all the conditions for the success of this experiment. We are ready to hold arms deals with you in exchange for supporting these regimes, especially Egypt.”
Unlike Prussia, however, Saudi Arabia has no iron and never risks its own blood in attempting to achieve hegemony. So, of course, oil came up. This is what Bandar as Bismarck substitutes for Blood and Iron. (And it’s how Saudi Arabia gets its proxies and sponsors to donate their blood and iron.) He suggested that Saudi Arabia need not compete with Russia’s oil and gas development and proposed joint refining and production deals.
But before any benefits, the condition. (The House of Saud is insulated in its petroleum bubble much like American politicians are insulated in their Washington-power bubble.) The Prince said that Russian cooperation in the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad was the sine qua non:
“The Syrian regime is finished as far as we and the majority of the Syrian people are concerned. [The Syrian people] will not allow President Bashar al-Assad to remain at the helm. The key to the relations between our two countries starts by understanding our approach to the Syrian issue. So you have to stop giving [the Syrian regime] political support, especially at the UN Security Council, as well as military and economic support. And we guarantee you that Russia’s interests in Syria and on the Mediterranean coast will not be affected one bit. In the future, Syria will be ruled by a moderate and democratic regime that will be directly sponsored by us and that will have an interest in understanding Russia’s interests and role in the region.”
When Putin demurred, Bandar threw down the glove in a particularly Prussian way:
“The head of the Saudi intelligence services said that the dispute over the approach to the Syrian issue leads to the conclusion that ‘there is no escape from the military option, because it is the only currently available choice given that the political settlement ended in stalemate. We believe that the Geneva II Conference will be very difficult in light of this raging situation.’”
The report does not state which side leaked the substance of the meeting. Even if it were the Russians, however, it’s unlikely that the report of Bandar’s comments differed much from what was said, given that the Russians are interested in further economic relations.
What this shows is that Saudi Arabia views itself as the foremost power in the region, is uncomfortable with the overthrow of dictators like Mubarak and Gaddafi and believes that it can manage not only extremists but the aspirations of the peoples of other nations.
That the United States has bought into this world-view can be explained only by considering the unreflecting group-think (based on beloved realpolitik) that has resulted in so much of our blundering in the area. But to throw our lot in with the Saudis is clearly folly. The Saudi approach to managing extremists is to export them to elsewhere than the Kingdom. Its interest is not in suppressing fundamentalism, but rather to preserve autocracy, which it believes is the only safe form of government. But whether the House of Saud wants to believe it or not, a medieval monarchy that oppresses its subjects with beliefs and by means long rejected by the developed world cannot long endure. By hitching our foreign policy wagon on a strutting, delusional world view of an outdated and out-of-touch family, we will continue to be led down the rat hole of disastrous military adventures.