Washington's Problem in the Middle East: Policy, Not Personality
Should President Obama hold Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah's hand like George W. Bush did?
A reference to “personal” relationship appears five times in the headline story “In Arab Spring, Obama Finds a Sharp Test” by Helene Cooper and Robert Worth in the September 25 edition of the New York Times and there is an additional reference to the President’s alleged “impersonal style.” It seems, the report says, that much of the quandary the U.S. finds itself in the Middle East derives from the fact that Obama “has not built many personal relationships with foreign leaders.” One piece of evidence cited is that he was not on good enough terms with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Reading all this, my mind quickly went back to late April 2005 when the Times reported, “Mr. Bush even held the crown prince's hand, a traditional Saudi sign of friendship, as he guided Abdullah up the steps through a bed of bluebonnets to his office, the very picture of Saudi-American interdependence.”
The Cooper-Worth story cites an unnamed U.S. diplomat in Bahrain as saying that had Obama cultivated a closer relationship with the Saudi monarch “he might have bought time for negotiations” between the Bahraini authorities and the opposition. “Instead, the Saudis gave virtually no warning when their forces rolled across the causeway linking Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and the ensuing crackdown destroyed all hopes for a peaceful resolution.”
I suspect the word “virtually” is important here because Washington was warned in advance by Riyadh. In any case, if U.S. intelligence agencies remained unaware as the Saudis rounded up troops from other Gulf monarchies for the invasion of Bahrain, their powers of observation are woefully inadequate.
Can the success of the Saudis and their Bahrain cohorts and much of the problems that have arisen in the region be even remotely traced to Obama’s alleged “character trait” and “impersonal style”? A dubious proposition at best. There is, however, another matter the Cooper-Worth history reveals that is of great importance: the inadequacies of major media reporting while events like the brutal crackdown in the gulf was transpiring.
“On March 14, White House officials awoke to a nasty surprise: the Saudis had led a military incursion into Bahrain, followed by a crackdown in which the security forces cleared Pearl Square in the capital, Manama, by force,” wrote Cooper-Worth. Sure. “The moves were widely condemned, but Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton offered only veiled criticisms, calling for “calm and restraint on all sides” and ‘political dialogue’,” they continued.
“The reasons for Mr. Obama’s reticence were clear: Bahrain sits just off the Saudi coast, and the Saudis were never going to allow a sudden flowering of democracy next door, especially in light of the island’s sectarian makeup,” wrote Cooper-Worth. “Bahrain’s people are mostly Shiite, and they have long been seen as a cat’s paw for Iranian influence by the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In addition, the United States maintains a naval base in Bahrain that is seen as a bulwark against Iran, crucial for maintaining the flow of oil from the region.”
“We realized that the possibility of anything happening in Saudi Arabia was one that couldn’t become a reality,” William M. Daley, President Obama’s chief of staff at the time,” told the Times reporters. “For the global economy, this couldn’t happen. Yes, it was treated differently from Egypt. It was a different situation.”
The problem is that neither the Times nor any of the other Western mass media told the story that way at the time. Why? Go back to the story about the hand-holding stroll through the garden at Bush's Texas address.
The April 25, Times Story by Richard Stevenson noted that while many things were discussed at the Crawford ranch, “the focus was on oil prices.”
“Officials from both sides emerged from the meeting to say there was agreement on the value of Saudi Arabia's signaling to global markets that it would push down prices over the long run as demand for energy increased,” the report said. “American officials said they hoped the Saudi policy might put immediate downward pressure on oil prices, even though the expansion plan has been public for weeks.”
“The crown prince arrived at the Bush ranch late Monday morning from Dallas, where he had met Sunday with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was briefed on the Saudi production plan,” read the Times story. “Reflecting the importance of the meeting to the administration, Mr. Bush was joined for the meeting here by Mr. Cheney; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Mr. Hadley; Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff; and Fran Townsend, the White House's homeland security adviser.”
What the Saudis got or requested in return for the never-stated-explicit promise to increase oil production is unclear but the report said “the two sides cited progress on a variety of fronts” and “Saudi officials said only technicalities remained in negotiating a trade deal with the United States, a big step toward Saudi Arabia's goal of joining the World Trade Organization. The two governments agreed to work toward making it easier for Saudi students and military officers to study and train in the United States.”
Saudi Arabia became a full WTO member December 11, 2005.
Unnamed Arab officials told Cooper and Worth that Obama is “a cool, cerebral man who discounts the importance of personal chemistry in politics.” “You can’t fix these problems by remote control,” said one Arab diplomat with long experience in Washington. “He doesn’t have friends who are world leaders. He doesn’t believe in patting anybody on the back, nicknames.”
More likely what they really meant is that Obama doesn’t get it on too well with despots. He seems to have hit it off quite well with the likes of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio da Silva and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
As the UN General Assembly session was getting underway, Cooper and Worth wrote, “In many ways, Mr. Obama’s remarks at the State Department two weeks ago — and the ones he will make before the General Assembly on Tuesday morning, when he addresses the anti-American protests — reflected hard lessons the president had learned over almost two years of political turmoil in the Arab world: bold words and support for democratic aspirations are not enough to engender good will in this region, especially not when hampered by America’s own national security interests.”
Or the price of oil.
For that U.S. Presidents have for decades shown a willingness to hold hands with just about anyone.
President Obama is no anti-imperialist. And our country’s standing and reputation in the international community is being ill-served by the continuing drone attacks that take the lives of innocent women, men and children. The same can be said for framing the one-sided framing of the Israel-Palestine conflict the way the President did in his UN address September 25. Ditto for the continued suggestion that tyranny should be met with stern outside interference in Libya or Syria but not Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. The cause of Washington’s problems in the Islamic world is not personality but policy.
Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.