It didn’t get nearly as much play as it should have, but Obama’s June 2009 meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah ended with the monarch flying into a tirade and more or less telling the President to get a grip. This was the Riyadh meeting that Obama took on his way to his insulting and failed Cairo Speech, the better to prepare himself by visiting “the place where Islam began.” The sit-down was such a disaster that Dennis Ross was hurriedly brought into the White House and given a broader role, yielding the impression that the President wanted a Middle East adviser who kind of understood something about the Middle East – and didn’t think he had one.
There were two theories on why the meeting went so badly.
On one side you had typical left-leaning foreign policy experts, the ones who had been advising Obama from the beginning and who now needed to explain why things turned out the opposite of how they predicted. Their approach to the Middle East is grounded in the two dogmas of anti-Israel foreign policy sophistication: (a) linkage, according to which Middle East pathologies are a result of the unresolved Arab/Israeli conflict rather than vice versa and (b) “if only Israel would…,” according to which the Arab/Israel conflict could be resolved were Israel to offer more concessions. They had promised that an “even-handed approach” to the Middle East that “put daylight” between the US and Israel would lead to Israeli gestures, at which point Arab regimes would reciprocate. Nothing of the sort came out of the Riyadh meeting. Instead of admitting that they had somehow gotten Saudi priorities or intentions wrong, that crowd doubled down and insisted that the Saudis cared so much about the Palestinians that Obama needed to put even more pressure on Israel to bring around Arab countries.
On the other side you had Middle East experts like Dan Diker, who insisted on One Jerusalem Radio’s Omri Ceren Show that the Saudis gave Obama a bruising lecture on what they actually care about, and it wasn’t the Palestinians. Under this theory King Abdullah expected to talk about militarily confronting Iran, and he couldn’t believe it when Obama kept reciting bromides about the earth-shattering importance of the Israeli/Arab conflict and his enthusiasm for solving it. That was a regular public topic between the two – Obama’s first talk with Abdullah focused on Gaza and the President later emphasized his abiding support for Saudi Arabia’s “Israel Has To Commit Suicide” plan – but the King kind of thought he was dealing with a serious person who could separate spectacle from policy. Instead he got the equivalent of an International Relations graduate student enamored with pseudo-sophisticated “insights” he’d gleaned from Arab media outlets. Ergo, meltdown.
So two theories about happened at the Obama/Abdullah meeting. One theory says that the Saudis were literally screaming their heads off about Iran, the implication being that experts who describe overarching anti-Israel outrage are more manufacturing it than commenting on it. It’s not that Arab leaders don’t care about the Israeli/Arab conflict, or that they wouldn’t want to see a Palestinian state, or that they won’t pay lip service to linkage. It’s just that they really, really care about stopping Iran by any means necessary – something that foreign policy experts who obsess over Israel’s ostensibly central regional role can’t have be true, lest their insistence that a Palestinian state is a necessary prerequisite to action on Iran seem more like personal fantasy than objective analysis.
The other theory insists that pro-Palestinian outrage does in fact drive Arab foreign policy, the flip side being that the tales of anti-Iran freakout are overblown neocon myths. See Walt for the neocon-specific stuff, and here’s Arab media expert Marc Lynch bringing his expertise to bear on Arab desire to confront Iran:
The hostility to Iran in various Arab circles should not lead anyone to believe that Arabs would support an attack on Iran by the U.S. or Israel, however. While Arab leaders would certainly like Iranian influence checked, they generally strongly oppose military action which could expose them to retaliation.
That kind of expert insight got imported directly into the journalistic cottage industry that underplays Iran’s destabilizing role in the Middle East. Picking up on that exact Lynch article, anti-Israel journalist Philip Weiss built an entire post titled “Actually, Arab leaders don’t want a strike on Iran.” An even more elaborate version appeared in The Nation from contributing editor and Islam expert Robert Dreyfuss, helpfully contextualized to Saudi Arabia:
For Saudi Arabia the worst thing that could happen would be a war between the United States and Iran or, alternately, an Israeli attack on Iran… It would raise the specter of Iranian retaliatory attacks against Saudi Arabia and its oil fields. So, as much as Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Iran to acquire a nuclear bomb, it will do anything it can to avoid a military showdown involving Iran.
And of course, all of that was flat…
10. (S) The King, Foreign Minister, Prince Muqrin, and Prince Nayif all agreed that the Kingdom needs to cooperate with the US on resisting and rolling back Iranian influence and subversion in Iraq. The King was particularly adamant on this point, and it was echoed by the senior princes as well. Al-Jubeir recalled the King’s frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear weapons program. “He told you to cut off the head of the snake,” he recalled to the Charge’, adding that working with the US to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq is a strategic priority for the King and his government.
4.(C) IRAN: King Hamad pointed to Iran as the source of much of the trouble in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He argued forcefully for taking action to terminate their nuclear program, by whatever means necessary. “That program must be stopped,” he said. “The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it.” King Hamad added that in light of these regional developments, Bahrain was working to strengthen GCC coordination and its relations with allies and international organizations.
Either Walt, Mearsheimer, Lynch, Chas Freeman, and their ilk don’t know much about the Middle East, or they’re ignoring what they do know in order to push their own foreign policy wishful thinking as objective analysis. Which is fine – everyone gets to have an agenda – but now can we at least dispense with the aggravating hagiographies to their vaunted neutrality and expertise? Because apparently their wrongheaded assumptions are influencing policymakers, and – predictably – that’s not going well.