Obama’s GCC “Summit” and the Deepening Incoherence of America’s Middle East Strategy

The Wire, a new and extremely promising Indian media venture edited by our colleague Siddharth Varadarajan (former editor of The Hindu), has just published our latest article, “Strategic Confusion and Obama’s Hapless Persian Gulf Diplomacy,” see here; we’ve also appended the text below.

Strategic Confusion and Obama’s Hapless Persian Gulf Diplomacy

Defying escalating rhetoric that Iran is “gobbling up the Middle East,” President Obama told the New York Times recently that “the biggest threat” to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states may not come from Iran, but “from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”  Yet, displaying how deeply mired in Washington hype his administration remains, Obama has called on GCC leaders to parade with him at Camp David this week as if Iran is their biggest threat.

Saudi King Salman has refused to join in this spectacle, underscoring that, in foreign policy, friendship and interest should not be conflated.  Obama, by contrast, studiously overlooks this reality that, today, U.S. and Saudi interests on a number of key issues not only diverge, but conflict.  By refusing to deal with GCC states on the basis of interest, rather than friendship, Obama actually helps some of them continue pursuing policies deeply damaging to U.S. interests.

However much GCC elites evoke specters of Iranian “aggressiveness”—framed either in essentialist caricatures of “Persian expansionism” or depictions of the Islamic Republic’s allegedly radical Shi’a sectarianism—Iran is not the source of their insecurity.  In reality, GCC leaders have felt existentially threatened since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq upended a regional order based on Sunni Arab autocracies linked, in various ways, to Washington.

Saudis and the IS

With U.S. encouragement, Saudi Arabia and other GCC states had supported Iraq’s Saddam Hussein financially in the 1980s, as he pursued aggressive war (including extensive chemical weapons use) against Iran.  While Saddam eventually threatened GCC states, his overthrow in 2003 created major challenges for some of them, especially Saudi Arabia.  Riyadh could not endorse a more representative post-Saddam Iraqi polity that would, by definition, empower Shi’a, make Sunnis a permanent minority, and boost Iran’s influence.  So, the Saudis urged militant Sunni jihadis—of a sort they had long supported, some of whom had created and remained involved with al-Qa’idato go to Iraq and help Sunni tribal militias and remnants of Saddam’s army destabilize the new Iraqi state, including by attacking U.S. occupation forces.

This trifecta of former members of Saddam’s military, Iraqi Sunni fighters, and foreign jihadis would eventually give rise to the political/military/religious phenomenon now known as the Islamic State.  In the meantime, GCC anxiety over the erosion of a regional order based on pro-U.S. Sunni autocracies grew more acute as, from 2011, demands mounted in overwhelmingly Sunni Arab societies for expanded political participation and protection from—not collusion with—a U.S. “war on terror” that has killed hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims.  In this context, the “threat” to the GCC from today’s Iran is not that it is “Persian” or Shi’a, but that it is simultaneously Islamic and republican—that it seeks to integrate principles and institutions of Islamic governance with participatory politics and elections while maintaining a strong commitment to foreign policy independence.

Paving the way for jihadis

GCC leaders are relatively unconcerned about reform calls from secular liberals, judging (rightly) that this agenda elicits limited support in Arab societies.  But they worry deeply about Sunni movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, willing to compete for power in elections.  For GCC rulers, these groups are profoundly threatening, for if Muslim-majority Arab publics can elect Islamic governments, the historically most potent argument for monarchy in Arabia—that it is essential to propagating true Islam—goes out the window.  To forestall this, Riyadh and its partners have declared the Brothers “terrorists” in GCC jurisdictions, and have worked to quash them around the region—as with Saudi and Emirati backing for the July 2013 coup against Egypt’s elected Brotherhood government.

