April 27, 2016 by Darius
President Obama recently wrapped up a trip to Saudi Arabia. In a piece written just prior to Obama’s trip, Bruce Riedel of Brookings made the case for why the US must continue to invest in its relationship with Saudi Arabia despite the many problems. Riedel cites economic deals, a shared interest in fighting ISIS, and a few other areas of US-Saudi cooperation. One of his reasons, though, caught my eye: according to Riedel, the US and Saudis “should enhance cooperation to combat al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has grown dramatically during the war in Yemen.”
In a nutshell, with this sentence, Riedel perhaps unknowingly encapsulates much of what’s been wrong with US policy in the Middle East for the last 60 years. Why? Because while Saudi Arabia did not create al-Qaeda in Yemen, its invasion was and is almost entirely responsible for AQAP’s dramatic growth. It’s been the standard modus operandi of Middle Eastern regimes for more than half a century: create or exacerbate a problem, then convince the US the problem can’t be solved without supporting the regime. The US falls for it every time.
Examples abound, ranging from the minute to the large. In Iran, for instance, during the early 1950s, the Shah’s repression and economic cronyism led to the growth of the Communist Party in Iran, known as Tudeh. Fear of a Tudeh takeover led the CIA to sponsor a coup against Iran’s last democratically elected leader (who, by the way, was in no way, shape, or form a Communist) in favor of helping the Shah gain near-absolute power. Tudeh was crushed, but 25 more years of the Shah’s repression and economic cronyism led directly to the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
In Egypt, current leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the country’s democratically elected (if rather unlikable) government in a coup, launched a massive crackdown that resulted in, at last count, at least 30,000 political prisoners, and turned Sinai into a free-fire zone to battle a supposed insurgency. Sisi now justifies his value to the US because, not surprisingly, the insurgency in Sinai has spread to other areas of the country, fueled by massive discontent with his regime. The US bit hook, line, and sinker and continues to indulge Sisi to the tune of several billion dollars each year.
In Yemen, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh at the very least turned a blind eye to jihadist groups (and probably funded them) in order to claim the threat of jihad as a justification for his regime. US support for Saleh only became untenable after 25 years in power.
Even the centerpiece of the US’s Middle East policy, Israel, is no exception. Israel is a valuable “security ally” and “partner in the War on Terror” because it goes after terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Would these groups exist if it hadn’t been for decades of Israel’s bad behavior? Doubtfully.
And now the Saudis: create a problem with a resurgent al-Qaeda in Yemen, then present yourself as the only solution to that problem. It’s a time-honored tactic, and one that seems to work again and again. (Curious how political opponents used to be “Communists” and now they’re all “terrorists,” isn’t it?)
I’m not saying the US should immediately axe all its Middle Eastern relationships. That would be like having police officers no longer carry guns: far too late to be a good idea. But there needs to be a greater degree of accountability, and the US needs to be at least aware that most of its “allies” are helping it with one hand and setting up the next problem with the other. The US really can’t afford to continue business as usual: in addition to leading to massive human rights violations, each of the examples I listed above has resulted in terrible outcomes for the US and for US interests. And that just keeps the cycle going.