By M K Bhadrakumar
Apr 19, 2011
Twice during the past week senior United States officials have let it be known that the Barack Obama administration has chosen to adopt a highly selective approach to the ferment in the Middle East.
The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton couched the message in appropriate diplomatic idiom in Washington last Tuesday in a speech at a gala dinner celebrating the US-Islamic World Forum before an audience of dignitaries from the Middle East including the foreign ministers of Qatar and Jordan and the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Conference.
Clinton acknowledged that the ''long Arab winter has begun to thaw'' and after many decades, a ''real opportunity for lasting change'' has appeared before the Arab people. It, in turn, raises ''significant questions'' but it is not for the US to provide all the answers. ''In fact, here in Washington we're struggling to thrash out answers to our own difficult political and economic questions,'' she said.
Following a long-winded appreciation of the "Arab revolt", Clinton hit the nail on its head: ''We understand that a one-sized-fits-all approach doesn't make sense in such a diverse region at such a fluid time. As I have said before, the United States has specific relationships with countries in the region. We have a decades-long friendship with Bahrain that we expect to continue long into the future … Going forward, the United States will be guided by careful consideration of all circumstances on the ground and by our consistent values and interests.''
Two days later, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates picked up where Clinton left off. At the ground-breaking ceremony of the national library honoring George Washington in Virginia last Thursday, Gates dipped into the oldest annals of America's young history to underline that US has always pursued a selective approach to democratic aspirations and values of other peoples.
When George Washington was confronted with the consequences of the French revolution, he didn't allow himself to be swayed by the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity but instead weighed in the terribly dangerous prospect of the possible ''spread of violent French radicalism to our shores'', the negative consequences of estrangement from the British in terms of disruptions in the ''lives of ordinary Americans by impeding trade'' and the ''fragility of America's position at that time''. Therefore, he adopted a neutrality policy toward France and chose to make a peace treaty with Britain although he was accused of doublespeak, sellout, et al.
Gates acknowledged that the US always ''struggled'' with ideals while doing business with terrible autocrats. So, what matters today is that ''many of the [Arab] regimes affected have been longstanding, close allies of the United States, ones we continue to work with as critical partners in the face of common security challenges like al-Qaeda and Iran.''
Is the democracy project so terribly important? Gates had an answer: ''An underlying theme of American history going back to Washington is that we are compelled to defend our security and our interests in ways that in the long run lead to the democratic values and institutions … When we discuss openly our desire for democratic values to take hold across the globe, we are describing a world that may be many years or decades off.''
Significantly, Gates was speaking after a tour of the Persian Gulf region against a complex backdrop of Saudi Arabia's intervention in Bahrain to crush the lively democracy movement, frictions in the relations between the US and Saudi Arabia, a jump in oil prices into triple digits and signs that Riyadh might consider expanding its mammoth US$60 billion deal to buy arms from the US.
At any rate, coming out of a 90-minute meeting with the Saudi King Abdullah, Gates said he saw ''evidence'' of Iranian meddling in Bahrain. Gates's visit was followed up within a week by a trip to Riyadh by the US National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, who handed a letter from Obama to Abdullah. All indications are that a deal has been stuck whereby the Obama administration will not queer the pitch for the autocratic Persian Gulf rulers by dabbling in the democracy project in the region.
A hegemon on the move
On the contrary, Washington will allow Saudi Arabia to have a free hand to tackle the movements for democratic reforms in the region and forestall any regime changes in the region. Accordingly, the Saudis are moving on three different tracks. First, they have done everything possible to portray the democracy movement in Bahrain, which has serious potential to overthrow the regime in Manama and trigger a domino effect, in starkly sectarian terms as an issue of Shi'ite empowerment. The Saudi calculation by stoking up the latent fires of sectarian prejudices in the Sunni mind is to somehow prevent a unified, pan-Arab democracy movement from taking shape.
Second, Saudis are giving a coloring that that the democracy movements in the Persian Gulf are in actuality a manifestation of Iranian meddling in the internal affairs of the Sunni states in the region. The Iranian bogey comes naturally to the Saudis for rallying the Sunni states in the region under its leadership as well as for striking sympathetic chords in influential Washington lobbies (although the Obama administration has been so far inclined to view the protests as essentially home-grown movements that arose out of genuine local problems accumulating through decades of authoritarian misrule).
The Saudi ploy is working. During a visit to Manama early March, Gates himself had urged the al-Khalifa family to swiftly undertake political and social reform. By early April he is a changed man who claims he senses an Iranian hand behind the protests.
Third, and potentially quite tricky, is the Saudi propensity to see the case in both Bahrain and Yemen as open-and-shut. The intervention in Bahrain is taking a violent turn with every possibility that it will radicalize the opposition and possibly force it – or at least elements within it - to resort to insurgent attacks. A Bahraini variant of Lebanon's Hezbollah seems to be in the making.
The Saudis have also waded into the Yemeni tribal politics and are dictating the contours of the transfer of power from President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ignoring the potency of Yemeni nationalism, which resents Saudi hegemony. Again, Saudis propagate that Iran is fueling the Houthi rebellion in north Yemen. (Western observers rule out any extensive ties between Iran on the one side and the Houthis or the Bahraini Shi'ites.)
What are the Saudi calculations? A longstanding objective of the Saudi national security strategy remains, namely, to exercise its quasi-hegemony in the Arabian Peninsula. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) served this purpose for decades. But the GCC dispensation can easily unravel in today's uncertain circumstances if there is regime change in any of the member states. Riyadh has mooted the idea of the GCC transforming into a "Gulf Confederation" with a common and unified foreign, security and defense policies - under Saudi leadership, of course, under the garb of collective security.
In military terms, this would facilitate the creation of joint armed forces under a unified command with a rapid reaction force that could act in any of the GCC states. In other words, Saudi Arabia hopes to assume the role of the provider of security for the GCC territories.
Riyadh felt disillusioned by the US' ''abandonment'' of Hosni Mubarak and quite obviously, in the Saudi estimation, there was no real inevitability about Mubarak's exit if only Washington had stood by him. The behavior of post-Mubarak Egypt also adds to a sense of isolation in Riyadh. Significant shifts have begun appearing in Egypt's regional policies already. Cairo is moving toward establishing diplomatic relations with Iran (broken off since the Islamic Revolution in 1979); Cairo ignored US and Israeli protests and allowed for the first time two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal; Cairo is allowing Hamas leaders in Gaza to use Cairo airport as a transit point for travel to and from Damascus; Cairo is mellowing toward the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
What hits Riyadh most is that Cairo will be disengaging from any containment strategy toward Iran and may gravitate toward the nascent strategic axis involving Syria, Turkey and Iran. Egypt is swimming toward mainstream Arab politics, whereas Saudi Arabia never had much fondness for pan-Arabism.
This growing sense of isolation prompted the Saudi leadership to invoke its ultimate reserves of influence in Washington - the Pentagon. The promise Abdullah made to Gates - that Saudi arms purchases from the US this year will exceed the $60 billion deal (which is already the biggest in US history) - changes the entire complexion of Persian Gulf security from the American perspective. Obama interprets arms sales to foreign countries as the means to create jobs at home. And if the Gulf Confederation idea takes hold, the sky is the limit for lucrative arms deals since a joint military will be created by the petrodollar states involving land, air and naval forces.
The speeches by Clinton and Gates suggest that the Saudis have succeeded in making Obama reassess the Arab spring in the Persian Gulf region. Obama is never short on resonant words. Still, presenting with conviction his (revised) vision of the New Middle East in the major policy speech he is expected to make isn't going to be easy.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.