By undermining the Brothers as a vehicle for expanding Sunni political engagement, Saudi Arabia and its allies leave jihadi groups like al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State as the only options for Sunni Arabs dissatisfied with the status quo.  They make things worse by building up violent jihadis as alternatives to the Brothers—in Libya, Syria, and, now, Yemen—with Washington’s collaboration, and with disastrous humanitarian and political consequences.

What has unfolded in Libya since 2011—the state’s destruction, civil war, a U.S. ambassador’s murder, and incubation of a major jihadi hub that had not existed before—is hardly due to Iranian perfidy.  It is the result of a military campaign, led by America and Saudi Arabia, to bring down the Qadhafi government—and, in the process, show that it wasn’t only pro-Western autocrats who were vulnerable to overthrow.  Many of this campaign’s devastating effects flow from Riyadh’s use of the Libya war to revive jihadi cadres worn down by years of fighting U.S. forces in Iraq—cadres the Saudis then deployed in Syria.

Saudi intervention ensured that jihadis—many non-Syrian—would dominate Syrian opposition ranks, undercutting any potential role for the Brotherhood in leading anti-Assad forces.  It also turned what began in Syria as indigenously generated protests over particular grievances into a heavily militarized (and illegal) campaign against the recognized government of a UN member state—but with a popular base too small either to bring down that government or to negotiate a settlement with it.  It is Saudi policy—not Iran’s support for Syria’s government against an externally-fueled insurgency that, as Syrian oppositionists themselves admitcouldn’t defeat him at the ballot box—that is responsible for Syria’s agony.

Cost of reckless strategy

The most glaringly negative consequence of Riyadh’s posture toward both post-Saddam Iraq and the Arab Awakening has been the Islamic State’s explosive ascendance, marked by impressive territorial gains in both Iraq and Syria.  The Islamic State’s proclamation of a religiously legitimate caliphate represents a much bigger problem for Saudi Arabia than for the United States.  Yet, while Riyadh has ostensibly joined Washington’s anti-Islamic State “coalition,” it is doubling down on its jihadi proxy strategy.  After using the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Jabhat an-Nusra to destroy non-jihadi opposition forces in Syria, Riyadh has persuaded Qatar and Turkey—previously the Syrian Brotherhood’s biggest backers— to help it promote a new, Jabhat an-Nusra-led jihadi alliance that recently captured a major Syrian city.  In Yemen, Saudi airstrikes have helped al-Qa’ida make territorial gains—and to eclipse even further the Brotherhood’s Yemeni affiliates.

Saudi Arabia pursues these policies—however risky (even reckless) they seem to outsiders—because decision-makers in Riyadh judge that they maximize the ruling family’s chances of holding onto power.  The United States, for its part, should continue cooperating with Saudi Arabia where U.S. and Saudi interests overlap.  But U.S. interests also require that Washington undertake strategically-grounded diplomacy with all major regional players—including, above all, a rising Iran.  And Washington certainly should be able to confront the Saudis and others in the GCC when they pursue policies contrary to U.S. interests.  Like too many of his predecessors, Obama has yet to learn how to do this.

–Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett


Saudi Arabia’s “Great Game” in Yemen and America’s Deluded Response: Hillary Mann Leverett on CCTV’s The Heat

Hillary underscored the witlessly reflexive character of U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen this week on CCTV’s The Heat, see here and (for YouTube) here.  Critiquing the ongoing Saudi military campaign in Yemen, Hillary points out that “no one in Washington is sure what the goal is, what the Saudis are trying to achieve.  It is certainly destabilizing, empowering of al-Qa’ida, and further inflaming the tensions throughout the region.”

Given simultaneous uncertainty about Saudi goals and clear evidence of downside consequences for U.S. interests, why have American policymakers let their country get sucked into supporting such an ill-conceived enterprise?  As Hillary explains, U.S. backing for the Kingdom’s latest escapade against its southern neighbor has virtually nothing to do with Washington’s concerns about on-the-ground developments in Yemen.  Rather, U.S. backing for Riyadh’s war in Yemen has virtually everything to do with America’s longstanding but increasingly dysfunctional strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia:

“Saudi Arabia is the linchpin, is the pillar of American policy in the Middle East, is the way the U.S. exercises its hegemony in the Middle East.  Without Saudi Arabia, we don’t have that kind of policy.  For the Saudis, Yemen is incredibly important, and that’s why we support this Saudi campaign in Yemen, even though it is squarely against U.S. interests, especially in terms of how it’s empowering al-Qa’ida—and even ISIS, the Islamic State—in Yemen and elsewhere.”

