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
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
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
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.
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