Washington’s partisan vitriol has infected the Middle East policy debate. The problem traces to the 2003 Iraq War. While there was bipartisan support for the ouster of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction tempted many Democrats toward a narrative they knew to be false about George W. Bush—and, more broadly, Republicans; namely, that they lied America into war to fuel a thirst for profits. It was a strategy founded on short-term political expediency but, in the long-term, it fanned the embers of radicalism and conspiratorialism among the left-wing base.
President Obama poured more fuel on the fire. If President Bill Clinton sought to bring the Democratic Party into the center, Barack Obama was determined to drag it to the left. How far the party’s base had shifted concerning Israel, for example, was clear long before Obama, who, for tactical as well as perhaps ideological reasons, chose to demonize Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the run-up to the Iran deal.
The biggest difference between left and right when it comes to national security is that the left always demonizes power while right understands that it can be used for good or bad. Obama saw America’s ability to project power globally as a method by which to engage in wars of choice. He worked to deny that choice to his successors through cutbacks and by kneecapping military readiness.
Simply put, for Obama and many of his supporters, power is original sin. That means knee-jerk distrust if not opposition to any U.S. policy, but also animosity to those countries who traditionally stand with the United States. From his first days in office, Obama showed animosity not only to Israel but also to the United Kingdom, which remains arguably America’s closest ally. The White House (and, more specifically, National Security Advisor Susan Rice) gratuitously undermined Morocco, America’s oldest Arab ally and the first country to recognize U.S. independence. Many Gulf Cooperation Council leaders remain apoplectic today with regard to Obama and his team. To meet with any senior Arab leader today outside of Qatar is to endure a lecture about just how much they disliked Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.
This brings us to Saudi Arabia. Animosity toward the Saudi kingdom is logical. After all, the majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi and decades of Saudi funding for radicalism has created a problem that will not abate anytime soon. Saudi disrespect for human rights is also notorious. What is strange and counterproductive, however, is how Saudi Arabia has become a partisan football.
President Trump decision to visit Saudi Arabia first unleashed a torrent of partisan vitriol upon a kingdom which, despite its many foibles, has been a consistent U.S. ally. More recently, some partisans have seemingly rushed to Qatar’s defense or at least downplayed Qatar’s offense by pointing out Saudi Arabia’s faults. The same holds true whenever policymakers criticize the Islamic Republic of Iran.
First, let’s be upfront: most of the criticisms about Saudi Arabia are true. There must be a footnote, however, about Saudi financing of radicalism. Whatever damage Saudi Arabia has done, it has become much more serious about cracking down on terror finance and radicalization after around 2003 and 2004 when the Kingdom started suffering blowback. Simply put, Saudi 2017 is not Saudi 1997 or Saudi 1987.
But, even if Saudi Arabia had not begun cracking down on radicalism, is pointing out bad Saudi behavior a reason to absolve Qatar? Or should U.S. officials celebrate the growing Arab consensus against Qatar and its continued support for radical and subversive movements across the region? In effect, that is exactly what those who bash Saudi Arabia and look past Qatar have done.
The same is true with regard to Saudi Arabia and Iran. When Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016, it was despicable. Is that any reason to diminish criticism or sanctions against Iran, where the rate of execution is actually an order of magnitude higher?
The United States is a democracy, and we should be thankful for that. Debate is welcome and should never be constrained. There is a danger, however, when partisan vitriol becomes the lens through which foreign policy is conducted. Rather than demonize countries, it is essential for both Democrats and Republicans to recognize policy goals. The first among those in the Middle East should be tampering down if not defeating the radicalism which fuels terror.
Saudi Arabia is no angel. But, animosity toward Saudi Arabia or toward Trump through Saudi Arabia should never be a reason to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.