Hillary also discusses Iran’s real role in Yemen—it’s not what conventional narratives in Washington and Western mainstream media would have you believe—and the prospects for a political settlement In Yemen based on “devolved power.”

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 


Saudi “Disorientation,” the Yemen War, and America’s (Self-Imposed) Decline in the Middle East: Hillary Mann Leverett on CNN and RT’s CrossTalk

On RT’s CrossTalk see here and (for YouTube) here, and CNN, see here, Hillary took on the Saudi-led narrative that U.S.-backed Saudi military attacks in Yemen should be seen in the words of Saudi Ambassador to Washington, Adel Jubeir, as a “good-versus-evil” battle, between “good” Saudis and “evil” Iranians.  Instead, Hillary argued that the unfolding tragedy in Yemen needs to be understood in the context of Saudi Arabia’s deeply destructive reaction to popular demands in Arab countries for more representative and independent political orders.  The negative impact of Riyadh’s highly militarized reactions to internal protests across the Middle East—in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—is magnified by Washington’s apparent inability to separate itself from aspects of Saudi policy in the Middle East that are clearly bad for U.S. interests.

On CNN, Hillary recounted how “Saudi Arabia has been militarily involved and trying to manipulate political outcomes in Yemen for decades.  The last time they did this in 2009, they lost militarily to the Houthis.”

So why is Saudi Arabia once again intervening militarily in Yemen.  As Hillary put it on RT’s CrossTalk:

“This can largely be explained in terms of Saudi Arabia reeling since the 2011 Arab Awakening, pursuing disastrous policy after disastrous policy:  helping to overthrow the government in Libya, trying to overthrow the government in Syria, trying to impose a military dictatorship in Egypt and now in Yemen.  I think what we’re seeing is a product of Saudi disorientation and terror at a region that could become more representative in terms of its governance, more independent in terms of its foreign policy.  The Saudis are trying to prevent that kind of independence in foreign policy from emerging in Yemen, and they have yet again gone down this road with the United States to a war that has no end.  And it’s a disaster both for the Saudis and certainly for the Americans.”

As for the repeatedly elaborated Saudi narrative that the Kingdom’s intervention in Yemen is a purely defensive response to Iranian subversion, Hillary told CNN, “There’s no public evidence of Iranian arming or doing any kind of significant arming of the Houthis in Yemen.  The Houthis have long been marginalized in Yemen.  And they’ve long been a restive, rebellious population.  They got a new lease on life during the Arab Spring in 2011, and the Saudis have been furious about that ever since, trying to roll back that outcome and install their puppet, President Hadi, who has now fled to Saudi Arabia.”

On CrossTalk, Hillary responded to the proposition that the only “winner” in Yemen is likely to be al-Qa’ida, by offering a broader perspective on the regional consequences of U.S.-backed Saudi intervention there:

There are actually going to be two winners in Yemen, as we saw in other arenas (for example, in Afghanistan):  one is going to be al-Qa’ida, and the other is going to be Iran.  Even though people hate to hear this, a critical component of Iranian foreign policy is to support, not necessarily with weapons, but politically to support politically disenfranchised groups—whether that’s groups in Afghanistan, whether that’s groups in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Palestine.  They work to empower those groups to participate in political processes.  At the end of the day, this means that Iran gains favor in those countries, because it has supported the political empowerment of previously marginalized groups, who then come to power in elections.  So Iran is going to come out ahead—just as it has in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Iraq.  They’re going to come out ahead.

