Cracking US alliances: Winning foes by losing old-time friends
As the vivid and hopeful supporter of the so-called “Arab Spring” waves in the Middle East and North Africa, the United States has been dealt nothing but trouble from the changing ruling dynasties of the region until just recently. But now the Washington administration stands on the edge of more upcoming woes, as it tries to adopt a new regional policy on the “new Middle East” by winning the “hearts and minds” of foes, even if this means losing old-time friends.
In the last couple of weeks, the U.S. administration has been hit hard by diplomatic salvos from its staunch allies in the region, that is to say Egypt and Saudi Arabia, over its alienating moves toward Cairo and Riyadh, while it has been trying to understand, change and adopt a new regional drive.
Egypt lashed out at U.S. President Barack Obama and his government’s decision to halt military aid to the country for the ouster of democratically elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The belated move by the United States prompted Cairo to warn Washington against regional consequences in a reminder of the Suez Crisis back in 1956. For sure, no Gamal Abdel Nasser is in charge in Cairo and the “turmoil” - as it was described by the military-backed Egyptian government’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy - between Washington and Cairo will hardly reach the high Suez level. However, the sentiment in Fahmy’s thin-skinned remarks signaled that his unstable country had come to point of saying “enough is enough,” not just over the aid halt but also over the arrogant U.S. attitude and the helpless Egyptian stance. “The truth is that the problem goes back much earlier, and was caused by the dependence of Egypt on U.S. aid for 30 years. [The aid] made us choose the easy option and not diversify our options,” Reuters quoted his as saying.
While voicing regret and fury over being dependent on the yearly $1.3 billion U.S. aid awarded to his country after the Camp David deal with Israel, the Egyptian foreign minister further detonated his remarks with timid threats that his country would opt for another military aid option from a rival state to the United States. That would obviously be no one other than Russia, with which Egypt has had historically close ties since Soviet times, despite the ups and downs. At odds with the threatening ramifications of the “Arab Spring,” Moscow would obviously be more than happy to offer military aid to Cairo to drag the “anti-Arab-Spring” pioneer to its side.
The frustration over the dependency on Washington for regional dealings and its shortcomings has not been only sparked in Cairo as well as in Riyadh, which was increasingly upset with the U.S. reluctance to take action for ousting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and also the recent overtures with Iran’s “moderate” leadership. Last week, the influential Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, reportedly laid off a diplomatic bomb on his country’s ties with the United States by stating that Riyadh might make a “major shift” with regard to its relationship with Washington.
The message - if not a dire warning - to the United States, was no less interesting than the messenger himself. Bin Sultan, who served as the Saudi ambassador to the United States for over two decades, was in fact “America’s guy in Riyadh.” Having dealt with five U.S. presidents during his tenure in Washington, bin Sultan has a close personal relationship with the Bush family and is known as one of the architects of neo-conservative U.S. policy in the Middle East.
Bin Sultan, or “Bandar Bush” – the nickname given by George W. Bush - lobbied against the “hostile” Shiite triangle of Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah (of Lebanon) for decades, putting a particular emphasis on the Iranian influence over the fears of a Shiite upheaval against the Saudi dynasty.
Amid the switching U.S. tides over the Iranian ties after decades-long enmity, the Saudis appear to be drawing an “independent” track from Washington on regional issues - yet again over a Shiite-Sunni-dominated agenda. However, the missing link in the Saudi policy is that most dealings in the Middle East are not taken care of by the “old school” style anymore.
The United States had witnessed embarrassing failures in its crusades in Iraq and Afghanistan after Bush’s policies, while it was also caught off guard in both the “Arab Spring” and its further ramifications.
It is therefore now seeking a “fresh start” with Iran. While aimed at containing the Syrian threat within its boundaries via the Iranian influence, the United States is also seeking to offer a somehow better security guarantee to Israel by solving the nuclear standoff with Tehran. The problem is that Riyadh sees Iran as a worse foe even than Israel, and wants to keep the U.S. away from Iranian shores.
Regardless of the motivations or the consequences of its ongoing efforts to warm the frozen Iranian ties, Washington would hardly take a step that would jeopardize its ties with Riyadh, which is well aware of this but is staging its pre-strikes salvos anyway. The friction risks turning into a full diplomatic crisis between the two, but the level of damage will be determined over the U.S. determination to adopt and even set the new rules of a new play in the Middle East.