And then the militant group, the terror group on the ground, is going to be al-Qa’ida.  And I think that, like in Syria, we’re going to be hoping and praying that al-Qa’ida is actually the ‘junior league’ to an Islamic State/ISIS-type of even more radical, even more brutal group on the ground that the Sunnis look to because they have nothing else.  [And they have nothing else] because the United States, with Saudi Arabia, has undercut the representative groups that could represent Sunnis in a political process, like the Muslim Brotherhood—whether it’s in Egypt or their colleagues in Yemen like the Islah.”

On CNN, too, Hillary pointed out that “the train has left the station here.  Iran’s influence in Yemen is now solid.  We’ve lost yet again in another battlefield to Iran in the soft power arena.  In Yemen, Iran has won the soft power argument.  And al-Qai’da has won the military battle there.”

On CrossTalk, Hillary identified an important part of Saudi Arabia’s motivation for persisting in its misadventures in Yemen by looking at the Kingdom’s own internal politics.

“This Saudi intervention in Yemen is enormously popular in Saudi Arabia.  If you look at the Twitter traffic in Saudi Arabia, look at some of the polling data that’s available in Saudi Arabia, it’s enormously popular.  And it allows this new government in Saudi Arabia, with King Salman, to shift from an enormously unpopular policy, where they were going against Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, or even against ISIS with the United StatesThat was enormously unpopular in Saudi ArabiaIt allows this new king to pivot from that unpopular position to something that is enormously popular—something that they can frame as a sectarian conflict against what they call the ‘infidel’ Shi’a...

This is something that the United States should not want to be associated withIt clearly is against our interestsBut we’ve been doing this with the Saudis going back to 1979 in Afghanistan—that brought us al-Qa’ida and, of course, the direct line to 9/11.”

On CrossTalk, Hillary also noted the disappointing international reaction of the Saudi-U.S. military campaign in Yemen:

“The world is actually standing with the United States in the Security Council—and with the Saudis—to blockade Yemen.  There’s nothing, by definition, hopeless about Yemen.  They need an immediate ceasefire, they need an immediate national dialogue and all the stakeholders in the region should be involved.  It’s a simple as that.  Instead, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and a lot of the world community are aiding and abetting the destruction of yet another Muslim country in the Middle East.”

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 


Seyed Mohammad Marandi on NPR / WBUR “On Point”

Our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran provided a rich in-depth interview to the WBUR “On Point” program, which is syndicated on many NPR stations. In the same program, the New York Times correspondent in Tehran, Thomas Erdibrink, and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Haleh Esfandiari, are also interviewed. The program can be heard by clicking the audio link above or by going to http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/04/14/iran-nuclear-deal-view-from-tehran.


What the Nuclear “Framework” Means, Doesn’t Mean, and Could Yet Mean: Hillary Mann Leverett on CCTV’s The Heat, MSNBC, CNN, RT, and NPR

Hillary appeared on CCTV’s The Heat this week to discuss the “framework” Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 and Iran, see here (Hillary’s segment runs from 2:45 to 12:40).  Hillary notes that, in itself, the JCPOA is not so important, that “there’s not so much of a ‘there’ there, to say that there’s an agreement.”  But, she stresses, the JCPOA is very important in terms of its “potential”:

It’s the potential, particularly for the United States, in our own interest, to get off this incredibly self-damaging trajectory of never-ending war in the Middle East—the failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria.  This gives us the chance to get off of all that, and to actually have constructive relations with one of the most, if not the most important power in the Middle East.”

In multiple recent media appearances—on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Parry, see here, and The Cycle, see here and here; on CNN, see here, here, here, here, and here; on RT, see here; and on NPR, see here—Hillary has been emphasizing that the real value of a prospective nuclear deal is the “strategic opportunity” it presents for the United States to “come to terms with the Islamic Republic” as a “rising regional power” and to “realign its relations in the Middle East.”

But President Obama seems to be going out of his way not to seize this opportunity.  Appearing on CNN’s New Day with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Hillary took on Albright’s defense of the JCPOA as a narrowly technical arms control agreement that is in U.S. interest primarily because it lets America and its allies put more constraints on a threatening actor.  (Albright’s position, is, of course, very much in keeping with the Obama administration’s public defense of the JCPOA).  More specifically, Hillary argued that

“[T]he critical problem here is for President Obama to make the strategic sell.  If he focuses on it just as an arms control agreement, my concern is that it will die on the vine, just like President Carter’s SALT II treaty with the Soviets over their strategic arsenal.

We’ve seen failure before. We could see failure again if it’s a narrow arms control issue.  If there’s a broader strategic case like Nixon and Kissinger vis-à-vis China, I think it will sell.  But President Obama has been extremely reluctant to make that strategic case.  Instead, he seems to be going down the path of President Carter, where he’s dependent on a Congress to OK an arms control agreement when there may not be any arms control agreement with Iran that would be good enough for them.”

More broadly, as Hillary explains on The Heat, unwillingness to adjust U.S. strategy to the reality of a truly independent Iran is the most basic, even primordial driver of opposition to a prospective nuclear deal:

“The problem the critics have here is not with the agreement itself; it’s with the system in Iran, with the Islamic Republic itself.  What they want to see is a different government there, what we had under the Shah—a government that is very obedient to American interests and carries what we see as our policy preferences.  Then they actually might be happy with that government having nuclear weapons, as they were apparently happy and prepared to have the Shah have nuclear weapons, as they are happy to have and prepared to accept Israel with nuclear weapons, and apartheid South Africa with nuclear weapons.  The issue is not the nuclear program, even though so much of the attention is put on that; the issue is the system.  And this is the central question for American policymakers:  can we accept, in our own interest, this fiercely independent Islamic Republic of Iran, align with it where we can, like against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, perhaps even in Yemen against al-Qa’ida there, and bracket the areas where we disagree, perhaps like Israel?”

In this regard, if President Obama seizes the “strategic opening” that a nuclear deal with Iran can potentially create, then

We could for the first time in decades decrease our dependency on our so-called allies, particularly the Saudis and the Israelis, that—for all Americans think they’ve benefitted the United States—have done things that have been profoundly damaging to U.S. interests:  in the Saudi case, to fund and arm Sunni jihadists across the Middle East, and in the Israeli case, to be overseeing this perpetual, never-ending occupation.  We could lessen our dependency on those countries—not dump them as allies, but lessen our dependency—and have more constructive relations with all the countries.  That could be as profound as what Nixon and Kissinger did when they opened to China and realigned our relations fundamentally in Asia.”

The need for such realignment and diplomatic flexibility could hardly be clearer.  As Hillary told Melissa Harris-Parry,

“Today, it is Iran that is fighting against ISIS, it is Iran that is fighting against al-Qa’ida, and it’s our allies, for example the Saudis, that are bombing in Yemen today, enabling al-Qa’ida to take over more and more territory there.  It’s the Saudis that just supported a group, an al-Qa’ida group, to take over yet another Syrian city.  That’s not going to end up well for the United States.  We know where that trajectory goes; it leads to more and more war.  [Obama] needs to make the strategic case, like Nixon did about China.”

Our colleague Seyed Mohammad Marandi, Dean of the Faculty of World Studies at the University of Tehran, appeared on the same episode of The Heat as Hillary; his segment starts 15:50 into the video.  Mohammad underscores how the Obama administration’s efforts to “spin” the JCPOA, continuing uncertainty “whether the United States is ready to come to terms with post-revolutionary Iran, Iran as a sovereign and independent and powerful country,” and America’s unreconstructed Middle East policies are affirming already strong doubts in Tehran about U.S. intentions, toward the Islamic Republic and in the region more generally.  Mohammad explores these themes as well in an important recent segment of RT’s Op-Edge, see here.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett